The Marriage Encouragement Act of 2017.

Back in the 1960s, the rough-around-the-edges, but “Harvard-trained” Daniel Moynihan argued that single-parenthood condemned an increasingly large share of the African-American community to poverty.[1]  Subsequently, Moynihan was tarred with the brush of working for Richard Nixon.  Still, the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations all encouraged marriage.

Decades of social science research has shown that Moynihan was right to have worried.  Single-parent households are worse for children than are two-parent households.  Children raised in single-parent households are poorer than children in two-parent households; they more likely to engage in “risky” behavior; they are more likely to have “contact” with the police and the criminal justice system; and they are more likely to drop out of school before getting even a worthless diploma.  That in itself is an employment  death sentence.

So, should the government encourage poor people to get married?  My God, NO!  You’ll just get lots of kids born into poverty!  Oh, wait, we already have lots of kids born into poverty by “unwed”[2] mothers.  Currently, about 40 percent of mothers are unmarried and 20 percent of white children, 25 percent of Hispanic children, and 50 percent of African-American children live in a household headed by a single woman.

Eduardo Porter argues that efforts to promote marriage are a “waste of resources and time.”  In comparison with married couples, parents who have children outside of “holy deadlock” tend to have less education, worse-paying jobs, and more mental health problems.  Very often they guys are losers by any standard.  So, says Porter, these people “would have a tough time raising children in a healthy environment even if they stayed together.”

Beyond this, Porter has two points to make.  First, women get pregnant because they don’t understand that sex leads to pregnancy,[3] and because they don’t have access to contraceptives.  Second, trying to turn back the clock to some golden age makes less sense than trying to off-set the ill-effects of single-parenthood as it exists.

In a refreshing confession of the failures of typical liberal reforms, Porter frankly admits that “government has no clue how to” encourage couples to get married.  Still, he doesn’t shrink social engineering.  If women had easy access to “long term” contraception[4]; if unmarried co-habitation was socially acceptable; if the State paid more generous benefits to mothers, then s ingle-parenthood would be less catastrophic for the kids.

Some of this is puzzling.  First, Porter argues that fathers are often losers, but then argues that globalization and technological change have wiped out many blue-collar jobs that enabled these men to support families.  So, once upon a time these same men or men like then were functional fathers?  Second, he implies that being an unwed mother carries a social stigma in America.  Really?  Then why has the rate risen?  Third, Porter argues that women may not marry the fathers of their children because the men cannot provide for their families.  Or do they not marry because the State can provide better than can the men?

[1] Eduardo Porter, “Push Marriage?  Not for the Sake Of the Children,” NYT, 23 March 2016.

[2] “Unwed” mothers and “undocumented” immigrants.  Soon we’ll be referring to Donald Trump as “untactful.”

[3] Implicit in this argument is that 20-25 percent of white and Hispanic women don’t understand that sex can lead to pregnancy and that 50 percent of black women don’t understand that sex can lead to pregnancy.  Normally, this would result in a charge of racism.  However, Porter writes for the NYT, so—by definition—he isn’t saying anything racist.

[4] The rate of unmarried mothers has been rising, so at some point in the past unmarried birth rates were much lower.  Does this mean that one generation of mothers and fathers forgot to tell their own children that sex can lead to pregnancy?  Or did condoms just fall out of fashion?  Probably should look at STD rates.

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.


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