Economic and Social Causes of the Marriage Divide

Ross Douthat has a long and interesting proposal about why poorer people are less likely to get into an economically (as well as personally) enhancing stable long-term marriage.  You should read the whole thing, but here’s a summary:

Douthat summarizes liberal arguments that you can’t just promote marriage as a poverty cure because “just get married” isn’t practical advice.  Indeed, the liberal argument (that he is responding to) is basically that assortative mating has skimmed the pool of eligible people of good prospects, and thus further divides the society: rich, productive, stable people get married to other rich, productive, stable people, and their household gets richer because they’re combining incomes and sharing expenses, and supporting each other and being happier, etc.  Meanwhile, poor people can’t find such mates, and end up as single parents, poorer for it, and their children poorer than they, or their mates bring baggage that impoverishes them.

Douthat agrees that this happens, but feels that it doesn’t have that much explanatory power.  He points out that if income growth for the bottom four quintiles (especially among men) has been anemic, it certainly hasn’t declined, that there has been a growth of safety net systems, and that a minority of rich people can’t be skimming that many people out of the entire pool.  Unless you believe that people are kind of universally useless in the bottom four quartiles due to genetics or economic fate, there must be a lot of pretty good (if not rich) prospects for people in the bottom four quintile, or indeed the bottom first quintile.

So far, so good.  Douthat proposes an alternate theory that the social liberalism beloved of (he claims) the entire upper class is to blame.  He argues that the upper class is united politically in social liberalism, pointing out that it is the common belief of “Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side.”  He says that this social liberalism suggests libertinism and basically things that lead to single parenthood and divorce.  He then says that the upper class has an embedded cultural value that says, “Don’t take this too seriously.  Actually, get married and be personally conservative.”  The lower classes lack the subversive conservative message, just get the anti-marriage message, and so are trapped in the non-advantageous life script.

Okay, so that’s more or less the argument.  Do read Douthat, he puts it at considerably more length than I, and does so in an engaging way.

I find Douthat’s critique of the purely economic version of the argument more convincing than his affirmative vision.  It does seem that while pure economic assortative mating must be a part of of the situation, it can’t explain the entirety of the divide.

As to Douthat’s subversive-conservative-upper-class culture script… he puts it persuasively, and I could see a dynamic like that functioning in some kind of society.  I just don’t think it’s what’s happening to us.

I’m a card-carrying member of the privileged elite.  I’m white, male, my parents are quite wealthy, I went to a fairly elite high school and a very elite college, and I have a high-paying job and reasonable prospects of becoming yet more wealthy.  This has overwhelmingly been the circle I’ve lived in throughout my life.  And the thing is, I don’t really see this counter-script playing out among myself and my peers.

In contrast, in my high school and (more so) college, I did see lots of casual sex.  I did see lots of drug use.  My peers have had plenty of divorces, and many of them are from divorced parents.  Many of them did blow off much of a prospect of a long term relationship through much or all of their twenties.  And yet, most of them have now settled down into that assortatively-mated married life that such an early life-script is supposed to prevent.  Certainly, many or most of them, during their “wild phase,” probably would have said that they looked forward to eventually settling down and getting married.  But, as Douthat acknowledges, the poor understand this as well.  In his view, the poor see the dream of monogamous stability, they just lack the script to get from here to there.

But if there was some kind of script that my peers had, it sure wasn’t evident at the time.  You could say it was always there, underlying their superficially wild actions, but that seems like a just-so story to me.  You’re just backward projecting that they eventually got married and settled down into “there must have been a conservative script.”

The one thing I will say is that my peers seemed fanatically devoted to not having a child until they were settled.  When I dealt with friends from less privileged backgrounds, one thing that I did note is the lack of the same utter conviction that sex must come with birth control, and that did seem alien to me.  Here, I’ll believe an upper class vs. lower class script.

But I don’t really think that, aside from that, my generation of upper-class people were meaningfully less wild than their lower-class peers.  I don’t think that we held images of media hedonism at any greater arms’ length than would have anyone else.

So what is the explanation here?  I don’t know.  To some degree, I think that an answer is that people with rich families have a much more comprehensive safety net, allowing them to recover from missteps they make in their wild youth.  I think that the birth control situation helped.  I do think that economic assortative mating is a factor.  But it seems like there’s something else here that nobody has yet pinned down.


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