A new conversation about marriage opportunity

The Washington Monthly and the Institute for American Values have published “Marriage Opportunity: The Moment for National Action,” a statement by more than 100 scholars, activists, and leaders—conservative and liberal, Democratic and Republican, gay and straight. Two of the signers and organizers, Brookings’s William A. Galston and Jonathan Rauch, sat down to talk about why they think the time is right for a new national conversation about marriage and family.

Jonathan Rauch: Bill, it’s great to have a minute to talk about this, because we’ve reached this spot from very different roads. I’m coming to marriage opportunity as an openly gay supporter of same-sex marriage. You’re coming to marriage opportunity as an openly straight proponent of strengthening traditional marriage. In the 1980s, you started telling your fellow liberal Democrats that marriage and family structure matter, and you have some scars to show for it.

William Galston: I do. For many years, “family values” was a wedge issue that liberals viewed as a way to condemn single mothers, gays, and others. But the same-sex marriage movement has focused attention on marriage’s importance for social inclusion and equality. And a growing number of people on the left as well as the right are recognizing a worrisome trend: a “marriage gap.” Marriage is thriving among Americans with four-year college degrees or more, and they’re passing huge advantages on to their kids. But for less-educated and working-class Americans, marriage is increasingly slipping out of reach. We risk turning what is supposed to be the land of opportunity into a society permanently divided along lines of family structure. That’s making inequality, poverty, and social immobility even bigger challenges. And I sense that a growing number of progressives are ready to tackle the family dimension of the problems about which they care so passionately.

JR: Of course, the reasons for the marriage gap are complicated. It’s a combination of social and economic factors. We gay folks were excluded from marriage by law. Nothing was complicated about that: it’s a sentence of statute. In most states, that’s no longer true, and the Supreme Court may bring in the other states this summer.

WG: Bottom line: you’re getting what you’ve long fought for, faster than almost anyone dreamed possible. So why are you on board with—in fact, co-directing—this marriage opportunity initiative?

JR: Well, for one thing, we gay folks care about inequality, poverty, and the welfare of children. That’s why we’re seeing leading gay thinkers embracing marriage opportunity. But I feel there’s a political opportunity here, too—political in the non-partisan sense. Gay marriage is by far the country’s most successful pro-family movement. It sends a powerful message that everyone—adults, kids, communities, the country—is better off when everyone has the opportunity to marry. We have a shot now at ending forever the conflict between gay rights and family values, weaving gay and straight marriage into a conversation about strengthening marriage and family for all Americans. That’s going to be hugely beneficial to gay families and kids.

WG: And to straight families and kids, too, potentially. When I say “potentially,” it’s because, even among signers of marriage opportunity, there’s disagreement about how much the needle can be moved and what kinds of policy tools to use. The statement offers some general ideas: economic, cultural, and public policy measures to close the marriage gap; initiatives to build on the success of gay and lesbian families; and new, inclusive research into factors that make marriage work—among other things. And we know it won’t quell all doubts—for example, that marriage may not always be a good option for lower-income women looking at an array of men without stable employment. But it’s really intended as a starting point.

JR: So I could ask you a version of the question you asked me. You’re a busy guy. You’ve done more than your share of pro-family advocacy. You accept that solutions aren’t necessarily obvious. Why start down this long road now?

WG: You know, it’s not every day you get the chance to build a new left-right, gay-straight coalition around family values and marriage. It’s not every day you get the chance to depolarize a fraught public-policy conversation of major importance. I think there’s a real chance that what’s happening with, for example, the issue of incarceration—a left-right convergence—is ready to happen with marriage. There’s growing agreement on the idea that strengthening family and increasing job prospects and enhancing opportunity go hand in hand.

JR: And you—

WG: Wait, I’m not done. There’s also growing bipartisan support for workforce-based education programs like apprenticeships, expansion of wage subsidies for young adults without kids, and other measures that can support family formation and marriage. I’m not saying there are magic bullets. But remember: the denominator here is enormous. Even improving marriage opportunity on the margins will help hundreds of thousands of adults and kids.

JR: I’d add one more thing. Cultural messages matter. Just getting people focused on a problem can make a difference. We’ve seen that with fatherhood and teen pregnancy in the recent past. With same-sex marriage, I’ve seen a cultural transformation in gay America, which once was deeply skeptical of marriage and now embraces it. Right now we’re at a cultural moment when, with a bit of enterprise, we can build on the pro-family message of same-sex marriage to bring old antagonists together around the idea of making marriage achievable for all who seek it, regardless of sexual orientation or social class. The names attached to the marriage opportunity statement, I think, attest to that. It’s an unprecedented coalition.

WG: I know you’ll join me in hoping that people will read the statement and decide for themselves.

JG: And maybe add their names to it, which they can do online at the Institute for American Values website.