Is Marriage Really an Economic Cure for Inequality and Social Problems?

News & Politics

Several authors long associated with the idea that marriage is a prime cure for inequality have published a manifesto, condensed in The Washington Monthly. The new wrinkle is an alliance between marriage traditionalists and gay-rights activists. The Marriage Opportunity Council, a spin-off of the Institute for American Values, hopes that by adding same-sex unions to the definition of marriage, they can unite progressives and conservatives in a cause to promote marriage generally. The basic premise of the essay and the broader campaign is that marriage provides economic as well as emotional security; that it’s good for children to grow up in two-parent families; and that a class gap has opened up in the incidence of marriage, which widens inequality and harms the poor, especially the children of the poor. A “growing class-based marriage divide threatens all of us,” the several authors, led by longtime marriage advocate David Blankenhorn, write. “It endangers the very foundations of a broadly middle-class society.”

There is much that is controversial in the premise of the statement. One tricky question is cause and effect. Does marriage produce improved incomes, or do higher incomes increase the possibility of successful marriages? The evidence that marriage, in and of itself, is better for children is inconclusive. There is plenty of evidence, however, that toxic marriages can do more harm to children than divorces or single parenthood. It’s not at all clear that public policy is competent to promote marriage, even if that were a goal that could unite liberals and conservatives. And by emphasizing marriage per se, the writers ignore marriage-neutral measures that could really help children and parents, such as more supportive work-family policies, more comprehensive child care options, and higher earnings for working people. Progressives would do better to fight for policies that aid the broad spectrum of kids and families.

But that set of policies, unlike the supposed left-right appeal of marriage, bitterly divides conservatives and liberals. Fiscal conservatives don’t want to spend the money, and “traditional values” conservatives don’t want the state involved in any aspect of child-rearing. The debate goes back several decades, and a pro-marriage manifesto that papers over these political differences is a distraction, at best.

There was a time when when Democrats saw the logic of embracing family diversity. In the 1980s, the Democratic Party platform included commitments like making federal programs “more sensitive to the needs of the family, in all its diverse forms” and barbs like, “in Ronald Reagan’s vision of America, there are no single-parent families.” As political scientists Laurel Elder and Steven Greene have traced in their book, The Politics of Parenthood: Causes and Consequences of the Politicization and Polarization of the American Family, the Democrats’ family rhetoric began to veer to the right under Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Since then, nontraditional families have been without a political champion, at least in presidential politics.

Politicians have increasingly turned to sticks and carrots to prod people into traditional nuclear families. Conservatives have long worried that giving too much financial assistance to single women might somehow “disincentivize” them from marrying, even though research suggests that those who feel economically secure are more likely to get married, and stay married. Many centrist Democrats, capitulating to the frames pushed by the Republican Party, have backed policies that support poor children but not their poor unmarried parents, which is contradictory, to say the least. It’s hard to imagine thriving kids without thriving parents.

If there were policy interventions that would lead people to feel secure enough to marry, as the Marriage Opportunity Council hopes, that would be great. Stable and loving marriages are to be cherished, and evidence suggests they are salutary for children. But the government is just not very good at promoting such marriages. And poverty corrodes them. Single parenthood and divorce have continued to increase under conservative rule as well as liberal. Today, more than 40 percent of American children are born outside of marriage.

That’s why making it easier for parents, married or not, to manage their responsibilities is so critical. Economic policies like universal child care, paid family leave, paid sick leave, living wages, child allowances, rent subsidies, affordable health care, and quality public transportation are examples of the types of reforms that we know would dramatically improve the lives of millions of families.

Some analysts and policy-makers do understand this. Earlier this year, Shawn Fremstad and Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress released a new report entitled “Valuing All Our Families.” The authors show why it’s misguided to focus on family structure without also considering family strength and family stability. Introducing this notion of the “Three S’s”—stability, strength, and structure—they offer us an opportunity to move away from the simplistic binary of one- versus two-parent households, which does little to illuminate how these parents and children actually fare.

The Marriage Opportunity Council argues that “no politically plausible amount of government transfers” can fill the gap necessary to curb inequality. But suggesting that two-parent, married households are remedies for inequality is suspect—15.2 million impoverished children live in two-parent, married households. Relatedly, children of married parents in the United States are way poorer than children in married households in other countries. Such statements are also too dismissive of other needed solutions. Demos policy analyst Matt Bruenig has shown how restructuring our child tax benefits could create a far more equitable and efficient system to support families. Reinvesting in our public transit systems would allow parents to save money on transportation costs, reduce long commutes, and have more time to spend with their children. Expanding affordable health insurance and building more subsidized housing would reduce the economic burden weighing on parents—which often acts as a detriment to their physical health, their parenting abilities, and their interpersonal relationship skills. Let’s fix our distribution policies first (including ridding the tax code of marriage penalties), and then perhaps we’ll be in a better place to think about family structure.

It’s time to get beyond the misplaced fear that if we help unmarried families too much we might somehow be “legitimating” their lifestyle and discouraging marriage. Progressive economic policies should be understood as marriage-neutral. They would help single parents and their kids, as well as married parents and their kids. Indeed, by relieving the levels of work-family stress, we would actually be increasing the odds that couples will stay together.

