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Blessings of having a spouse in the house

  • October 20, 2023

Some years ago Brad Wilcox, the University of Virginia sociologist, gave a conference presentation  about how mothers differ from fathers. The feedback forms revealed a portion of the audience thought the presentation was so self-evident as to be unnecessary. On the other side, a significant number were offended by the concept of sex differences in parenting. 

Such is the way these days. No truism can simply be true, no norm sacrosanct. So it will surprise no one to learn that the recent book The Two-Parent Privilege: How the decline in marriage has increased inequality and lowered social mobility, and what we can do about it is making waves. 

Melissa Kearney is the author and an MIT-trained economist at the University of Maryland. She explains how as fewer American children grow up with two parents, their chances for success diminish. They are less likely to go to college. They are less likely to have financial security. It used to be that becoming a lone parent resulted from divorce. Today more people never get married in the first place. 

While applause for her work ensued in expected places, critics didn’t wait long either. Take commentator Matt Bruenig, who calls her book a rehashing of “the same dumb sh*t with the same dumb analytical mistakes.” Rebecca Traister puts forward the view that marriage prior to the introduction of no-fault divorce was actually weaker than it is today. 

Both critics believe too many voices are pushing marriage Writes Traister: “It’s not just the think-tank-economist-columnist class prescribing the marriage cure. It’s also hard-right commentators and politicians pushing policies aimed to re-center (hetero) marriage as the organizing- principle of American family life by reversing the progress — from legal abortion to affirmative action to no-fault divorce — that has enabled women to have economic and social stability independent of marriage.” 

Here’s the thing: it’s fairly clear Team Marriage is not actually winning in practical ways. This may be why voices keep rising up, and books keep being written. It interests me why is there such heady opposition to ideas that appear as self-evidently true. 

There are those who say improved outcomes correlated with marriage are not the result of marriage per se, but rather the result of a pre-existing condition of success and stability. Yes, there is evidence that successful people choose marriage and prior success causes more success. But there is also research that a stable marriage propels people into a better life. 

Others support marriage in theory but oppose practical efforts to raise marriage’s profile. There have been government efforts south of the border to help marriage. They weren’t terribly effective. Often, both those who think marriage doesn’t confer benefits, and those who think it does, prefer simple income transfers to lone parents over any attempts, cultural, economic or otherwise, to bolster marriage. 

Still others oppose marriage because they view it as a patriarchal, anti-woman institution. They point to women trapped in bad marriages prior to the advent of no-fault divorce. I’d point to the commensurate and bigger problem we have today of both men and women leaving good marriages because it doesn’t suit them anymore.

Much of the opposition to seeing marriage as a social good lacks compassion. It’s common knowledge lone parents are more likely to be lower income. For those who aim to avoid every thorny social issue, simply transferring cash may be a fine solution. But the problems solo parents face are about more than money. Whenever my husband saves my sanity by spelling me off in a frustrated moment is when I think of single parents. No one is concerned about your child in bad times or cheers in good as your spouse. 

We need good research to support common sense. We need people of goodwill to poke holes in that research, to make it stronger. I just wish ideological assumptions about marriage didn’t cloud opponents into the oddly robotic position that somehow one person, given enough money, can capably achieve everything two people who stick together over a lifetime do. 

(Mrozek is Senior Fellow with Cardus Family.)

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