Put A Ring On It The Economics of Marriage

Terrance Heath

“You gotta have a J-O-B, if you wanna be with me.”

- Gwen Guthrie, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent”

I’m off to cover CPAC tomorrow, where — in light of a federal court ruling California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional — I’m likely to hear a favorite conservative talking point repeated: Marriage cures poverty, unemployment, and another economic problem. Ask any conservative, and they’ll tell you as much — even though that particular talking point has no basis in reality.

Last year, the Heritage Foundation launched FamilyFacts.Org — a website that blamed single parenting (and single motherhood in particular) for a host of economic ills, and touted marriage as an economic cure all. It’s especially true if you’re African American. Just ask Rick Santorum.

Sure, Santorum took his chance to demagogue on race, telling Williams that it only took three things to stay out of poverty in America: “Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children.” He didn’t allow that any residue of racism or discrimination might make it harder for African Americans to work, graduate from high school or marry. Santorum also made unfounded allegations, again, about the Obama administration forbidding certain federal programs from talking about marriage. But at least he answered Williams with some personal respect.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Santorum too much. After all, he’s only the most recent conservative to repeat that claim, not the first. Conservatives have long history of making that claim. Newt Gingrich alludes to it every time calls Barack Obama the “best ‘food stamp’ president in American history,” and boasts that he’ll tell the NAACP that “African Americans should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Michelle Bachmann took it one step further when she signed a statement defending slavery for ensuring “a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.”

As Joan Walsh wrote in an excellent post tracing that claim back to 1965 and the Moynihan Report, “blaming the poor for their own poverty and suffering is a time-honored conservative pastime.” Walsh points out that while conservatives have now expanded this talking point to encompass poor whites, they still “try to blame the problems of moderately educated white people, particularly white men, on affirmative action, immigration and feminism.” Some tea party members would probably point out that Walsh omitted another major cause of everything from the declining marriage rates to economic crisis, and the national debt — the gay rights movement.

Not that it will matter to Gingrich, Santorum or many other conservatives, but a new Brookings Institute study shows that conservatives have it backwards on economic decline and declining marriage rates.

The Brookings Institute’s Hamilton Project is out with a new study showing a strong correlation between income and marriage. While marriage rates have dropped as a whole over the last few decades, there’s been much a steeper decline in marriage among low-income Americans. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney suggest that one reason for that drop is that labor-market changes that have altered marriage prospects for those trying to make ends meet, countering conservative claims that social norms and values are responsible for the trend.

Marriage rates among lower-income men and women have declined, but Greenstone and Looney offer different explanations for each gender. Among men, they say, those “that experienced the most adverse economic changes also experienced the largest declines in marriage” between 1970s and the present day.

By contrast, women have made big gains in the labor market over the past few decades. But their greater participation in the workforce–combined with a low-income male population, increasing prison rates for men, high unemployment and diminished earning power–has also kept more women from marrying. As s result, there’s a similar, if less dramatic, correlation between income and marriage among women

Perhaps Gwen Guthrie put it best in her 1986 single, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent.”

Like Algernon Austin posted back in September, less income means less marriage.

The New York Times recently provided a perfect illustration of the dynamics behind the declining marriage rate in its story on Reading, Pa., the city with the highest poverty rate in the country in 2010. It featured the story of Ashley Kelleher, a waitress at an International House of Pancakes, who has been supporting her three children as well as the father of two of them.

“For the past five years, it has been me paying the bills,” she said. Kelleher said she wants to get married someday, but only to a partner who is financially stable. The man she is with now, however, is not.

Social conservatives have looked everywhere for explanations for the decline of heterosexual marriage, everywhere but the American economy. But the research on this issue clearly shows that financially insecure men are less likely to marry.

We can see the relationship between men’s earnings and marriage in the figure below. The figure shows “less money, less marriage,” to quote the authors of a recent report from Pew Social and Demographic Trends. Although the Pew research shows “no significant differences by education or income in the desire to get married,” the less money a male has, the less likely he will actually marry.

It bears out what I wrote after covering CPAC last year: A brother generally needs a paycheck before he can afford to “put a ring on it.”

At the same time, the Heritage Foundation just launched a website, FamilyFacts.Org, that touts marriage as an economic cure-all, while blaming single-parenting (single mothers in particular) and out-of-wedlock births for all manner of economic ills. I guess they live on the same planet as John Boehner.

I visited that planet last month, when I attended CPAC— a three-day conference that had nothing to say about job creation. It wasn’t on the agenda. I did sit through the “Traditional Marriage and Society” panel, which featured two African American speakers. I marveled that — given the unemployment crisis facing African American communitiesthis is what these two speakers came all the way to Washington to address. I wasn’t surprised, though. The right has been too successful at getting “Black People Who Should Know Better”™, to hop on that train to nowhere for too long.

Attacking my marriage won’t change the marriage rates or the employment rates — or lower poverty rates — in African American communities. None of that appears to be the point. I’d say the point is that they’re not interested in creating jobs in black communities. If they were, well… Here’s what I’d say.

A brother generally needs a paycheck before he can afford to “put a ring on it.” A 2006 poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University found that “Black men report the same ambitions as most Americans — for career success, a loving marriage, children, respect.” But in this recession black male unemployment has reached depression era levels. Some 8% of us lost our jobs between 2007 and 2009.

You want to promote marriage in African American communities? Start with job creation.

I’m willing to bet that this year at CPAC I’ll hear more about the California ruling than I will hear specifics one job creation. I’ll probably hear a lot about how my marriage is responsible for everything from the financial crisis, to the failure of Newt Gingrich’s first two marriage. I’ll probably hear that the hubby and I are bringing America closer to doomsday.

What’s closer to the truth is that conservative economics created our family un-friendly economy and shredded marriage rates .

A big part of the solution for the problems of the family is jobs — more and better jobs. We also need to rebuild a safety net that encourages family stability. Studies indicate that the greater the male income inequality in a region, the lower the female marriage rates. We have created a society that writes off a high percentage of men through chronic unemployment and high rates of imprisonment for minor offenses. In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, authors Wilkinson and Pickett show that the higher the inequality in a society, the higher the rates of mental illness and substance abuse, particularly among males.

The creation of greater inequality, the shredding of the social safety net, and the increasing cost of higher education have much more do with the changing structure of the family than Hollywood mores or internet porn. It is time that the Democrats discovered family values as an issue — and link those values to a campaign to rebuild community in America. Republicans, the people who successfully blocked taxing people to pay their fair share and spending what it takes to build an effective society, should be forced to look themselves in the mirror when it comes to the destruction of family stability. Marriage rates by themselves have a variety of meanings, but class-based increases in family instability have one overriding consequence: the creation of a less just society with diminished prospects for a large percentage of our children. What we really need to do is increase our investments in children, employment stability, and healthy communities and stop pretending that family structure is simply a matter of morals or will.

In this economy, marriage is for the 1 percent. The rich are more likely to get married, because they’re the only ones who can afford to “put a ring on it.”

I bet I’ll hear a lot about just how conservatives plan to destroy and prohibit marriages like ours, and next to no specifics from Republicans about how they plan to create jobs. Sadly, that’s a bet I’m almost guaranteed to win.

Comments