Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Berkeley: University of California Press, 293 pages, $24.95
The end, as usual, is nigh. “Barring a miracle,” Focus on the Family founder James Dobson writes in the April 2004 edition of his group’s newsletter, “the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.” Dobson obviously has a knack for apocalyptic hyperbole, but some version of that sentiment haunts many a conservative mind.
It was the eschatological horror of wedding cakes adorned with pairs of little plastic men in tuxedos that prompted Dobson’s prophecy. But the fear of gay marriage is only the most headline-friendly manifestation of a broader concern that the institution of marriage is in a parlous state. As conservatives look at high rates of cohabitation and divorce, especially among poor mothers, many conclude that the institution you can’t disparage requires a helping hand from the federal government to stay afloat. Indeed, it’s not just conservatives: Political scientist William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton, has argued that marriage is a key component of poverty alleviation, and that government must “strengthen [two-parent] families by promoting their formation, assisting their efforts to cope with contemporary economic and social stress, and retarding their breakdown whenever possible.” The most prominent recent effort in this vein is President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, run by the Department of Health and Human Services and funded to the tune of $100 million annually, most of which goes to fund educational or mentoring programs in which couples learn “relationship skills,” often by means of grants filtered through faith-based organizations.
If the link between gay matrimony and the “crumbling” of marriage remains something of a puzzle—for all the ink and pixels expended on the issue, no one has managed a compelling explanation of precisely how allowing more people to marry will induce fewer people to marry—concerns about the state of the family aren’t groundless. A spate of studies has led to a broad consensus among social scientists that children raised by their biological parents fare significantly better than children raised by single, cohabiting, or remarried parents on a wide variety of dimensions: They’re half as likely to drop out of high school or go to prison, more likely to attend college, and less likely to have behavioral problems or encounter material hardship—differences that may be reduced but do not disappear after controlling for factors such as parental income and education. These differences are apparent even in countries like Sweden, where both social norms and public policy are more hospitable toward single-parent families.
And there’s a class chasm in family structure: Some 3 percent of births to college-educated women take place outside of marriage, compared to almost 40 percent among high school dropouts. The proportion of women between the ages of 18 and 24 who attend college doubled between 1967 and 2000, to more than 38 percent, and fertility rates are significantly lower for women of childbearing age who hold a bachelor’s degree (an average of 1.05 offspring per mom) than for those with only a high school diploma (an average of 1.46). In short, the disadvantaged children for whom the stability marriage provides would be most helpful are also the least likely to enjoy it. “That is what government neutrality has gotten us,” Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), an ardent booster of using the state to promote traditional families, told an enthusiastic audience at the 2005 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Yet two quite different recent books on marriage (and its absence) suggest there’s something seriously wrong with the popular account of the American family’s ills, which attributes them to a recent breakdown in values, caused perhaps by latte-sipping elites who scorn traditional matrimony. In Marriage, a History, Evergreen State College historian Stephanie Coontz, author of the 1992 book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, reveals that marriage has served diverse purposes through the ages, and that the really radical change in the institution was the 18th-century innovation of marrying for love. In Promises I Can Keep, sociologists Kathryn Edin of the University of Pennsylvania and Maria Kefalas of Saint Joseph’s University take a close look at the lives of poor single mothers in Philadelphia, where they found a story much more interesting and convincing than the familiar “values” narrative.
Does marriage, as some conservatives seem to suggest, have an intrinsic nature and a deep purpose that remain constant across millennia, such that changes in its form or meaning should be considered inherently suspect, as unnatural as oceans boiling and lambs shacking up with lions? Not so much, according to Coontz, who finds that when it comes to marriage, the most reliable constant is flux.