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The Laissez-Faire Family

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 interference.

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 2006.”

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 formal relationship.”

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 western countries.

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 vulnerable.

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 marriage.

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 most!”

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 better-off minority.

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.

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Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Roberto Rivera y Carlo writes from his home in Alexandria, Va.

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