The Phantom Marriage Cure

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 21 2014 11:39 AM

The Phantom Marriage Cure

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Mmm ... cake.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

I really appreciate the dogged efforts of W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project this week to keep up the dialogue with me on the subject of marriage promotion. Unfortunately for his cause, I'm not sure he's really persuading me. On the other hand, it seems to me there's broad range for marriage-people and regular-people to find agreement on particular policy ideas.

For example, when I challenged Wilcox to offer me examples of actually workable marriage promotion initiatives he sent me a link to this evaluation of Career Academies as a high school model. This is basically an effort to establish a meaningful noncollege track for people who aren't great at school but who also don't want an entire bleak future of dead-end jobs. The idea, quite sensibly, is that you need to connect teenagers in this situation with specific workplace needs and get them on track to mid-skill trades and crafts with more autonomy and earning potential than the local Pizza Hut.

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And great news!

The Career Academies produced an increase in the percentage of young people living independently with children and a spouse or partner. Young men also experienced positive impacts on marriage and being custodial parents.

So—Career Academies promote marriage and family stability. But actually I'd touted Career Academies once or twice in my writing before without knowing anything about the specific marriage angle. That's because making high school work for everyone is broadly important.

And indeed:

The Career Academies produced sustained earnings gains that averaged 11 percent (or $2,088) more per year for Academy group members than for individuals in the non-Academy group—a $16,704 boost in total earnings over the eight years of follow-up (in 2006 dollars).
These labor market impacts were concentrated among young men, a group that has experienced a severe decline in real earnings in recent years. Through a combination of increased wages, hours worked, and employment stability, real earnings for young men in the Academy group increased by $3,731 (17 percent) per year—or nearly $30,000 over eight years.

So I think that this is where the standoff comes from. Marriage enthusiasts are enthusiastic about marriage because not only is it great to fall in love and get married, but the initiatives that help promote marriage seem so obviously broadly beneficial that it's perverse to see liberals throwing cold water on them. Marriage skeptics look at this through the other lens of the telescope. The things that seem to promote marriage are things that are broadly beneficial—basically programs that promote job opportunity and earnings potential for working class people (and especially men). So the suspicion is that when people say "marriage" what they mean is "tax cuts for the rich and meaningless pabulum for the poor." The Career Academies issue is really just an old-fashioned question of what is or isn't a scalable means of improving the quality of high-school education in the United States, not anything to do with marriage.

On the other hand rather than being skeptical about this rhetoric, a more productive posture might be for liberals to see the family stability angle as a way of getting social conservatives more invested in helping poor people. The suite of things most likely to make for more stable working class families are basically better demand management, better schools, more wage subsidies, better transportation connections to jobs, and overall the kind of stuff that makes things better.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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