Politics & Policy

Why Stick with Marriage?

It’s still the best arrangement for kids — and parents.

The news about marriage is not very good. A Pew Center analysis of American Community Survey data, released a few weeks ago, found that less than half of American children live with a married couple who are both in their first marriage — the intact, nuclear, married family — down from 61 percent as recently as 1980. Meanwhile the proportion of children who live with an unmarried parent (or parents) nearly doubled, from 19 percent to 34 percent.

(Of course, some of the 15 percent of children who live with parents who have remarried are the product of those new marital unions, and so they are also living in an intact married family. But while it may not be quite as bad as the Pew analysis suggest, it’s bad enough, with little or no sign of getting better.)

Two major family scholars, Andrew Cherlin and Isabel Sawhill, have recently released books tracing the decline of marriage.

Both books are morally as well as intellectually serious; both resist false dichotomies, recognizing that economics and cultural norms both play a role in the decline of marriage; both are generous to conservative thinkers on marriage with whom they only partly agree; and, most important, each scholar acknowledges the powerful scientific evidence that the decline of marriage has hurt children.

Yet each, in his or her way, is urging us to give up on the marriage line as no longer possible to defend or promote. Each wishes us to adapt to the collapse of marriage for the two-thirds of the population that is not college-educated by redrawing social norms of commitment at a different place than marriage.

In Labor’s Love Lost, Professor Andrew Cherlin beats the softer retreat:

We need to find ways to support stable partnerships without returning to the gender imbalances of the past. Stable partnerships do not necessarily involve marriage, but in the United States . . . cohabitation remains largely a short-term arrangement. So while supporting stable long-term cohabiting relationships should be part of any effort to stabilize working-class families, in practice much of what we may choose to do will consist of strengthening marriage among those who want it.

He urges us to

focus public efforts on a message that is distinct from encouraging marriage per se: urging young adults to wait to have their first child until they are confident that they are in a committed lasting partnership, either marital or cohabiting.

In Generation Unbound, the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill regretfully says she no longer believes reviving marriage is possible for the less-educated two-thirds of America. The old marriage norm should be replaced with a new social script: It is wrong to have children that are unplanned. “The old norm was ‘don’t have a child outside of marriage.’ The new norm should be ‘don’t have a child before you want one and are ready to parent.’” How would a young adult know whether he or she is “ready”? Like Cherlin, Sawhill retreats to the idea of “commitment”: “For most people it means completing their education, having a steady job, and having a committed partner.”

Here’s my problem with this nice-sounding new script: I think the majority of young people who have children outside marriage are already doing that, to the best of their limited youthful abilities.

Sixty percent of births to unwed mothers, as Sawhill notes, are to cohabiting women. Most of the recent increase in single motherhood has come from increasing births to women who are cohabiting, not solo moms.

The problem with retreating from marriage as a bright line is that, in practical terms, young women in love are not very good at figuring out whether or not they are in a committed relationship.

You can see this in the data Professor Linda Waite and I reported in The Case for Marriage. The majority of cohabiting women believe they will never have sex with anyone other than their current partner for the rest of their life — even though men who are living with women they are not engaged to report being less committed to their current partners than men who are merely dating a woman.

You can see the same phenomenon at work in the enormous jump in contraceptive-“failure” rates for cohabiting women. A 2008 study by Kathryn Kost and colleagues, reported in the journal Contraception, found that one out of eight American women experience a contraceptive failure within twelve months of initiating a new, reversible method of contraception — i.e., they get pregnant.

Cohabitation is one of the most serious risk factors for contraceptive “failure.” In 2002, one out of five cohabiting women reported contraceptive “failure,” double the risk for married women. Compared with never-married or divorced single women, only cohabiting women had a significantly higher risk of contraceptive failure than married women.

Sawhill makes an important point: If you are going to use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, it makes sense to use more-effective rather than less-effective methods. But young women who believe they are living in a committed relationship with a man they love are just not that motivated to prevent births.

I understand the temptation to despair about whether there is anything we can do for marriage, in particular because the results from the Bush administration’s marriage-education initiative were not particularly promising.

But the truth is we simply haven’t tried to do very much to encourage marital childbearing in this country. Before we give up completely, may I suggest one idea that would cost virtually no money at all and would involve no new government program?

Add a marriage message to existing government-funded teen-pregnancy prevention programs.

Tell moderately educated young men and women the truth that college-educated people know and live by: It is better for you and your children to wait until you are married before you conceive a child.

Doing so would not require progressives like Sawhill or Cherlin to give up on any other program they think might help working-class families. No serious person believes we are going to help or encourage children in only one family form.

The practical problem with retreating to the “committed relationship outside marriage” line is that it is vague and hard for young people in love and lust to discern. So could we at least try telling the next generation the truth and see what happens?

— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.


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