For about a half-century now, two-parent families have been vanishing from the United States. And for nearly as long, Americans have been arguing over the reason why. Liberals tend to blame the economy. The disappearance of decently paid factory work decimated working-class communities, they argue, and has made it harder for young couples to settle down into stable, financially secure relationships. Conservatives, meanwhile, prefer to emphasize the role of culture: Our lax, live-and-let-live attitude toward sex and parenting has supposedly convinced young adults that there’s no need to walk down the aisle before having children. It is the sociology debate that never ends.
The latest iteration of it has been playing out thanks to Our Kids, the new book by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, which argues that the American Dream® of equal opportunity for all is in danger due to the growing class divides between college graduates and everyone else. Putnam’s book is only partly about family structure. But it has triggered familiar calls for “moral revival” from writers like David Brooks—he thinks our social norms have been “destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism”—and exasperated responses from the left amounting to it’s the economy, stupid. “Matrimonial aspirations,” writes Elizabeth Bruenig at the New Republic, “are decaying no faster among the poor than the well-off; it’s only the ability to maintain a marriage under the stressors of poverty that seems to put poor families on unsteady ground.”
There are obvious reasons to be skeptical about affluent pundits who jump to blame society’s ills on moral decadence and decay; namely, it’s a convenient excuse not to spend tax dollars fixing the country’s problems. That said, I think more liberals need to get comfortable acknowledging that, even if it doesn’t explain the whole story, culture probably has played a role in the changes that have rocked domestic life for so much of the country.
Putnam makes this point early in Our Kids: Of the values-versus-economics debate, he says simply that, “The most reasonable view is that both are important.” How come? For one, we can look back to the Great Depression as an historical counterpoint to the trends we’ve witnessed in recent decades. With mass unemployment, the marriage rate tumbled during the 1930s, “showing the perennial importance of economic stability in the marriage calculus.” At the same, however, the birth rate also fell, and unwed childbearing remained rare. “In that era, men and women postponed procreation as well as matrimony,” Putnam writes. “ ‘No marriage license, no kids’ was the cultural norm. Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored.”
Sociologist Andrew Cherlin makes a similar case in Labor’s Love Lost, his recent exploration of “the rise and fall of the working class family in America.” It is virtually impossible to disentangle the many social and economic changes that may have led to the rise of single-motherhood, the Johns Hopkins professor argues. The pill, the sexual revolution, and the advent of no-fault divorce were followed shortly by declining manufacturing employment, and no amount of econometric modeling is going to realistically apportion blame to one cause or the other. But historical comparisons suggest it all played a role. The first Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, was another time of economic upheaval and polarization, when old crafts jobs were being displaced by industrialization. And just like today, there was a fairly large gap in marriage rates between working-class and white-collar men. Yet out-of-wedlock childbirth was unusual up and down the class ladder. Likewise, Cherlin notes that the Depression didn’t cause single-parenthood to spike, even as male breadwinners lost their livelihoods and marriage slumped.
The 1970s, and their aftermath, were different. As steady, union-wage jobs along the assembly lines became scarce, traditional family life began to fray among the working class—so that, now, “three-fourths of young mothers who have no bachelor’s degree have had at least one child outside of marriage.” The difference was culture. The country lost its hang-ups about premarital sex, and it slowly became normal to raise a kid outside of marriage. Where accidental pregnancies had once regularly led to shotgun weddings, it became more common for couples to simply move in together (or keep living together, for that matter). Were those relationships as stable as marriages, nobody would be worried about it today. But unfortunately, co-habiting couples with children tend to break up, and the kids suffer for it.
“Had norms not changed, the growth of childbearing outside of marriage that we have recently seen among today’s unmarried low-educated and moderately educated young adults would not have occurred, even given the rise in income inequality,” Cherlin writes. College-educated Americans were able to adapt to changing mores because the economy was kind to them. But a shifting job market and easing taboos combined to tear a hole in the rest of the country's social fabric.
This is all in keeping with what researchers find when they actually go out and talk to single mothers. Women in low-income communities say they would like to marry but have trouble finding men with stable jobs whom they can see as a husband. These women still want to have children, however, and so they choose to have kids before marriage, even if the pregnancy might be accidental. The economy pushes them to choose unwed parenthood—that’s the structural economic argument conservatives ignore—and these days, that choice is considered acceptable (that’s the cultural one liberals detest).
Liberals shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging any of this. Instead, it’s our job to ask: What next? Writers like Brooks or Ross Douthat1 can talk about the need for a cultural reckoning all they want, but nothing is going to quickly reverse 50 years of national evolution away from the Leave It to Beaver days. Moreover, how many people would want to? Last I checked, most women value the autonomy that divorce and birth control have given them. Many of those shotgun marriages ended in miserable, abusive relationships. And getting hitched young doesn’t make a great deal of sense in an era when going to college and moving to cities where jobs are plentiful are such enormous keys to financial well-being.
Instead of pining for the past, we could be doing far, far more as a country to reduce material need for low-income families. Rather than try in vain to revive the idea of early marriage, we could also do more to educate working-class women about how to safely and effectively use contraception to avoid accidental pregnancies and encourage them to put off children until a bit later in life (which, yes, to some degree would just mean preaching what college-educated families already practice). Just because conservatives are right that culture has played a role in changing family life doesn’t mean they’ve won the policy argument over what to do about it.
1 Douthat had a column over the weekend that made a similar argument to Cherlin—which, while directionally accurate, I think misconstrues some details. He argues that despite the decline of manufacturing jobs, working-class households are more affluent today than they were in the 1970s, and their financial lives aren’t any more volatile. Therefore, he suggests the economy can’t possibly explain all of the social changes that have taken place. The problem is that most of the economic theories about marital instability center on male incomes. And high-school-educated men have unquestionably seen their hourly pay decline since the 1970s. According to the source Douthat cites, meanwhile, working-class men are, in fact, much more likely to see dramatic income swings from one year to the next than they were during the '60s. In short, there's no point trying to sugarcoat the financial lives of today's blue-collar males. Turns out, though, he shouldn't have had to.