Put a ring on it.

Throughout American history, unmarried women have gotten the short-end of the stick. “Spinsters,” “old maids,” and both widows and “grass widows”[1] had to depend on the sympathy and support of their extended families. All the while they had to endure their socially-deprecated dependent status with more or less good grace.[2]

Not all accepted this situation. There was no useful metaphor to explain their attitude before the invention of the bicycle.[3] Nevertheless, Louisa May Alcott claimed that “liberty is a better husband than love to many of us” (1868) and Susan B. Anthony gleefully foresaw a future “epoch of single women.”

Now a majority of American women are either pre-married or post-married: single, divorced, or widowed. Many of them are likely to stay that way. (Certainly if I have anything to say about it.) As such, they are a potential “interest group” of enormous political power. While people are fitfully in a dither about the “nanny state,” the next thing may well be a “hubby state.”[4] Single women may campaign for government provision of all those benefits that once came with marriage: emancipation from parental control, higher income, the time to nurture children or go on vacation without sacrificing a career, subsidized housing, window treatments, older-model cars, and the advantage conferred on married people by the federal tax code.

Through this monumental electoral bloc, however, run many fissures. Those fissures trace the lines of age,[5] attitudes toward parenthood, attitudes toward the desirability of marriage, attitudes toward sex, level of education, race, and social class.

For example, compare the average length of life for women in the top ten percent of incomes and women in the bottom ten percent. Women born in 1920 had a 4.7 year difference. Women born in 1950 had a 13 year difference.[6] Most likely the difference results from behavior. Upper income people are less likely to smoke; less likely to eat an unhealthy diet; and more likely to exercise.

For example, in 2013, 50.4 percent of all women aged 15 to 64 were unmarried.[7] Under this umbrella, however, there were clear differences. African-American women were much more likely (71.4 percent) to be unmarried than were Hispanic women (53.8 percent) or Caucasian women (48.8 percent). The differences reflect different life chances and experiences. For some, at least, “independence” is a polite euphemism for the lack of good choices.

Finally, “independence” may be a transitory function of the ideology accompanying women’s empowerment. It has been argued that the hope of “having it all” has led women to have unrealistic expectations of men.[8] Men, long experienced with life’s supposed options, learned to “settle.” Now it’s women’s turn. This doesn’t apply to my own marriage. Just lucky.

[1] A grass widow was a woman whose husband had bolted for parts unknown. In the age before divorce, this led to distant bigamy (on the man’s part) and a different form of marital captivity (on the woman’s part).

[2] Generally, Jane Austen’s characters found the means to escape this woeful fate.

[3] Worse still, Susan B. Anthony labeled the bicycle “the freedom machine.” So, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a ‘freedom machine’”?

[4] Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

[5] Witness the recent furor aroused by the imperious injunctions from Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem to young women to support the almost equally-aged Hillary Clinton.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 26 February 2016.

[7] http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/cps2013A.html

[8] Lori Gottlieb, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough (2011).

Long Term Trends 2.

Back in 1960, 72.2 percent of households included married couples; in 2012, 50.5 percent of households included married couples.[1] Actually, these stark-appearing numbers get a little blurry the nearer that you approach.[2] For one thing, divorce is partly responsible for the increasing number of households without a married couple. For another, there were 450,000 unmarried couples living together in 1960; there were 7.5 million in 2011. So, there are many marriages-in-all-but-name.

There appears to be some kind of reciprocal relationship between marriage and prosperity. Married people are better off financially, while people with early financial problems have trouble getting or staying married. Sharing living space and living costs allows couples to save a much higher share of their combined incomes than is possible for unmarried people. Couples often buy a house (a great investment) and save money for the education of their children. These savings compound over time.

We’re still left with a “chicken or egg” problem. Do serious people get married while frivolous people stay unmarried OR does getting married turn any bone-head into a solid citizen while economic barriers exclude willing candidates?

From one perspective, people are more or less consciously deciding to take a pass on a good thing. By one calculation, if the same share of families were married today as in 1980, “the growth in median incomes of families with children would be 44 percent higher.” In 1960 both the college educated and those with some college or less were about equally likely to marry. In 2011, 64 percent of college-educated Americans were married, while 48 percent with some college or less education were not married. Economists (other than Paul Krugman) have been explaining some of the growth in income-inequality by higher returns to more education. Thus, the decline in the marriage rate since 1970 might be taken as one of the many factors that explain the growth of income inequality.

From another perspective, however, economic difficulties for the less educated dissuade them from marriage. The decline of the old industrial base reduced the earning power of many men. At the same time, women’s liberation allowed many women to enter the labor force, often by means of a college education. As a result, marriage became less of a worthwhile investment for many women. Between 1970 and 2011 the chance that a woman in the bottom 65 percent of income earners would marry dropped by 20 percent.

So much for the fate of married couples. What about their children?[3] In 2013, 40 percent of babies were born outside of marriage. In 2014, 27 percent of children lived in fatherless homes. In one estimate, as of 2009, 35 percent of non-Hispanic white children and 41 percent of all children did not live with married parents.

If the unmarried and no-longer-married have less in the way of economic resources than do the married, then they will be less well-positioned to help their children succeed in many ways. They have less for band camp and football camp and ballet classes. They have less for books in the home and travel. They have less for college tuition assistance. They have less time and resources to shield their children from the negative effects of the culture or—in some cases—from the pull of the streets.

Is it possible for any government program or agency to substitute for a family?

[1] Andrew Yarrow, “Falling Marriage Rates Reveal Economic Fault Lines,” NYT, 8 February 2015.

[2] Kind of like a Chuck Close painting.

[3] Nicholas Eberstadt, “The Global Flight From the Family,” WSJ, 21-22 February 2015.