State, national columnists

The conversation about marriage we should be having

By From page A8 | March 10, 2014

America is deeply engaged in a debate about marriage.

But it’s not the most urgent dialogue worth having about an institution that has served to order society for millennia.

What the current discussion about expanding matrimony obscures is the bigger picture about traditional marriage, namely, that it’s in decline – and that this decline has dramatic and devastating consequences for society, children in particular.

The connection between marriage and improved economic outcomes is not novel.

In 1965, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was declaring “war on poverty,” a highly controversial report by Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified the deterioration of the family in the African-American community as one of several major catalysts for growing economic and social inequality.

At the time, more than half of all black women and about two-thirds of Hispanic and Anglo women were married; and just over 20 percent of black infants and between 2 percent and 3 percent of Anglo infants were born to single mothers.

Half a century later, those numbers have not declined – they have exploded.

According to government statistics, 40.7 percent of all 2012 births were out of wedlock, including 72.2 percent in the African-American community; 53.5 percent of Hispanic children; and 29.4 percent of Anglo children.

Revisiting the Moynihan report last year, the Urban Institute found that “the social trends that concerned Moynihan have worsened for blacks and nonblacks alike,” suggesting that the “factors driving the decline (of marriage) do not lie solely within the black community but in the larger social and economic context.”

The numbers themselves are alarming and they raise serious questions about why marriage is disintegrating.

But it is the bounty of research correlating family structure to the economic mobility of children – or lack thereof – that makes concerns about the declining marriage culture a public policy crisis.

A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project looked at the impact of single parenthood on a child’s economic opportunities. It found that both “children of divorced mothers or (those) who were born to unmarried mothers are less likely to be upwardly mobile in relative terms than are children of continuously married mothers.”

It seems obvious that two-parent households advantage children, as they tend to have greater resources both financial and social (time, energy, attention) that make kids more likely to graduate and get well-paying jobs and less likely to be incarcerated or become single parents.

But the impact of family structure has ripple effects that extend well beyond individual households, according to new comprehensive data by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. Chetty and his co-authors found that “family structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level but also at the community level, perhaps because the stability of the social environment affects children’s outcomes more broadly.”

The Brookings Institution warns that marriage has become “a mechanism through which advantage is protected and passed on,” as wealthier, committed parents tend to get and stay married and raise their children together, while less affluent women are more likely to have children outside of marriage and raise them on their own, often in communities of similar structure, where they enter vicious cycles of downward mobility for themselves and their progeny.

Marriage is not a silver bullet. Encouraging more single mothers to wed the fathers of their children will not magically reduce poverty. Nor is the decimated marriage culture the only factor limiting economic mobility, which is also affected by racial and economic segregation, school quality and low levels of social capital.

But attempts to redistribute income and expand the welfare state, including those called for in Moynihan’s report 50 years ago, have not had the success that lawmakers expected.

As Ron Haskins, director of Brookings’ Center on Children and Families, told The Washington Post, “We are not going to have an effective solution to the growing inequality and poverty in the U.S. unless we can do something about family structure.”

In the war on inequality, supporting policies that promote more stable family environments may not be a bad place to start.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at [email protected].

Cynthia M. Allen


Discussion | 5 comments

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  • The MisterMarch 10, 2014 - 7:05 am

    The conversation we should be having about marriage is this: Why do we allow the government to have any say in marriage whatsoever? The origin of government involvement in allowing (licensing) some marriages and not others started after the "Civil War" to keep Blacks and Whites from marrying. Tell government to go pound sand because you choose marriage based on love and commitment and NOT on skin color. That is the conversation we should be having.

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  • Jason KnowlesMarch 10, 2014 - 8:36 am

    Mister, that was very well and eloquently stated! I agree wholeheartedly. I tell my students to spend more time planning their marriage than they do planning their wedding! And now that same-sex marriage is becoming law, hopefully that will create more stability and upward economic mobility for all.

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  • patrickMarch 10, 2014 - 3:03 pm

    "IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A CHILD" it seems to me that the powers that be are splitting the village into many divided factions.

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  • Teach5thMarch 10, 2014 - 7:08 am

    Cynthia - wait for it . . .wait for it. . .the r-a-c-I-s-t and b-I-g-o-t name callers must have stepped out for coffee.

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  • my2centsMarch 10, 2014 - 7:47 am

    The problem is not the decline of the institution of marriage, it is the continued socialization of girls to think they are Disney princesses whose big dream should be to grow up and marry a "prince." Society should be socializing girls the same way we do boys, to dream of accomplishing things, graduation from college, a satisfying career, and yes, perhaps a wonderful family. If both genders were socialized from birth in exactly the same manner, to dream of college graduation, instead of a single day in their lives where they will get to dress up like a princess, women would not be more likely to be financially dependent on men, which would end a whole host of serious societal woes, such as domestic violence, and lost opportunities for children if a marriage does not work out. How do you ensure your children's success? Teach them that education is never "over", that they should never have more children than they can care for on their own should their marriage end, and that they should always be able to stand on their own two feet financially. Thanks mom!

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