From a political standpoint, Democrats have much to gain from developing a more inclusive family narrative—one that speaks to both married couples and to single individuals. Importantly, supporting nontraditional families does not mean ignoring the needs of married couples. It’s not an either/or choice on policy; rather, what’s needed is recognition that we need not champion marriage above all else in order to support strong families.

Unmarried women represent a rapidly growing Democratic constituency: In 2012, they comprised 25.6 percent of the voting-eligible population, an 8.3 percent increase from 2008. In contrast, married women increased their share of the voting-eligible population during this time by 1 percent. Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that a record share of Americans have never married—20 percent of adults ages 25 and older. In 1960, only about 10 percent of adults in this age range had never married.

While a 7–percentage point gender gap was present in the 2008 election (56 percent of women went for Obama compared to 49 percent of men), the “marriage gap” was far greater. Fully 70 percent of unmarried women went for Obama compared to 29 percent for John McCain. In battleground states like New Hampshire, unmarried women voted for Obama by margins of 38 points. It is clear that learning how to better appeal to unmarried women carries immense electoral advantages.

But, of course, there are different kinds of unmarried women. Some have never been married. Some are divorced. Some are under 30. Some are widowed. Some are mothers. And survey researchers have not been great about sorting out all these subgroup details over time.

“Unmarried women under 55 is a new category,” says pollster Celinda Lake. “There have always been lots of widows, and widows have a very high [voting] participation rate. So ideally, you want to break this out by under and over 55, but people often tend to conflate the whole category.”

Lake argues that the rise of this Democratic-leaning, under-55, unmarried cohort can be characterized by three main factors. The first is that those who are not married tend to be less religious, and very religious people tend to be more conservative. Second, unmarried women tend to be more economically marginal. They have only one income to rely on, they tend to work in lower-wage positions, and they are often paid less than men for equal work. Lastly, for more than a decade, polls and surveys have shown that women are more likely to see a greater role for government to play when it comes to fixing society’s problems, while men tend to prefer as little government as possible. “Greater secularism, greater economic marginality, and greater perception of a need for government role—all those things are highly correlated with voting Democratic,” says Lake.

So we know that unmarried women break heavily for Democrats, when they vote at all. The problem for Democrats is that while unmarried women vote heavily in presidential years, their turnout drops sharply in off-year elections. A recent Democracy Corps poll found that unmarried women were the most pessimistic about the country’s future when compared to all the other Democratic base groups—53 percent said they felt the country was headed on the wrong track. This suggests that many unmarried women are skeptical that politics and government can provide much practical help anytime soon, and that the appeal of Democrats—and of politics in general—needs to be more potent if this key constituency is to be activated to its full potential.

The 2014 election marked the Democrats’ most serious attempt yet to target unmarried women. For this cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of House Democrats, unveiled a new sophisticated voter model designed to help candidates identify single women and craft messages to reach them. They called it the ROSIE model, an acronym that stands for “Re-engaging Our Sisters in Elections.”

And yet even with innovations like the ROSIE model, and new research conducted by groups like the Voter Participation Center, Democrats were unable to articulate a compelling message that could connect to the frustration these voters felt. “Microtargeting isn’t a silver bullet by itself,” says Michael Podhorzer, the political director at the AFL-CIO. “Democrats have to stand for things.”

In the future, support for such “things” could mean standing unapologetically for policies that would help all families achieve stability and strength, regardless of marital status. But crafting an inclusive messaging strategy that represents all families is not something candidates have been particularly good at.

“Whether it was Bill Clinton speaking of the ‘soccer mom’ or George W. Bush appealing to the ‘Security Mom,’” says Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at Rutgers’s Center for American Women and Politics, “candidates have too often reduced women’s interests to their roles as mothers, and more often than not, in a caricature of a white suburban mother.”

Encouragingly, the political obstacles that impede inclusive, pro-family goals appear more surmountable than they have in previous decades. “As women have taken on far more roles in our society and people appreciate what that means, there’s a much greater sense of public responsibility for things like child care and paid family leave,” says Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. In other words, an ever-growing number of women in the labor market means an increasing number of people who understand why things need to change.

We can agree that everyone should have the opportunity to marry. New research from the Council on Contemporary Families suggests that boosting incomes may be one way to boost marriage rates because, paradoxically, marriage is often seen as something people must be able to “afford” to do. “There is a clear economic bar to marriage and to the extent people cannot meet that bar they are less inclined to marry,” said sociologist Shannon Cavanagh, in an interview with NBC News. However, apart from income levels, individuals across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development—34 relatively affluent countries that commit themselves to democratic principles and a market economy—are also simply less interested in marriage than they were several decades ago. And despite millions of federal dollars spent on unsuccessful marriage promotion programs, we still don’t really know if it’s possible to reverse this trend.

It’s fine for the Marriage Opportunity Council to continue researching ways to break down barriers to marriage, and it’s good that some marriage traditionalists now support same-sex marriage. However, this effort should not stop the rest of us from adopting a narrative and a set of policies to champion the family in all its diverse forms. Doing so is imperative for children, important for income inequality, and critical for the Democratic Party’s political future.

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