What Will Replace Marriage Now That It’s Dead?

How can we shape the evolution of families so that they best serve the next generation?

Over the weekend, an article in the Washington Post confirmed what many of us have known for a very long time: that marriage is either dead or in critical condition with little hope of long-term survival.

At the very least, marriage is no longer able to perform what some social scientists see as its most essential function: keeping children out of poverty and all the negative things that accompany it.

One of marriage’s strongest proponents for several decades has been economist Isabel Sawhill. Although she is a liberal by most political and social measures, she has long been one of marriage’s biggest proponents. According to her, the data is clear that children born into a family comprised of married parents do far better than any other family arrangement.

In Generation Unbound, a book released this past fall, Sawhill acknowledges that programs designed to entice people to get married and to stay that way while raising children are not working. For the vast majority of Americans, marriage is “dead.” The decline of marriage is not in dispute according to all of the social science experts interviewed by the Post. Of course, they also quoted defenders of patriarchal marriage who believe that we should remedy the problem of childhood poverty with yet more marriage incentive programs.

Sawhill’s book asks: What will replace marriage as a stable relationship in which to raise children? She suggests that we may want to look at time-limited marriages where the expectation of “happily ever after” is replaced by “five years with the option of renewal.”

I am delighted to see social scientists such as Sawhill acknowledge the reality that marriage is not for everyone and that it certainly is not designed to withstand the rigors of parenting in poverty. However, I think it is important to note that her approach and conclusions are problematic.

On a philosophical level, I think it should bother all of us that we are using economists and economic models to determine what family considerations are optimal. We are agreeing with the assumption that social problems, such as child poverty, should be solved on the level of individuals and families.

Perhaps most troubling, we are all still acting on the flawed assumption that the primary purpose of marriage is childrearing. Obviously, it is not. So when Sawhill makes the sensible suggestion that we should be looking ahead at what will replace marriage, she is not asking what relationships will work best for the people involved. Instead, she is asking us to figure out a family structure that keeps children out of poverty and gives them the best chances in life.

Instead of placing such a high premium on marriage, Sawhill suggests that we create “an ethic of responsible parenthood” in our society. To do that effectively, she argues, we have to decouple sex and reproduction. For that to work, she suggests that everyone should receive routine reversible sterilization procedures so that parenting would be a deliberate decision by all parties, not an accident.

Believe me, I am a huge fan of decoupling sex and reproduction. But once again, we have fallen into the trap of blaming a large social problem, such as childhood poverty, on what women do with their bodies.

The solution to income inequality and childhood poverty cannot be mandatory birth control. Doesn’t every third dystopian novel start with the government forbidding poor people from reproducing?

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to childrearing. The first is one in which parents are the only people to have responsibility and rights when it comes to children. The second is called village-building, so named because it is based on the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child.”

It should come as no surprise to any of my regular readers that I am a big proponent of village-building. But I will be the first to admit that, like marriage, village building is also failing our children. And I agree with Sawhill that we have to begin looking forward to what comes next. How can we shape the evolution of families so that they best serve the next generation?

Here is the problem as I see it. We have been so busy incentivizing marriage, that we have failed to provide even the most rudimentary support and incentives to village building. We have endowed biological parents with all of the rights and responsibilities of childrearing, but we have given nothing to “the village.”

When I talk about “the village” I am not talking about the government. I am talking about families of choice.

We need to be able to spread the responsibilities and the joys of child rearing over as many people as are willing to share in them. I am not entirely sure how we can do this, but here are a few ideas: What if family members (both biological and families of choice) received tax credits when they subsidize raising a child they cared about? What if we incentivized family-provided child care?

This calls for a radically new view of families. As much as I hate using economic terms, we may be best served by thinking of a family (and by that I mean a social unit dedicated to raising children) as types of businesses that exist for the rearing of healthy and well-adjusted children. Right now, families are either sole proprietorships or, in the best case, limited liability partnerships.

If we made the standard family formation something more akin to a corporation, would children fare better? What if people were free to form the kind of child-raising organization that would best suit the needs of their children. Imagine if people were able to freely accept partial legal responsibility for children with all of the accompanying rights and responsibilities. Would you be willing to sign on as a junior or associate member of a parenting firm?

I am not suggesting that this would be anything other than messy and difficult. Then again, so is marriage.

Traditional marriage is dying, and nobody knows what will replace marriage. But as long as we are starting from scratch here, doesn’t it behoove us to put all options on the table?

And here is where we start: We give village building a fair shot. We put the same ingenuity and resources into building families of choice as we have put into propping up traditional marriages.

Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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