Marriage in America had its issues long before New York rewrote it last Friday. As Princeton’s Robert P. George discussed this week on National Review Online, when New York legalized no-fault divorce last summer, it dealt a blow to the institution and, therefore, to Empire State residents.
Knowing this, Chuck Donovan is a man with a plan. A longtime advocate of family-friendly public policy, and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, he has come up with “A Marshall Plan for Marriage: Rebuilding Our Shattered Homes.” Donovan discusses the peril to marriage — and his plan to shore up that institution — with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: A “Marshall Plan.” Is that a little overly dramatic?
Charles A. Donovan: No and yes. The problem of family disintegration is approaching that scale. The nation’s out-of-wedlock birth rate is more than 50 percent higher for all women of childbearing age than it was for the black American subset that so troubled the late Pat Moynihan when he wrote his study for the Labor Department in the 1960s. The poverty rate for children born to single parents is nearly five times higher than it is for children born into intact families.
Marriage breakdown, or failure to form families, is creeping upward into the middle class, as Brad Wilcox’s studies have pointed out, and it’s tied to diminished economic prospects for men. We don’t live in the aftermath of a war zone, but Detroit and some of our other cities, denuded of economic opportunity and mother-father families, rival post-World War II conditions.
But, yes, the phrase “Marshall Plan for Marriage” is overly dramatic. But being overly dramatic in the defense of marriage is no vice. I’m not proposing massive new investments — we are at a horrific stage of the cycle when even our bootstraps are frayed.
Lopez: Does that make the family Europe? Which would seem fitting, given how much Europe is hurting, demographically.
Donovan: For a long time, political liberals in the United States have admired European family policy — beginning with sexual mores and government-sponsored day care. We are trending in the direction of the most liberal of European states. When I reviewed the European family data, I looked among a few dozen countries for any that have succeeded in reversing the various measures of family decline — cohabitation, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, the size of their welfare states.
Not only is it very hard to find a good trend, it proved tough to find even single years where the trend lines improved. There are plenty of academics who won’t call these trends decline, but the truth on the ground is that Europe is struggling from extraordinary levels of dependency on the state. Family breakdown does not cause all of this — but it interacts with all the other factors that combine to cause it (heavy taxes, anti-population mania, lavish welfare and pensions).
Lopez: How and why is this a taxing problem that every taxpayer should care about?
Donovan: My colleague at the Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector, estimates that the annual cost of welfare benefits to support single-parent families is on the order of $300 billion. A few years ago, the Georgia Family Council and the Institute for American Values looked at the issue — the cost of divorce and unwed childbearing — and calculated an annual price tag of $112 billion. We know that the number is rising, and one in seven Americans receives food stamps today.
It’s not that the American people begrudge the neediest people this temporary help. It’s that we’re running the risk that this isn’t temporary, and we’re paying too little attention to the roots of the problem in the mistaken idea this is just a private matter. Public assistance is not a private matter. The diminution in a child’s prospects because he or she has no access to a father is not just a private matter.
Lopez: Has marriage become a class thing in a surprising way?
Donovan: I mentioned Brad Wilcox’s work for the National Marriage Project. It’s a study in cognitive dissonance when you look at it closely. His findings underscore, to put it plainly, that middle-class Americans are behaving today as the poorest Americans did a generation ago, by delinking the acts of having children and wearing a wedding band. The out-of-wedlock figures for poor Americans, meanwhile, have continued to worsen.
Ironically, however, the wealthiest and most educated Americans have actually enjoyed an uptick in marital stability. They are the most likely to favor policies like unilateral divorce and marriage redefinition and “evolving family forms,” but they’re hewing to traditional norms in their personal lives because those norms work. A nation that dislikes hypocrisy should not be pleased at this inconsistency.
Lopez: Is cohabitation a bad thing for the common and individual good?
Donovan: I don’t think you can say that cohabitation always results in a failed relationship, but when it doesn’t, it is probably because the couple had what it took to make a marriage work under any conditions. The clergy I’ve talked to who decline to perform marriage ceremonies for cohabiting couples unless they first separate and “reset” their relationship clocks are asking fundamental questions and doing the couple a favor: How will you respond when things aren’t going exactly as you would like? Can you sacrifice for this person — do you have the patience required to spend a lifetime with another person?
But, yes, cohabitation has weakened our perception that marriage itself is not a name for a relationship but a kind of glue — a seal or sacrament — that permeates and makes the relationship possible. Cohabiting has lowered our reverence for sex, marriage, and the highest expression of love, which is the child. What we revere less, we paradoxically understand less.
Lopez: How does divorce play into all of this?
Donovan: New York became the last of the 50 states to make divorce a no-fault affair, when it acted last summer. Easy divorce is a misnomer, but no-fault so empowers the party desiring to leave the marriage that it’s hard for the culture to see any nobility in a spouse struggling to preserve the union. If you’ve seen such a portrayal in a book or film lately, I would like to know about it.
Statistically, the tenfold rise in U.S. cohabitation since the 1960s is probably partly responsible for the fact that divorce rates are down substantially from their peak. But that doesn’t make trial marriage a good thing; as someone wisely pointed out, cohabitation breakdowns are not trial breakdowns. They’re real, with millions of children affected.
