Op-Ed

Restoring Marriage Will Be Difficult

Isabel V. Sawhill

Editor’s Note: The below is a reaction toThe President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” a report featured in this year’s issue of State of Our Unions, an annual journal published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

This report sounds an alarm about marriage trends in middle class America. It is full of important facts and citations to the literature. Indeed, I know of no better source for such information than the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project. As the authors note, marriage is alive and well among the best educated but rapidly disappearing among those with less than a college degree. What we are seeing is alternative living arrangements that have spread from the poor, and especially poor blacks, to the rest of society. The consequences for children and for society have been far from benign.

Against this backdrop, the authors argue for a more muscular response including: ending marriage penalties in tax and benefit programs, providing help to less skilled men so that they can become better marriage partners, more investment in marriage and relationship education, and a more robust effort by civil society to restore a marriage culture.

While I am deeply sympathetic to most of this report’s conclusions and to the wake-up call it embodies, I have three reactions that I believe need to be part of this discussion.

First, I am conflicted. My right brain says that marriage is a good thing for all the reasons enumerated in the report. My left brain says that we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It may be possible to slow the decline in marriage but I am increasingly doubtful that it can be resurrected in its 20th century form. The interesting question is what form will the much greater diversity of living arrangements take in the future. I suspect marriage as we have known it is not coming back. A combination of greater affluence, more gender equality, and changes in attitudes are conspiring against a restoration.

Second, I am somewhat less optimistic than the authors about the ability of their policy agenda to make much of a difference. In part, this reflects my belief that the trends we are witnessing are deep seated and that the authors’ preferred policies, while perfectly sensible and probably helpful on the margins, are swimming against a tide that is too strong to be reversed. Moreover, the research on what such policies have accomplished to date is not very reassuring.

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Third, like the authors, I am concerned about the consequences. However, I put greater faith in policies and messaging that encourage young adults to defer childbearing until they are ready to be parents — or to not become parents at all. If childless adults do not marry, whatever the consequences for them, it does not significantly harm others. The problem for single parents is not that they are single; it is that they are parents as well. Parenting is hard enough for married parents; it is even more difficult for those who must do it alone. I say this realizing that many single parents did not choose this role. But then I am reminded of the fact that 70 percent of pregnancies to single women under 30 are unintended. Something is wrong in an era when many effective forms of contraception are available and often subsidized, yet the vast majority of young adults are still not taking responsibility for the consequences of their sexual encounters. In addition, while the policy hurdles to successfully providing young adults with the motivation and the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and births are high, the task seems to me to be less daunting than an effort to bring back marriage.

In sum, by all means let’s work to restore marriage as the best environment in which to raise children but at the same time let’s stop the epidemic of unplanned childbearing that creates unwed (or temporarily cohabiting) mothers in the first place.

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