Family Values in the Age of Household Diversity

My R Street colleagues Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders call for a more ambitious conservative anti-poverty agenda in the Weekly Standard. They identify various measures designed to increase work participation, like rolling back occupational licensing requirements and reforming and expanding wage subsidies, and they offer a nuanced discussion of how the right ought to talk about marriage:

A truly conservative antipoverty agenda also must promote strong families. Married, two-income couples, even those earning only minimum wage, find it much easier to escape poverty, and most children who grow up with the example of hard work, thrift, and successful marriage can avoid becoming poor.

But many poor women face extensive barriers to marriage, ranging from the high proportion of men living in poverty who commit crimes and thereby end up in correctional facilities to the paucity of jobs for people with little formal education. Larger refundable child tax credits and even savings incentives for couples and singles of modest means would likewise relieve some of the financial pressure that can tear apart marriages and leave children without two parents.

Moreover, while marriage is the ideal, single parent households also must be recognized as family units that need support, as a child is far better off with a single competent mother or father than as a ward of the state. Efforts to expand counseling, classes, and even group homes for such parents and their children deserve consideration. A family values agenda would embrace and support existing families, even as it encouraged the formation of committed, loving marriages.

Threading this needle is challenging but necessary, as single-parent families are now so common that any effort to re-stigmatize them will end in failure, leaving aside the question of whether such an effort would be wise or humane. Lehrer and Sanders offer one take on how conservatives ought to frame a family values agenda in an age of “household diversity,” and this is a subject that merits closer attention. Though it is right to hope that we will eventually see a revival of marriage, I’ve argued that banking on such a revival would be foolish, given the pace of cultural and economic change. Indeed, it seems just as likely, if not more so, that the relative prestige of marriage will decline as college-educated adults, who’ve proven to be the bulwark of the marriage culture, turn away from the institution in favor of cohabitation. It could be that the U.S. will move in a Scandinavian direction, in which we move towards post-marital families, yet these families are actually more stable than U.S. families, including married families, are today. But again, it seems wise not to count on best-case scenarios coming to pass.

P.S. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, offers a correction: while 23 percent of U.S. families started by married parents dissolve by the time a child is 10-years-old, 25 percent of Swedish families started by cohabiting parents dissolve by the time a child is 9-years-old. So it is not quite fair to say that post-marital families in Sweden are more stable than U.S. families started by married parents, though the gap between them is quite modest.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...