Lopez: If we were to reform divorce laws, would we be hurting people who are in truly bad situations?
Donovan: Practically, divorce reform will have to proceed, and it is proceeding, in ways that minimize that concern. No reform should put any spouse or former spouse at risk in a situation where there is domestic violence, addiction, or some other form of criminality. We’ve reached the bottom of the reform parabola with New York’s no-fault law, and the best reform ideas are working with the subset of couples who really will respond to signals from the law and the culture that reconciliation is possible and worthwhile.
Several states are considering ideas to use waiting periods before a divorce petition is even filed. First, the spouse seeking the divorce would have to notify the other spouse of an intention to divorce. During the waiting period, they attend a mandatory counseling course that provides them with the best information about the impact of a decision to end the marriage. The evidence is there that some couples can and will reconcile under these circumstances.
Lopez: Is anyone seriously talking about reforming divorce law?
Donovan: It’s sporadic, but there are some extraordinary and not easily classified scholars and policy experts at work on these issues. For many of them, the work on children of divorce, now grown, has sparked a recognition that the story of marriage law in the United States is not over. To name a few of these scholars and writers would be to omit too many who have made excellent contributions, but much of the work being done can be found at the website for the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. Then there are a few political leaders, like Kansas governor Sam Brownback, who see these issues from a holistic perspective and have made them a touchstone of their life in office. Their passion and wisdom can have outsized impact.
Lopez: Not to be simple, but do we need to help each other more in our marriages? Do more than toast at a wedding. Can and should public policy play a role here?
Donovan: Public policy has a role, but your question touches on the civic and interpersonal. And as a conservative, I believe they are ultimately more important aids to success in this area. Bob Woodson was honored at the Kennedy Center a few years ago with the Bradley Prize for his work on urban and family renewal. He could have received the award for any number of ideas and initiatives, and in his acceptance speech he could have told any of dozens of stories about the risks and rewards of his work.
But what struck me that night was not the story Bob told but the couple he introduced, a young black couple. The husband had been involved in gangs and had had run-ins with the law. He had grown to adulthood and never attended a wedding — until his own, to the beautiful young woman who was at his side that night. It wasn’t just a new leaf, it’s the entire tree.
Now, other than generating more Bob Woodsons, what was the policy work in that? We need a new Culture of Marriage alongside our Culture of Life, and both are primarily interpersonal projects.
Lopez: Does the debate over gay marriage suck some of the air out of the public-policy room on marriage?
Donovan: Yes, nearly all of it. That is one reason I wrote the paper we are discussing. It does not mention that subject once, though I’ve written about marriage redefinition as well. Would there be as much clamor to make marriage radically egalitarian if it were tilted once more toward permanence, exclusivity, multi-generational bonds, and mutual responsibility? The goal is not to make marriage hard, but to recognize that its meaning lies in the masteries it builds and the mysteries it opens. That is where more air and light are needed.
Lopez: You talk about rebuilding a culture of marriage. But are we too far gone?
Donovan: If by “we” you mean the United States or the West, yes, possibly. Recovery is impossible if we don’t recognize the illness. Media messages on maintaining and rebuilding marriage and the home are not numerous, although I finally caught up last weekend with a wrenching film called The Way Back by director Peter Weir that captures the sacrifices necessary both to secure freedom and to recover a broken trust — to find “the way back” home. Voices like that are small in the din of dissolution. But vibrant faith and vibrant families can be rebirthed elsewhere if not here. Marriage can be expunged from the law but not obliterated in reality.
Lopez: What can a congressman do to help marriage?
Donovan: Members of Congress must first observe the Hippocratic principle: First, do no harm. There is actually a law on the books that requires the Congress to append a family-impact statement to legislation that touches on family well-being. President Reagan issued an executive order, subsequently rescinded by President Clinton, to the same effect. The current Congress could observe that law and treat it with the same respect it shows when detailing the constitutional authority for proposed legislation.
Welfare reform along the lines of Congressman Jim Jordan’s [R., Ohio] bill would also be a big help. Marriage tax penalties, including the huge one in Obamacare, must go. And the Defense of Marriage Act is critical. Congress has not taken over family law but historically, as with polygamy, it has set definitional boundaries. It should continue to do so.
Lopez: What can a presidential candidate do?
Donovan: I would be content if candidates for president would speak as they live. My guess is that we will have a first woman president, first Mormon president, first many things, before we have another single president. So far James Buchanan, before the Civil War, was the only lifelong bachelor to become president. Four other presidents were widowed before taking office. Americans have no monarchy, but we prize our tradition of first families. Presidents, of course, can vigorously defend laws like DOMA in the courts and use the bully pulpit. And they should, not just for fatherhood but for married fatherhood, for example.
Lopez: What can any and every American do?
Donovan: Move marriage up your list of concerns, and recognize how it touches every aspect of our national well-being. Marriage is an economic issue as well as a social issue; it is a key to human happiness, an access card to the mansion that holds our past, present, and future dreams.
Lopez: What would you hope every American could know about marriage and take away from your research?
Donovan: Marriage is an indispensable institution designed by a Divine Architect. With all its flaws and occasionally spectacular failures, we cannot do without it.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.