Saturday, May 26, 2007

Marriage: Is it Really Such A Magical Solution to Poverty?

Emma sent me a link to this very interesting article in the Economist, "The Frayed Knot." The overall assertion is that a "marriage gap" (between the affluent, well-educated set and those much lower on the socio-economic rung) is breeding further inequality.

There is a widening gulf between how the best- and least-educated Americans approach marriage and child-rearing. Among the elite (excluding film stars), the nuclear family is holding up quite well. Only 4% of the children of mothers with college degrees are born out of wedlock. And the divorce rate among college-educated women has plummeted. Of those who first tied the knot between 1975 and 1979, 29% were divorced within ten years. Among those who first married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5% were.

At the bottom of the education scale, the picture is reversed. Among high-school dropouts, the divorce rate rose from 38% for those who first married in 1975-79 to 46% for those who first married in 1990-94. Among those with a high school diploma but no college, it rose from 35% to 38%. And these figures are only part of the story. Many mothers avoid divorce by never marrying in the first place. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women who drop out of high school is 15%. Among African-Americans, it is a staggering 67%.

Now, this can be interpreted many ways. The Wingnuts, for example, argue that marriage is a poverty solution.

Does this matter? Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, says it does. In her book “Marriage and Caste in America”, she argues that the “marriage gap” is the chief source of the country's notorious and widening inequality. Middle-class kids growing up with two biological parents are “socialised for success”. They do better in school, get better jobs and go on to create intact families of their own. Children of single parents or broken families do worse in school, get worse jobs and go on to have children out of wedlock. This makes it more likely that those born near the top or the bottom will stay where they started. America, argues Ms Hymowitz, is turning into “a nation of separate and unequal families”.
Here is what bugs me: the fact that middle-class, well-educated parents are doing a good job rearing children, and that these parents have a lower divorce rate, doesn't mean that getting married will automatically stop poverty. The way Conservatives have continued to treat marriage as a poverty solution is bizarre; they seem to believe that if a couple utters the "I do" in front of God, Family and Friends that these "magical words" will suddenly make both partners more responsible, more committed and better workers.

But there is more to it than this. Marriage itself is “a wealth-generating institution”, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, who run the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. Those who marry “till death do us part” end up, on average, four times richer than those who never marry. This is partly because marriage provides economies of scale—two can live more cheaply than one—and because the kind of people who make more money—those who work hard, plan for the future and have good interpersonal skills—are more likely to marry and stay married. But it is also because marriage affects the way people behave.

American men, once married, tend to take their responsibilities seriously. Avner Ahituv of the University of Haifa and Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute found that “entering marriage raises hours worked quickly and substantially.” Married men drink less, take fewer drugs and work harder, earning between 10% and 40% more than single men with similar schooling and job histories. And marriage encourages both spouses to save and invest more for the future. Each partner provides the other with a form of insurance against falling sick or losing a job.

Marriage also encourages the division of labour. Ms Dafoe Whitehead and Mr Popenoe put it like this: “Working as a couple, individuals can develop those skills in which they excel, leaving others to their partner.” Mum handles the tax returns while Dad fixes the car. Or vice versa. As Adam Smith observed two centuries ago, when you specialise, you get better at what you do, and you produce more.

Before commenting on the claims of the National Marriage Project researchers, I should point out that this group has some serious critics from the LGBT community (see here). What I would like to see evidence of is that marriage causes married couples to become better workers and more responsible. What is the causal mechanism here? Until I see proof of that, I am free to interpret the correlation findings quite differently. If I reflect on my own experience (granted I am not married yet--the horror!), it seems that the behavior traits that these researchers look upon favorably, might have already been in place before the couple got married. Perhaps, the more affluent/well-educated couples have waited longer before getting married, are thereby more mature and also have made better choices about who to marry?

I leave it to you to read the rest of the article and comment. The highlights: that parents from well-educated, affluent nuclear families spend more time tracking their children (helping with homework, getting them to soccer practice etc.); children who are born to a stable married couple are more likely to find a stable married couple; and partners who co-habitate (eek, that's me) are far more likely to divorce eventually than those who get married before living together. I imagine that latter statistic is correct, but I am guessing that the explanation is far more complicated than: "if you had married before you lived together, you would still be together."

Look, I am not against marriage as an institution. I am not hostile to some of these findings. What bugs me is how they are interpreted through the lens of a political agenda. If we find that stable, affluent, educated married couples tend to breed children who will also be stable, affluent and married, then it seems a bit far-fetched to me to conclude (as many Conservatives do) that marriage is the magic solution.

I keep thinking of Morgan Spurlock's "Mininum Wage" episode from his show 30 days. One of the realities of trying to stay afloat in low paying jobs is the intense stress that economic insecurity breeds. Few of us humans can thrive in relationships, hell thrive in many ways spiritually and emotionally, living in crushing poverty. So, its hard for me to see how getting married means that couples will actually get better paying jobs with better benefits. Moreover, there is still the issues of health care and affordable day care to consider . . .

Let me also address, briefly, the issue of cohabitation:

Two-thirds of American children born to co-habiting parents who later marry will see their parents split up by the time they are ten. Those born within wedlock face only half that risk.

The likeliest explanation is inertia, says Scott Stanley of the Centre for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado. Couples start living together because it is more fun (and cheaper) than living apart. One partner may see this as a prelude to marriage. The other—usually the man—may see it as something more temporary. Since no explicit commitment is made, it is easier to drift into living together than it is to drift into a marriage. But once a couple is living together, it is harder to split up than if they were merely dating. So “many of these men end up married to women they would not have married if they hadn't been living together,” says Mr Stanley, co-author of a paper called “Sliding versus deciding”.

What never ceases to surprise me about Conservative Social Science is the assumption that the man, unfettered by social constraints like marriage, is a dawg. In fact, I want to go on a limb and say that conservatives tend to be far more sexist than us feministas. They assume that by nature men reason "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free"? I am not sure why men don't get more angry at the conservative think tanks that seem to influence the media so much these days and thereby create a popular view that men are essentially assholes unless they turn their lives over to God and commit to marriage.

Your thoughts on Marriage and Poverty?