Though not obvious, there's a meaningful link between the increase in childless couples and the weakening of marriage among the non-college educated.
Those of you who, for some unfathomable reason, have
read more than a few of my Boundless pieces will
probably have guessed that I love baseball. There are a lot of
reasons, but one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reason is that
numbers matter in baseball in a way that they don't in other
sports, which, in turn, matters to a nerd like me. If you tell me
that a second baseman has an OPS (on-base plus slugging
percentage) of .850, I know exactly what to make of that in a
way that I could never if I were told that "so and so is a good
'cover two' corner."
This is one way that, as sportswriter Tom Boswell put it, life
imitates the World Series. Numbers may not always be the best
guide for our actions but they are a lot more reliable than our
subjective impressions, especially in those areas where what's
true conflicts with what we want (and even need)
to be true.
One of those areas is marriage and the family. Our cultural
trajectory has been in the direction of what Jennifer Roeback
Morse of the Hoover Institution once dubbed the "laissez
faire family." As with its economic counterpart, the idea
is that people should be free to create and implement whatever
domestic arrangement works best for them — however
they define "best" — with a minimum of outside
The impact of this social trajectory is the subject of a recent
report by The National Marriage Project at Rutgers
University. The institution that gave us NBA Commissioner
David Stern, Tony Soprano, Mister Magoo, inter
alia, has now given us "The State of Our Unions
The report describes two trends that, at first glance, don't
appear to be related. The first trend is that "for an increasing
segment of the adult population ... life with children is receding
as a defining experience of adult life."
Here are some of the numbers: "In 1970, 73.6 percent of
women, ages 25-29 ... were living with at least one minor child
of their own. By 2000, the share had dropped to 48.7 percent. In
1970, 27.4 percent of women, ages 50-54, had at least one
minor child of their own in the household. By 2000, the share of
such women had fallen to 15.4 percent." Finally, whereas in
1976, one out of 10 women in their early 40s was childless,
today it's almost one in five.
The other trend highlighted by the report is what it calls a
"marriage gap." While the institutions of marriage and family
have grown weaker in the past few decades, the deleterious
effects of that weakening have not been spread evenly
throughout the population. As the report tells us, "for the
college-educated minority of the American population, marriage
appears to have gotten stronger in recent years." Unfortunately,
"for everyone else, marriage continues to get weaker." The result
of this "marriage gap" is "a society of greater inequality" as
America becomes "a nation divided not only by education and
income levels but by unequal family structures."
These — superficially, at least — unrelated
trends both originate in our changing attitudes and beliefs about
the nature and purpose of marriage and the ways these changes
work their way through the culture.
In a 2002 City Journal article, political scientist
James Q. Wilson wrote about a slow, almost unnoticed
"subversion" of the "popular support for marriage." "Whereas
marriage was once thought to be about a social union, it is now
about personal preferences." Instead of enforcing "the
desirability of marriage without asking what went on in that
union," the law and popular opinion "enforce the desirability of
personal happiness without worrying much about maintaining a
Stated differently, "Marriage was once a sacrament, then it
became a contract, and now it is an arrangement. Once religion
provided the sacrament, then the law enforced the contract, and
now personal preferences define the arrangement."
The results of this subversion include postponing or
foregoing marriage altogether and, as a consequence or by
design, having fewer children. As I've previously written in
Boundless, these consequences have profound
cultural, economic, political and even security implications for
However, by far, the direst consequences of the subversion
are visited upon the marginalized. As Wilson, quoting Myron
Magnet's "The Dream and The Nightmare," put it, "when the
haves remake a culture, the people who pay the price are the
have-nots." What seems like small and subtle shifts to the
"college-educated minority" (i.e., us) winds up devastating the
Wilson famously draws an analogy to the game
"crack-the-whip" in which the head of the whip "runs ... around
in random directions, with subsequent players holding on to the
hand of the previous player.... The longer the tail, the more the
forces act on the last player, and the tighter they have to hold
on." Many of those at the end of the line fall down. Just as "those
children who did not begin the turning suffer most from the
turn," the people who didn't initiate the cultural shift are most
profoundly affected by it.
If you're having trouble understanding how seemingly minor
changes in our beliefs about the nature and purpose of marriage
could have large-scale consequences, the libertarian blogger
Jane Galt (the name is the female version of John Galt, the
protagonist of Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged") would tell you
that you're probably not the "marginal case." Galt —
whose real name is Megan McArdle — and Wilson agree
that "highly educated, firmly socialized, upper middle class"
folks are not the "marginal marriage candidate[s]" most likely to
be affected by our tinkering with the definition and purposes of
What's more, at this point we should appreciate the power
of unintended consequences. Two of the examples Galt cites are
the extension of welfare benefits to unwed mothers and the
relaxation of divorce laws. In both instances, misgivings about
the impact of these measures were dismissed as "ridiculous."
"What kind of idiot would have a baby out of wedlock just
because the state was willing to give her paltry welfare benefits?"
"The only people who get divorced will be people who have
terrible problems! A few percentage points at
As Galt says "oops!" Would-be "reformers," however
well-intentioned, proved to be completely wrong about the
real-world impact of their proposals. And, in both instances, the
people most hurt were the marginalized and vulnerable.
And that brings me back to "The State of Our Unions 2006."
What the Marriage Project calls "fragile families," families that
are hard-pressed to provide for the "proper socialization and
overall wellbeing of [their] children," are "fragile" precisely
because of changes in family structure that are results of the
"subversion" described above.
Even more cruelly, the effects of our tinkering with marriage
and family on the marginalized aren't limited to their current
hardships. As the report documents, the "marriage gap" will
make it harder for them and their kids to catch up with the
It's not just that the "college-educated minority" have more
money, it's that when it comes to the overall wellbeing of
children, two parents are definitely better than one by almost
every conceivable measure. The numbers don't lie: there's
nothing fair about the laissez-faire family.
Copyright 2006 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.