Thursday, March 27, 2014

Marriage Inequality

Marriage inequality is much in the news today and our social commentators have a lot to say about it. Unfortunately, the kind of inequality they're most concerned about is not the inequality they should be concerned about.

While our culture agonizes over whether the tiny percentage of Americans that comprises the set of homosexual couples who desire to wed will be able to fulfill their dreams, it almost completely ignores the really insidious marriage inequality that is having a devastating effect on our social and economic well-being.

The inequality that matters, that threatens the very fabric of our society, is the inequality in marriage between the upper and lower classes in America.

R.R.Reno at First Things explains:
The children of wealthy people go to good schools, get good jobs, and get and stay married. Meanwhile, the rest struggle to get together, and if they do marry often end up divorced.

Charles Murray’s report on white America in Coming Apart gives us some of the vital statistics. In 1960, among top earners—the uppermost 20 percent—more than 90 percent of prime age white adults (30-49 years old) were married. Hardly any of them were divorced. The lives of the poor white population of America—the bottom 30 percent measured by income—wasn’t all that different. More than 80 percent of them were married, and although the number of divorced adults that age was a bit higher than among the well to do, it was only around 5 percent.

This relative equality is now long gone. Beginning in the 1970s, the top and bottom began to diverge. There’s been a downward drift in marriage among the rich, but not by much. Today 85 percent of prime age economic winners are married, a surprisingly modest decline given all the media attention to single professional women. Meanwhile, marriage has collapsed among the white poor. In 2010 less that 50 percent of prime aged poor whites were married. That’s partly because fewer get married, and partly because divorce rates skyrocketed—again, for them, but not for the rich.

Social scientists agree that family stability is a key factor—the key factor—for healthy, happy, successful lives. So our growing marriage inequality contributes to and reinforces the gap between winners and losers in America. Divorced and single people have more health problems. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Their self-reported happiness among unmarried adults is lower than for those in stable marriages. Moreover, marriage inequality means that poor kids are overwhelmingly more likely to grow up without a mother and father than rich kids, which as we know from social scientific studies foretells worst life outcomes for them.
This is not a problem that just affects "other people." The costs to taxpayers to subsidize chronic poverty and the sundry dysfunctions that arise from the fatherlessness that results from the disintegration of family are enormous. Fatherless boys are much less likely to do well in school and much more likely to wind up in prison than those with fathers. Fatherless girls are more likely to wind up raising their own children without fathers and thus more likely to be poor.

Moreover, children raised in stable, two-parent families often benefit not only from having the combined incomes of both parents but also from having two sets of grandparents. This support structure affords these children enormous financial advantages that children of single parents simply don't have.

If politicians and activists really feel strongly about the problem of marriage inequality in this country, that's the inequality they should take on. I suspect, though, that this kind of inequality is not a major concern to them. People who see the traditional family as an "oppressive" social institution, as do many of those who are most vocal about the injustice of marriage inequality, aren't going to be eager to strengthen it.