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Social Mobility Memos

Don’t Give Up on Marriage Yet

This piece is the fourth in a series of blog posts on Isabel Sawhill’s new book 

Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage

. To read the previous pieces, click here:

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I love Isabel Sawhill’s book. It sheds important new light on the forces that are playing havoc with American family life.

Believing in the Culture of Marriage

I think, though, Sawhill is too quick to write off marriage—counterproductively so. Culture matters, and Sawhill is too pessimistic about it. Marriage is thriving among elites, and elite messages can and do trickle down (excuse the expression). I have participated in a stunning change in cultural norms in the gay world, which less than a generation ago was totally alienated from the culture of marriage and today embraces it.

It’s important to recognize, too, that (straight) Americans haven’t given up on marriage. Young people often see marriage as a lifestyle choice, one among many. But they still want to get married. When the Pew Research Center asked unmarried people in 2010 whether they want to marry, only one in eight said no.

Marriage in Marginalized Middle America

The bigger problem seems to be that working-class Americans increasingly feel marriage is out of reach– and that, in far too many cases, they are right. As June Carbone and Naomi Cahn put it in their new book Marriage Markets, studies “suggest that rather than the marital ideal changing—both men and women continue to regard marriage as an important commitment to someone they regard as a cherished partner—what is changing is the expectation that they will be able to realize that ideal.”

Why? A lot is going on, but the plight of working-class men seems to be at the heart of the story. Men without college educations are increasingly marginalized in the workforce, making them less attractive as potential spouses. Failing to form durable family ties, in turn, makes men less stable and productive, and therefore less employable—making them less marriageable, and so on. Partly as a result of this vicious cycle of male disempowerment, working-class cultural mores are drifting away from marriage as a norm.

The Solution: Pair Better Contraception with More Marriage

There is no easy solution, of course. But, as Sawhill notes, even incremental improvements in the marriage picture pay large dividends, so they are very much worth aiming for.

That is why David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values and I are working to organize a broad coalition of experts and policy makers to focus on reducing legal, economic, and social barriers to marriage. We believe the cultural success of same-sex marriage provides a new opening to take the message of “marriage opportunity” to a broad swath of Americans on both sides of the partisan and ideological divide.

It is hard to predict how far we will get in our efforts to make marriage achievable for all who seek it. I am sure of this, though: culture does matter. Policies and messages that focus on helping women avoid unwanted pregnancy would work significantly better in combination with policies and messages that focus on improving access to marriage, because together they send a coherent cultural signal. In contrast, writing off marriage and positioning long-acting contraception as a substitute risks assigning the burden of responsible behavior entirely to women. If that further marginalizes men and induces them to behave less responsibly, the marriageability crisis will deepen. Contraception and marriage are complements, not substitutes.

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