The conservative theory of marriage just got blown apart

Take away the jobs, and marriage rates crash

Oh no!
(Image credit: monkeybusinessimages/iStock)

A great fraction of conservatives and centrists in Washington, D.C., are obsessed with poor people's relative lack of marriage. They look at social dysfunction among the lower classes, conclude that it happens because they don't conform to bourgeois social norms, and then rig up some policy to bludgeon the poor into getting married (and staying in school, getting a job, and so on).

There's just one problem with this: It's completely backwards. Poor people are not irresponsibly refusing to settle down. In fact, as a new paper shows, economically insecure people are less likely to get married because of that insecurity. The whole center-right theory of marriage is nonsense.

The study was conducted by David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, and it examines marriage through the lens of young men. The negative effects of trade policy like NAFTA were highly concentrated in certain communities, as outsourcing crushed the job prospects of working-class men in factory towns. This gave the authors a sort of natural experiment to see what happens when the economic prospects of a community of young men plummet.

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They found that marriage fell and single parenthood rose. They explain this through a variety of factors: First, prolonged joblessness led to alcohol and drug abuse in young men, killing some and leading to homelessness and incarceration in others. Second, jobless or precariously employed men make far less attractive marriage material — for one thing, living with another person who has no stable source of income is a large economic risk, especially for someone who is in an unstable situation; for another, prolonged joblessness often leads to depression, anxiety, or anger problems. The authors reasonably assume there are some women who prize marriage and others who prize having children; hence if the supply of marriage-worthy men plummets, marriages will fall but some women will simply opt to have kids out of wedlock.

There is a lot more nuance in the whole study, but the bottom line is that it is the economics driving the particular trend here, not poor people making bad decisions.

All this flies in the face of the years-long lanyard crusade to get poor people to marry. Take Bill Clinton's welfare reform, for instance. People most often discuss its stipulations designed to force poor people to work more. However, the law was also designed to push people into marriage. Indeed, the very first sentence of the bill states that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society," foreshadowing other sections ostensibly written to reduce single motherhood.

Both the labor market and the marriage objectives of welfare reform were abysmal failures. Marriage has been in secular decline for decades, both in the U.S. and in peer nations, a trend which was not affected by the policy in the slightest. In fact, precisely none of the many marriage promotion experiments and policies have had even a whisper of the intended effect.

Why? Undoubtedly the rise of feminism and sexual liberation has had a major impact here. The social pressure pushing young people to get married to someone, anyone used to be immensely stronger than it is. But today, happiness, decent treatment, and mutual emotional support are something generally expected in a marriage, and rightly so (though no doubt there is still some distance to go). The smaller proportion of married people in their early 20s surely represents a lot of people avoiding horrible situations and abuse.

That's why policy ought to be relatively neutral on marriage. When it goes well, it really can be the foundation of a great life. But when it doesn't, it can be hell on Earth. Given evolving cultural expectations, the government ought to concern itself with enabling people to choose marriage of their own free will. And in that vein, egalitarian economic policy is very obviously the policy tool of choice. It's all but impossible to push against changing cultural expectations about relationships. But what we can do is make sure there are jobs for everyone that wants one, and that they are well paid; that there is a strong welfare state to make sure everyone gets health care and at least a reasonable income; that everyone has decent housing, and so on. With more people living better lives, and the risk of living together greatly decreased, we might well achieve the goal of more marriages — only this time ones freely chosen, not economically coerced.

But if we allow jobs to vanish and do nothing to replace them, while simultaneously insisting that whatever bad happens is the fault of the poor themselves, the result will be desperation, addiction, suicide, and more single parents.

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