Last week in Slate, W. Bradford Wilcox covered a new Harvard study that noted a strong correlation between single parenthood and a lack of economic mobility for children. Using that study as a jumping off point in his Sunday New York Times column, Ross Douthat argues that both conservatives and liberals need to be “more honest” about the roots of marriage’s decline. Conservatives, he says, need to acknowledge that policies like mass incarceration and corporate takeovers in the 1980s led to low employment for poor men—which made women less likely to marry them. Liberals need to concede that pop culture’s low morals, the introduction of no-fault divorce, and the legality of abortion have also helped destroy marriage in the U.S., which in turn has hindered the ability of poor people to move into the middle class.
I’m a liberal, so I agree with him that mass incarceration and the lack of jobs for low-income men are not good for families. But let’s take those other assertions—pop culture, legal abortions and no-fault divorce’s effect on marriage—one by one to see if they actually hold water. Douthat writes that, “liberals tend to feign agnosticism about pop culture’s impact on morals (even though a link is common-sensical and well supported),” but rather than link to the well supported proof of this common-sensical link, he instead links to a RAND Corp. study that shows that teens who viewed the most sexual content on TV were more likely to initiate sex than teens who watched the least amount of sexual content. OK. Except that watching Skinimax (or more realistically these days, Internet porn) has not led to more teen moms. In fact, the teen pregnancy rate has continuously declined over the past 20 years, and teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in 1995.
Next, Douthat writes that no-fault divorce weakened marriage because it created a “‘social contagion’ effect of the divorce revolution, in which the example of a marital split undermines marriages across a social network,” and also gave people a reason to delay marriage, “given the risk of investing in a venture that could be unilaterally dissolved.” But a review of empirical research on divorce from 1995-2006 from the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy—certainly not a liberal institution—notes that no-fault divorce really didn’t change things much (and actually, “no-fault divorce” is an imprecise catch-all term in the first place because divorce laws vary so much from state to state). “Studies which find that no-fault divorce increased the divorce rate typically estimate the size of this effect as only a modest fraction of the increase in the divorce rate since 1960,” co-authors Douglas W. Allen and Maggie Gallagher write. “Clearly many other factors besides divorce law influence the divorce rate.” As for delaying marriage, Douthat concedes that it has been good for the upper-middle class. But he doesn’t really offer any proof that delaying marriage has been bad for the less wealthy, besides links to articles about the scourge of no-fault divorce. Delaying marriage seems, statistically, like it’s good for everyone: Couples who marry before 25 are more likely to get divorced than couples who wait until their late 20s. In fact, women who marry very early are more likely to live in poverty.
As for Douthat’s claims about abortion: He says that Roe v. Wade gave women power over their bodies, but possibly less power in their relationships. What he means by “power in relationships” is that they couldn’t force a man into a shotgun marriage after they got pregnant once they had a choice about terminating the pregnancy. He offers a policy solution here, a middle ground for liberals and conservatives: “a jobs program and a second-trimester abortion ban.” Except that a jobs programs—his concession to liberals—could actually help poor people, while a second-trimester-abortion ban would have no impact on marriage rates, as far as I can tell (and Douthat does not elaborate). According to the Guttmacher Institute, 88 percent of abortions happen in the first trimester. And those rare second-trimester abortions? Guttmacher says that "removing the many existing barriers to early abortion services could reduce the number of second-trimester abortions, particularly among black women and those with less education." Meaning that if Douthat's compatriots weren't working so hard to limit abortion access across the country, perhaps some of these women getting second-trimester abortions would get them earlier (though of course that's not what Douthat wants).
Here’s where I agree with Douthat: Life is very, very hard on single parents who are poor in America, and their kids, statistically, have worse outcomes than kids from two-parent families. Matt Yglesias has the solutions from a policy perspective (“better demand management, better schools, more wage subsidies, better transportation connections to jobs”). But let me suggest a solution from a cultural perspective. We’re not going to turn back the clock on premarital sex (probably close to half of women in the 1920s had premarital sex!), abortion (fingers crossed), contraception (99 percent of women have used it at some time), no-fault divorce, or sex on TV. Instead of trying to put the cat back in the bag, what we should do is encourage fathers of children born out of wedlock to stay in the picture in a meaningful way. The sociologist Kathryn Edin, who wrote two books on single moms and a 2013 book on single dads, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, has shown that low-income dads—unlike the deadbeats they’re made out to be—often desperately want to be involved in their kids’ lives. These dads are trying to get it together for their children, says Edin in an essay in the 2014 Shriver Report. They don’t get married because often their relationships are new, and they tend to shatter under the strain of a new baby (so much for the shotgun marriage Douthat is so fond of).
So instead of pushing an unhappy marriage on these couples, Edin suggests telling dads they need to stay as financially and emotionally involved as they can, and telling moms that “You can’t easily substitute someone else for your kid’s dad. If the two of you don’t manage to stay together, find a way to keep him involved with his kids.” This, in turn, could help children’s economic mobility, because as Amanda Marcotte noted in Slate, what poor single parents need is childcare. Even if—especially if—the dads are out of work, they can ease the burden on single mothers. It might not be the unrealistic Mayberry fantasy of Douthat’s dreams, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.