The Agenda

What Can Government Do About Family Disruption?

Matt Yglesias writes:

If “family instability” is really the root of all evil as Reihan Salam says, then what are we supposed to do about it?

I don’t think there’s much government can do about it directly. As Stevenson and Wolfers suggest, we’re in the middle of a cultural transition:

On the flipside, the decline in marriage among less-educated women would be an important concern if we were still in the world where women needed a husband for financial security. Less educated women have their own market opportunities available to them and have less to gain from marrying today than in the past. The new hedonic model of marriage thrives when households have the time and resources to enjoy their lives. This suggests that increasing the financial stability of these households will lead to marriage rather than marriage leading to financial stability.

This is an interesting conjecture. Essentially, Stevenson and Wolfers are suggesting that less-educated women are in an awkward position. Changes in the broader economy, including transfers designed to alleviate poverty and the decrease in labor market discrimination against women, have reduced the need for a working husband to maintain a decent standard of living. Yet they’re not affluent enough for hedonic marriage.

One strategy could be transferring enough income and wealth to the poor to create the conditions for hedonic marriage, but this is implausible in the extreme. The resources that Stevenson and Wolfers have in mind presumably include social, cultural, and erotic capital, not just cash. Building these assets takes time. While I think increased transfers to poor people might be a good idea — much depends on how the transfers are designed and how broadly we define the class of beneficiaries — this doesn’t strike me as a sound strategy for reducing family disruption. Civil society has to take the lead, and I think that there have been promising moves in this direction. 

But there are things that federal, state, and local governments can do. There’s been a great deal of discussion about early childhood education. This is an area that merits increased public investment and experimentation. Providing children with time away from troubled family environments seems to be somewhat helpful at the margin. And increasing instructional time to address summer learning loss can help improve educational outcomes. Community home visit programs seem to improve the health of infants, and might have other salutary benefits as well for young parents ill-prepared for the rigors of child-rearing.

Some of the ideas advanced by Wade Horn in his marriage promotion efforts in the Bush White House also make sense to me. As Andrew Cherlin argued in his book The Marriage-Go-Round, one serious problem is that American parents rush to remarry after a divorce. This undermines stability when the new marriage dissolves, as it often does. To be sure, it’s hard to imagine that education to this end will make a huge and immediate difference. 

This isn’t terribly inspiring. Yet this kind of incremental approach will prove more successful, I suspect, than increasing the spending burden, and in the process creating work disincentives that will make the U.S. economy less prosperous than it would be otherwise. If our goal is to encourage the spread of hedonic marriage, robust economic growth is the best way to get there. 

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