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How Marriage Benefits the Poor

December 8, 2010

As I noted in the previous post, Red America’s embrace of unbridled capitalism tends to undercut its marriage ideal. Having perused the National Marriage Project (NMP) study cited by Ross Douthat, I should add that Blue America’s embrace of the “soul mate” model of marriage — defined by the NMP as “primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses” — tends to undercut its goal of reducing economic inequality. Both Americas are, in other words, ideologically incoherent.

The “soul mate” model of marriage, NMP explains, has tended to serve the interests of the affluent, at the expense of middle class and poor Americans:

One problem with this newer model—which sets a high financial and emotional bar for marriage—is that many poor and Middle American couples now believe that they do not have the requisite emotional and economic resources to get or stay married. By contrast, poor and Middle Americans of a generation or two ago would have identified with the institutional model of marriage and been markedly more likely to get and stay married, even if they did not have much money or a consistently good relationship. They made do.[13]

But their children and grandchildren are much less likely to accept less-than-ideal relationships. And because infidelity, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancies are more common in Middle America than they are in upscale America, Middle Americans are less likely than their better-educated peers to experience high-quality soul-mate relationships and are, hence, less likely to get and stay married. Their standards for marriage have increased, but their ability to achieve those standards has not.

Not getting and staying married, as it turns out, perpetuates the cycle of poverty. The NMP explains (see the “The Surprising Economic Benefits of Marriage” section of “The Social Indicators of Marital Health and Well-Being”):

One might think that the explanation for why marriage generates economic assets is because those people who are more likely to be wealth creators are also more likely to marry and stay married. This is certainly true, but it is only part of the story. The institution of marriage itself provides a wealth-generation bonus. It does this through providing economies of scale (two can live more cheaply than one). And as it implies a long-term personal contract, it encourages economic specialization: working as a couple, individuals can develop those skills in which they excel, leaving others to their partner.

Also, married couples save and invest more for the future, and they can act as a small insurance pool against life uncertainties such as illness and job loss.[B] Probably because of marital social norms that encourage healthy, productive behavior, men tend to become more economically productive after marriage. They earn between 10 and 20 percent more than do single men with similar education and job histories.[C] All of these benefits are independent of the fact that married couples receive more work-related and government-provided support, and also more help and support from their extended families (two sets of in-laws) and friends.[D]

Even if we acknowledge the benefits of marriage to poor and middle class Americans, the question remains: what is the best way to promote it? Proponents of traditional marriage like to debate gay marriage, but this seems to me a red herring — though poor gay couples would surely benefit as much as the rest of us from the stability marriage provides. Rather, a serious pro-marriage agenda would need to tackle no-fault divorce laws and the tax code. (Ross Douthat has made a number of useful suggestions regarding the latter in his book “Grand New Party.”) At the same time, it would be a mistake to focus on legal aspects, to the exclusion of cultural aspects of marriage. In a consumerist culture, marriage naturally takes the form of one subjective, lifestyle preference among many. To change that, we’d have to do something about consumerism, which in turn would mean doing something about capitalism. Which brings this discussion full circle.

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