Between 1960 and 1980, cultural elites (those with cultural power, the power to name reality) increasingly defined marriage as the problem and family fragmentation as the solution. But between about 1980 and 2000, elite opinion on marriage did something remarkable: It changed.
In 1990, if you said, “The ideal for a child is a marriage mom and dad,” many scholars, reporters, policymakers, and writers vigorously contested the idea; the counterfactual or contest response was, “Single mothers are just as good as married mothers, and the idea that marriage is special hurts women’s freedom.”
By 2000, if you said, “The ideal for a child is a married mom and dad,” people began to say, “Duh, that’s obvious.” (At least, if you added, “provided that marriage is not high-conflict or violent.”)
A lot of work went into that consensus shift in elite opinion. I was a bit player; David Blankenhorn and the scholars he gathered around him at the Institute for American Values deserve the lion’s share of the credit, but I watched it happen. And I also saw that it never happened in Europe, even though the social-science data was the same.
Some policy shifts happened as well: Changes in property distributions muted some of the worst effects of no-fault, welfare reform was enacted, and in 2000 the president of the U.S., without much public resistance, appointed a marriage czar to Health and Human Services who began to reshape the culture of the nation’s social-welfare bureaucracy into a more marriage-positive direction.
And over the same period — it could be an accident, a mere correlation — we began to see some signs of a marriage turnaround. Divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s and began to decline — especially among the college-educated. Unmarried childbearing, after galloping up and up — began to tail off. By around 2002, it looked as if the out-of-wedlock birthrate may have peaked — perhaps we would begin a new period in modern American history, one where each year more babies, rather than fewer and fewer, would begin life with a mom and dad committed to caring for their baby together, in one family.
(To be continued)