Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Economic Insecurity and the Declining Institution of Marriage

Conservatives commonly blame liberals for the decline in what they refer to as "traditional family values." But Harold Meyerson turns that accusation on it's head in his op-ed in today's Washington Post:
The conservatives are right that one decade, at least in its metaphoric significance, can encapsulate the causes for the family's decline. But they've misidentified the decade. It's not the permissive '60s. It's the Reagan '80s.

In Saturday's Post, reporter Blaine Harden took a hard look at the erosion of what we have long taken to be the model American family -- married couples with children -- and discovered that while this decline hasn't really afflicted college-educated professionals, it is the curse of the working class.

To be sure, the '60s, with its assaults on traditional authority, played some role in weakening the traditional family.

But its message was sounded loudest and clearest on elite college campuses, whose graduates were nonetheless the group most likely to have stable marriages. Then again, they were also the group most likely to have stable careers.

They enjoyed financial stability; they could plan for the future.

Such was not the case for working-class Americans. Over the past 35 years, the massive changes in the U.S. economy have largely condemned American workers to lives of economic insecurity.

Yet the very conservatives who marvel at the efficiency of our new, more mobile economy and extol the "flexibility" of our workforce decry the flexibility of the personal lives of American workers.
Here's an excerpt from the article that Meyerson cites to above:
"The poor aren't entering into marriage very much at all," said Smock, who has interviewed more than 100 cohabitating couples. She said young people from these backgrounds often do not think they can afford marriage.

Arguments that marriage can mean stability do not seem to change their attitudes, Smock said, noting that many of them have parents with troubled marriages.

Victoria Miller and Cameron Roach, who have been living together for 18 months, are two such people, and they say they cannot imagine getting married.

"Marriage ruins life," Roach said. "I saw how much my parents fought. I saw how miserable they made each other."

Miller, who was pressured by her Mormon parents to marry when she was 17 and pregnant, said her short, failed marriage and her parents' long, failed marriage have convinced her that the institution is often bad for children.

"With my parents, when their marriage started breaking down, my dad started to have trouble at work and we spent years on government assistance," Miller said.
And this is the major point that Meyerson is making in his column. Economic insecurity only adds to the stresses that married couples already face, and long-term financial woes can ultimately doom a marriage. Men and women who enjoy some measure of security and success however, don't have to worry about things like where money for the kids' daycare is coming from. So now you have a situation in which members of the poor and working classes, those who might benefit the most from the stability and economic boost that marriage provides, are the least likely to get married.

Observing the media and public perception over time, one gets the impression that people are slowly beginning to wake up to the vast changes in the economy that have taken place over the last forty years, and the consequences this is having on families and personal decision making. It seems like everywhere we're seeing more reports on the rise of income inequality, the growing lack of security for those in the lower and middle classes, the toll that a simple lack of health insurance can have on all but the very wealthy, and the effects of regressive taxation. At the same time there's more reporting on the disconnect between the Wall Street pundits who believe the economy is going strong, and people like you and I who have a troubling feeling that something's just not quite right. I seriously doubt that social conservatives are going to read Meyerson's piece and wonder if the economic policies they themselves (or their allies in the conservative movement) advocate are contributing to the decline of the traditional family unit, but I do believe it's possibly that many of them who have personally witnessed or experienced some measure of economic insecurity can be brought on board as far as re-building the social safety net is concerned.

As an aside that may be of interest only to those who like to take note of trends in the law, I mentioned in an earlier post the trend in many states to not recognize common-law (informal) marriages. This is due largely to the fact that state legislatures and courts believe that the case for common-law marriage is less compelling now that it is considerably easier to marry than it was in the past. But if there are increasing numbers of people deliberately avoiding marriage, legal scholars, courts and legislatures will find themselves revisiting that determination.

1 comment:

adam said...

Great article.