Can We Stop Worrying About If And When People Get Married In This Country?

Marriage is not a cure-all for our social ills. So why do we obsess over it so much?

Is there a marriage “crisis” in this country? 

As we wait for the Supreme Court to debate the future of single-sex marriage, it’s hard to miss the headlines speculating how much the institution of marriage is changing with every passing year.

One of the country’s chief “worriers” about how traditional matrimony’s potential decline will affect our society is the New York Times editorial page writer and blog writer, Ross Douthat. He frets nearly every week about the social consequences of demographic changes. He worries that gay marriage will hurt the institution of marriage and, thus, social stability. He worries that teen pregnancy and Planned Parenthood will hurt marriage. He worries that declining fertility rates and abortion will hurt marriage. Really, if you read his columns, you may be wondering how something as seemingly so fragile and precarious as marriage could have ever survived in the first place. And from his columns, you might also think that marriage is the only thing holding our country from mayhem and destruction.

What’s Douthat’s newest source of concern? Those of us who dragged our feet heading to the altar, waiting until our 30s—yes, practically ancient—before marrying for the first time. 

And why are “older” couples such a threat to the cultural order? Well, it turns out they aren’t. At least, not all of us. And his conclusions about these demographic shifts remind me that Douthat is not alone. Other social conservatives and moderates—and even many who are not—are confusing what we really should be worried about. We do have a serious problem in this country, one that has painful consequences for the future of employment, children’s development, health, and family stability, but it’s not primarily about marriage, or about when women marry, or how many children they have. Like many other social problems that we confront today, the issue is really one of social class and increasing inequality.

Douthat points to a few facts about marriage and family life from a report called “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage.”

  • 48% of all first children born in this country are now born outside of marriage.
  • The average age of first marriage is higher than it’s ever been, 27 for women, 29 for men.
  • Delaying marriage has elevated the status of women—elevating their annual salary by $18,000 if college-educated women wait until after 30 to have a first child—while doing nothing to help men. In fact, men’s economic prospects are helped by marrying earlier.

There are a lot of other fascinating facts about family life in this report and Douthat’s column, enough statistics to keep a sociologist busy for years by forming hypotheses about the correlations between various indicators and outcomes. 

But what these “facts” all boil down to is one simple reality that is masked by these population averages: more and more the realities of our lives—how much and where we are educated, how much money we make, how stable our families are, the age that we have our children—are determined by our socioeconomic status, or social class, in this country. (The New York Times also had a depressing article this weekend about life expectancy differences that pointed out that even the health of our babies is—more than in other industrialized countries—a function of the income level of the babies’ parents.)

The simple fact is that if you are a college-educated young person (particularly one whose parents were also college-educated), you are probably going to marry later, have fewer children, stay married, and be more financially stable than if you were born in different circumstances. 

Douthat himself acknowledges that while “the new romantic landscape doesn’t offer automatic benefits to the upper class and automatic costs to everyone else, it does create a situation where the people who need the least help figuring out the wisest life course have multiple clear paths to take, and the people who would most benefit from a simple map to responsible adulthood can easily end up in a maze instead.”

True, but I’m tired of all the hand wringing over people’s choices in their personal lives. To me, it’s clear that as a society we would be much better off if we focused less attention on who is getting married and having children and the timing of these life decisions, and more attention on providing structural supports for the individuals who are increasingly left behind in our economy, whether, married, unmarried, or divorced. 

It seems like marriage serves as a distraction—a tempting media story from the real missing support system that our country lacks. (That, of course, does not take away from the personal meaning that individuals find in marriage, or the real economic privileges that, for instance, same-sex couples are fighting for.) Wouldn’t it be better to examine more closely why a premature infant’s mother didn’t have adequate prenatal care and health insurance rather than obsessing over why she hasn’t married her live-in boyfriend? Or wouldn’t it be better to create more job training programs to prepare unemployed men for a 21st century economy rather than worrying about whether single-sex couples can marry their partners? Or make sure that our schools are addressing the destructive high school dropout rate in urban American rather than encouraging pregnant teens to get married? 

Marriage—despite what social conservatives proclaim—is not a cure-all for our social ills. It may not be right for everyone, and it’s ironic to me that many of the same people who are lamenting its decline are also the ones against giving those same rights to all committed couples.

If our educational system and cycles of inequality stay the same, it will not matter much how early or how late in their lives—whether gay or straight—many struggling Americans get married. Other countries have figured this out far better than we have. They make sure that every person, even the most vulnerable, have health care security and a strong educational foundation (including higher education). In today’s world, marriage does not take the place of a strong social safety net, and it never will (if it ever did) again.

Jessica Smock is a doctoral candidate in educational policy who will be defending her dissertation this spring. When she is not reading educational policy and blogging at School of Smock about parenting, she is collecting stories of female friendship with her pal, Stephanie.

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