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What we find, then, is not a change in marriage that can be neatly explained by changing values but a complex tangle of cultural and economic changes reinforcing each other. Women’s increasing participation in the labor force resulted from a combination of factors: the internal logic of equality that has been playing out in the West for centuries, the demands of World War II, the shift to a service economy in which raw strength was a less important requirement for entry-level jobs, and labor-saving technologies that made maintaining a household less of a full-time occupation. As the economic incentives facing women—especially middle-class women with access to higher education—changed, middle-class women’s marital timing adapted. That, in turn, helped to change broader norms about when, and at what stage of economic success, people of any class are expected to marry.
The reluctance of Edin and Kefalas’ subjects to marry is also tied to more concrete concerns. Often the fathers of their children are in prison, have histories of violence or criminality, have become addicted to drugs, or exhibit any of a host of other serious defects that make the women reluctant to enter into what they believe should be a lifelong commitment. The women report that many men, even those who first greeted the news of a pregnancy enthusiastically, fail to change their ways when they learn a child is on the way. Some become even more wild, as if desperate to assert their youth and independence in the face of impending fatherhood. And in communities where large fractions of the young male population are incarcerated—thanks in large part to a war on drugs that disproportionately targets young African-American males—the remaining men face a buyer’s market of “surplus” women, making the temptations of infidelity strong. Two-thirds of the mothers the authors interviewed described relationships that had dissolved because of alcoholism, drug dealing, infidelity, or (for almost half) chronic violence.
Kay Hymowitz finds this account, the “marriageability thesis,” unsatisfactory, asking why there would be “a dearth of marriageable men when there appear to be plenty of cohabitable fathers.” But women often cohabit precisely because they view marriage as different and sacred. Many of those with whom Edin and Kefalas spoke considered cohabitation a vetting period, during which they sought assurance that a partner and father had given up habits and behaviors that might make him an unsuitable husband. The woman who came home to find her apartment bare, the furniture sold to finance her live-in boyfriend’s crack habit, presumably was happy not to have taken that next step. Conservatives often point out that marriages in the U.S. tend to be less stable if they’re preceded by cohabitation. But if the pattern Edin and Kefalas found is common, that period of cohabitation may be a response to, rather than a cause of, that instability. And as Coontz notes, the pattern found in the U.S. is not universal: In Germany, for example, cohabitation is associated with slightly more marital stability.
Many women also voiced concerns that marriage would change their partners for the worse—make them more controlling. As one put it, “He [already] tells me I can’t do nothing, I can’t go out. What’s gonna happen when I marry him? He’s gonna say he owns me.” That fear is consistent with polls finding that while lower-class women tend to share the relatively egalitarian view of gender roles common to both men and women of the middle class, lower-class men tend to subscribe to a more traditional conception of those roles—roles their partners may not be eager to fill. Among many of the women profiled in Promises I Can Keep, we see fragments of middle-class norms lifted from the economic context that gave rise to them and wedded with a host of other, more traditional views about marriage and family.
Yet the accounts given by the women themselves of their decisions make it difficult to say glibly that one set of values or another is wrong and needs to be corrected. By their lights, they are responding rationally to their circumstances. One says of her life before becoming a mother, for example, “There was nothing to live for other than the next day getting high. [My life had] no point, there was no joy. I had lost all my friends—my friends were totally disgusted with me—I was about to lose my job, [and] I ended up dropping out of another college.…Now I feel like ‘I have a beautiful little girl!’ I’m excited when I get up in the morning!”
In the 1980s books like Charles Murray’s Losing Ground argued that poor women would respond to economic incentives such as welfare benefits for single mothers by bearing more children out of wedlock. But if the model was correct, the margin at which those decisions occur may have been misidentified: For many, it seems, childbearing is the default in the absence of some potent economic incentive not to have a child—some prospect for personal fulfillment other than through motherhood. What seems rational for the mother might not, of course, be in the best interests of the child. Yet neither is it obvious that once the child exists, marriage is in the best interests of the mother or child, given the quality of the available fathers.
It’s true that, other things being equal, marriage seems to confer significant benefits on both parents and children—on average. But that doesn’t mean all families benefit. The Penn State sociologist Paul Amato suggests, for example, that some 60 percent of children are made worse off—financially, emotionally, and in other ways —by divorce. Yet he also believes divorce at least somewhat improves the welfare of some 40 percent, in similar ways. It seems excessively sanguine to suppose that most couples who’ve been reluctant to marry in the first place are apt to be more like the former group than the latter. Averages, as Coontz points out, are a dangerous basis for sweeping generalizations about what is socially desirable. And while studies can control for couples’ income and education, the one thing that can’t be factored out, the one thing all married couples share, is a revealed preference for marriage: Given all the detailed information each particular couple had about their particular relationship, they decided to marry. Concluding that superficially similar cohabiting couples would reap similar benefits if they married is akin to concluding that everyone would benefit from a given product because those who voluntarily purchased it do. There are doubtless worse ways to spend federal dollars than on voluntary relationship counseling for poor people, but attempting to promote marriage by teaching “listening skills” is a bit like affirmative action for graduate school applicants—a superficial intervention that comes too late to help the people who presumably need it most.
The growing focus on marriage in public policy owes its resonance to two distinct themes that recur in conservative thought: anxiety about unregimented sexuality, and the belief that social problems are better solved by local groups and time-tested institutions. Those tendencies make it tempting to conclude that calls for marital reform and the genuinely distressed state of some families are part of one coherent and insidious phenomenon: the collapse of marriage. Yet as Edin and Kefalas show, the biggest problems with marriage are not first or foremost problems with marriage.
Communities grappling with dim economic prospects, violence, addiction, and high rates of incarceration are going to have trouble sustaining all sorts of valuable social institutions, marriage among them. Broader changes in marriage, meanwhile, need not herald its collapse: They’re an ordinary part of the way the institution has always adapted, organically, to societies that themselves are always changing.