The Agenda

Does Marriage Matter?

A blogger at Slate suggests that the answer is no:


As an obstinately unmarried person who grew up the high-school-educated middle class that NMP and Ross Douthat are condescendingly wringing their hands over, I can say with some confidence that I don’t get why anyone cares if marriage is on its way out.  It actually makes sense that not marrying is a practice that’s moving up the income ladder, probably at the same damn rate that income inequality is spreading.  There used to be two reasons to get married: social condemnation of sex outside of marriage and economic stability.  Both those are gone as reasons, so why on earth would you add the risk of divorce to your life when you don’t  have to?  Marriage confers no real protections if you don’t really have much personal wealth. Nor does it seem like it’s necessary if you’re both financially independent and capable of keeping your finances separate. [Emphasis added.]

I hadn’t realized that economic stability had been achieved for all Americans. My sense is that Jacob Hacker and many other scholars, activists, and politicians who identify as committed egalitarians would disagree. Many would argue that the existing U.S. welfare state is inadequate to the task of enabling all women, men, and children to live in dignity. I would argue, coming from a very different perspective, that dependence on the state, even a democratic state, can have an enervating effect. As Andrew Gelman’s discussion of a related issue reminded us, one might choose a lower level of disposable income in exchange for more dignity and freedom.

And indeed, one might argue that dependence on social services to achieve economic stability might prove injurious to one’s sense of self-respect. This might change the equation regarding whether or not universal economic stability has indeed been achieved in the United States, or indeed in northern Europe, East Asia, and other affluent regions. 

Then there is this part:

Marriage confers no real protections if you don’t really have much personal wealth. Nor does it seem like it’s necessary if you’re both financially independent and capable of keeping your finances separate.

One is curious as to whether the blogger is factoring in life cycle analysis. In some cases, a couple will marry at a relatively young age and with relatively little personal wealth. One partner will devote himself to market labor while the other partner might pursue higher education, to invest in “human capital.” The idea is that this will yield dividends, and that marriage, as a symbol of commitment, represents an explicit agreement to share in the proceeds of this arrangement. Over time, the idea is that this might indeed confer a “real protection,” though of course the word “real” is doing a fair bit of work here. This model could be wrongheaded. But it’s certainly worthy of consideration.  

And indeed, it is possible that two people who are financially independent and capable of keeping their finances separate might have less “need” for marriage. But it is worth noting that these are precisely the people who marry in contemporary U.S. society. My suspicion — call me crazy — is that mass incarceration is a fairly important driver of the turn away from marriage among non-college-educated Americans, not a decision that marriage confers no “real protections.”

Sure, marriage chauvinists can point to things such as marriage’s impact on health and well-being, and to the fact that married men are less anti-social. I’m skeptical, though, because these kinds of studies lump all nonmarried people into one group.  People who are in long term, committed relationships without that piece of paper are put in the same group as people who’ve never held a relationship together. 

It’s not clear to me that the blogger is familiar with all of “these studies,” as many of “these studies” are careful to separate out the impact of long-term nonmarital cohabitation. 

It is very interesting to see that there are people who don’t believe that there is a marriage crisis among less affluent Americans.  

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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