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Family instability is as big a problem in the US as it is in the UK. The difference is that Americans are allowed to discuss the issue openly, whereas, in Britain, there’s only one kind of marriage you can promote without seeming a dreadful bigot. 

Over the next three days, the Deep End will be featuring three articles about family structure, all of them from socially liberal publications, though at least one by a socially conservative author. 

We start off with Derek Thompson in the Atlantic, who asks why it is that first time mothers – particularly those without college degrees – are increasingly unlikely to be married: 

  • “This was the most shocking statistic I read this weekend: 58 percent of first births in lower-middle-class households are now to unmarried women. Meanwhile, two in five of all births are to unwed mothers, an all-time high…”

Answering his own question, Thompson identifies three causal factors.

The first of these is the vast increase in female participation in the workforce:

  • “Today women expect to work much, much more than they used to — and they do. They make up the majority of new college graduates and their labor participation rate has soared over 60 percent. Since 1950, hours of work by married women have increased by roughly a factor of three…”

Getting a degree and going out to work isn’t stopping women from getting married. In fact, the most highly qualified women are those most likely to be married when they have their first child. However, what we do see is a process of ‘assortative mating’ in which potential marriage partners tend to have similar incomes:

  • “…researchers have found that sorting has increased all along the educational scale. College graduates are more likely than ever to marry college graduates, as Charles Murray has written. High school dropouts are more likely to marry high school dropouts.”

For women at the lower end of the wage spectrum, marriage to a man of a similar socio-economic background is a decreasingly attractive prospect: 

  • “Low-skill men have had a rough two generations. The evaporation of manufacturing work has gutted their main source of employment, while globalization has held down their wages. Marriage has declined the most among men whose wages have declined the most… 
  • “In a dating pool where poor women are more likely to be surrounded by men with low and falling fortunes, more women have ditched a union for good economic reasons: It could be a financial drain.”

At the same time, lone parenthood – while  still difficult – is more feasible than it used to be:

  • “The development of time-saving technologies – cheap prepared foods, cheap clothes, machines to wash, dry, and vacuum – has not only encouraged more women to seek work, but also made it relatively easier for single parents to raise a child.”

Derek Thompson doesn’t mention it, but one should also factor in the impact of the tax and benefits systems, which incentivise lone parents to work, while creating various disincentives for parents to get married or openly cohabit.

Some might call this progress. If it’s true that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, then the old feminist dream is becoming reality. But isn’t it strange that people on the highest incomes, with the best qualifications and, therefore, the greatest freedom of choice, are those most likely to choose marriage? And is it not an irony that children raised within these reactionary, paternalistic family environments seem to do rather well as a result?

  • “Children raised in two-parent households are more likely to go to college, more likely to be employed, and more likely to earn a high wage.”

If leftwingers really cared about equality then they’d want to spread the benefits of marriage all the way down the income spectrum. But then, if rightwingers really cared about family stability, than they’d want an economy in which working class men could get decently paid and reliable employment.

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