My latest column in the Guardian is about the latest move from a group of conservatives to call a truce on gay marriage and get back to blaming single moms and poor people for destroying marriage itself. They say that poor and middle-class people aren’t getting married, and that’s hurting them financially and socially, keeping them poor. I say that working-class and middle-class people are marrying less often precisely because of economic insecurity: Outdated views of men as breadwinners mean that men who aren’t making enough to support a family may be less enthusiastic about marriage; increases in gender equality mean that working women no longer need to get married for social status and may not want to take on a husband who doesn’t pull his own weight inside the home and out; and with divorce being financially ruinous for women in particular, it’s probably a good idea to avoid marriage if you aren’t reasonably sure you’re hitching yourself to a good horse. If conservatives actually care about the things they say are the purpose of marriage — a good environment for children, family stability, accumulation of personal wealth — then they should support policies that directly promote those things instead of claiming marriage is the one and only solution, because it’s clearly not. A taste:
The conservative argument for marriage has it exactly wrong. Marriage isn’t a ticket to wealth or stability or education. Rather, it’s wealth, stability, and education that make marriage a more reasonable possibility, and help sustain marriages for the long haul.
Income inequality in the US is extreme: the wealthiest 1% of Americans doubled their income share over the past 30 years, while 80% of Americans saw their share fall. A marriage can be economically beneficial insofar as its partners share expenses, like a mortgage, rent, and health insurance – but that’s only the case if there are two incomes, and a partner with a stable income isn’t a given in our current economy. Financial instability means a higher likelihood of divorce, which can be financially ruinous to women in particular.
Marriage confers tangible benefits to men, and far fewer to women. Married men spend significantly fewer hours on housework and childcare, particularly if their wives stay home, but even if they’re married to working women.
In addition to that free labor, married men with children get paid more, simply for being that. They’re offered higher starting salaries than single women or mothers, are more often excused for missing work, and are perceived as more committed and competent. Women, and mothers in particular, aren’t just penalized by the pay gap, but receive fewer promotions and are perceived as less competent.
In other words, a heterosexual marriage helps a man’s career thrive. For women, it means more work and less pay, or the financially tenuous position of staying home full-time and hoping your marriage (and only source of income) lasts.
Women today expect more egalitarian relationships than they did a generation ago; and while men are more pro-feminist than ever before, plenty haven’t caught up. (My advice to women is “Don’t marry a man who doesn’t pull his own weight.”) For the many women married to sexist men, a little money can ease the disputes: hiring a nanny or a housekeeper, for example, doesn’t just mean a clean house, it lets the couple gloss over the assignation of women to the domestic sphere. It helps them believe the relationship is relatively equal.
The nanny or the housekeeper doesn’t usually have that option, and may simply prefer independence to marriage with someone she needs to clean up after. Outdated notions of masculinity (like the man as breadwinner) also prevent many working-class men from seeing themselves as marriage material.
For women for whom college isn’t a possibility or was never on their radar – a reality for many Americans – there isn’t the same incentive to wait until they’re 30 to get married and have children. Years in a low-income job won’t make life more stable, and might lead to only a marginally higher income. Marrying a partner with worse prospects will cause greater instability, if not ruin. But having a baby, even while young and single, can bring social status, love, and attention – not to mention temporary help with things like health insurance and housing.
If you’re highly-educated, financially stable, and marrying later in life, your marriage likely has few roadblocks. If you’re not – if you’re part of the demographic that many conservatives say has “fled” marriage – staying single may actually be the rational choice.
The problem, then, isn’t that many Americans aren’t getting married. It’s that too many Americans are constrained by outdated gender roles and financial insecurity.
This stuff is fairly complicated, and even though the Guardian column is pretty long, I still didn’t manage to flesh out everything. Curious to hear your thoughts.
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