04 February 2014

Marriage, prosperity and family values

For the last half-century since a "war on poverty" was declared there have been occasional skirmishes on a front of questionable strategic significance. Armchair generals culture-war commandos alike have perceived a correlation between poverty and childrearing conditions. They have argued most often that single-parent households, particularly those where the sole parent is the mother, handicap poor children in various ways. To this day, it is asserted that marriage -- "traditional" marriage, of course -- will improve a child's economic opportunities regardless of other socioeconomic factors. With this in mind, Bill O'Reilly challenged President Obama during their Super Bowl interview to demonstrate that he had promoted marriage in his speeches, if not in his policies, and the President was quick to affirm that he had done so.

To promote marriage doesn't mean necessarily that you belong to the religious right, but to the extent that the actual religious right promotes marriage on their terms, as an expression of their values, a forthcoming survey in The American Journal of Sociology should prove troubling. As publicized by Nation magazine columnist Michelle Goldberg, the survey builds on the known and already-paradoxical statistic that the most deeply "red" states, those in the culturally conservative south, have the highest divorce rates. The sociologists attribute this to "the promotion of practices that increase divorce risk." In particular, they focus (or Goldberg does) on early marriage, itself motivated by the imperative of premarital abstinence from sex. As Goldberg summarizes the findings, early marriage leads to children before either parent really has sound means of supporting them, especially wherever conservative cultural dominance suppresses sex education or information on contraception. In the researchers' words, "Families that are formed early have a really difficult time making ends meet with the human resources they have at their disposal."

It's unclear from Goldberg's summary, however, whether economic issues are the major factor in red-state divorce rates. She notes that a correlation between "conservative Protestantism" and high divorce rates remains after the researchers control for income, suggesting that cultural factors also destabilize families that are comparatively secure economically. Meanwhile, you don't have to be a traditionalist but simply a historian to question the researchers' assertion that "you can't put people with few relationship skills and few resources together at a really young age and saddle them with children and expect them to survive," since it was done for a long time, until relatively recently. If it can't be done so easily now, that has less to do with the constraints of marriage than with the constraints of the economy, a point Goldberg may miss in her rush to conclude that "the blue state model -- marriage is delayed; responsible premarital sex is approved -- simply works better." That reads like she wants to score culture-war points, when the real story here is the statistics that appear to prove wrong the promoters of traditional marriage as an economic advantage. 

As the President himself said, responding to the familiar suggestion that single-parent households are a particular problem for black, "[Y]ou are starting to see in a lot of white working-class homes similar problems when men can’t find good work, when the economy is shutting ladders of opportunity off from people, whether they are black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter, that puts pressure as well on the home ... So, you have got an interaction between an economy that isn’t generating enough good jobs for folks who traditionally could get blue collar jobs even if they didn’t have a higher education and some legitimate social concerns [i.e. about marriage] that compound the problem." Does anyone actually believe that the mere fact of more people getting married will generate jobs of that sort, or any sort? I suspect not. It's easier to blame poverty on lack of marriage, especially when you want to blame the poor for their poverty, than it is to credit prosperity to marriage. Those mainly interested in blame will keep on blaming, while those really interested in building will look for solutions elsewhere.

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