Steve Randy Waldman: “`Marriage Promotion` Is A Destructive Cargo Cult”—But What About Illegitimacy Prevention?

Steve Randy Waldman writes:

“Marriage promotion” is a destructive cargo cult

… The case for marriage promotion begins with some perfectly real correlations. Across a variety of measures — household income, self-reported life satisfaction, childrearing outcomes — married couples seem to do better than pairs of singles (and much better than single parents), particularly in populations towards the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. So it is natural to imagine that, if somehow poor people could be persuaded to marry more, they too would enjoy those improvements in household income, life satisfaction, and childrearing. Let them eat wedding cake!

But neither wedding cake nor the marriages they celebrate cause observed “marriage premia” any more than dances on tarmacs caused airplanes to land on Melanesian islands. In fact, for the most part, the evidence we have suggests that marriage is an effect of other things that facilitate good social outcomes rather than a cause on its own. In particular, for poor women, the availability of suitable mates is a binding constraint on marriage behavior.

Perhaps the availability of suitable progenitors should also be a binding constraint on breeding behavior? Or should we just switch over wholly to a Big Man system in which NFL star Antonio Cromartie fathers most of the children in America?

People in actually observed marriages do well because they are the lucky ones to find scarce good mates, not because marriage would be a good thing for everyone else too. Marrying badly, that is marriage followed by subsequent divorce, increases the poverty rate among poor women compared to never marrying at all. Married biological parents who stay together may be good for child rearing, but kids of mothers who marry anyone other than their biological father do no better than children of mothers who never marry at all.

Perhaps then it`s not such a hot idea to have a child out of wedlock and then expect some other man to support it?

… Let’s stop with the litany of citations for a minute and just think like humans. Marriage is a big deal. The stylized fact that the great preponderance of grown-ups with kids who seem economically and socially successful are married is known to everybody, rich and poor, black and white. Yes, the traditional family is not uncontested. There are, in our culture, valorizations of single-parenthood as statements of feminist independence, valorizations of male liberty and libertinism, aspirational valorizations of nontraditional families by until-recently-excluded gay people, etc. But, despite the outsized role played by Kurt on Glee, these alternative visions are numerically marginal, and probably especially marginal among the poor. Single motherhood is the alternative family structure that matters from a social welfare (rather than culture-war) perspective. The problem marriage promotion could solve, if it could solve any problem at all, would be to increase the well-being of the people who currently become single mothers and of their children.

But why do single women choose to become single mothers? It does not, in any numerically significant way, seem to have much to do with purposeful rebellion against traditional family norms. No, marriage of poor women seems constrained by the availability of promising mates. And why might that be?

Charles Murray recently wrote a wonderful, terrible, book called “Coming Apart“. The book is wonderful, because it identifies and very sharply observes the core social problem of our time, the Great Segregation (sorry Tyler), or more accurately, the Great Secession of the rich from the rest, and especially from the poor. The book is terrible, because it then analyzes the problems of the poor as though they come from nowhere, as though phenomena Murray characterizes as declines in industriousness, religiosity, and devotion to marriage among the poor have nothing to do with the evacuation of the rich into dream enclaves. There are obvious connections that Murray doesn’t make because, I think, he simply doesn’t wish to make them. Let’s make some. We were talking about marriage.

Murray does a wonderful job of describing the homogamy of our socioeconomic elites. The people who, at marriageable age, seem poised to succeed economically and socially, tend to marry one another. Johnnie doesn’t marry the girl next door, who might have been a plumber’s daughter while Daddy was a bank manager.

Johnnie doesn’t marry anyone at all he met in high school, but holds out for someone who got into the same sort of selective college he got into. The children of the rich marry children of the rich, with notable allowances made for children of the nonrich who have accumulated credentials that signal a high likelihood of present or future affluence. Of course, love knows no boundaries.

As a matter of simple arithmetic, increasing homogamy among the elite and successful implies a reduced probability that a person who cannot lay claim to that benighted group will be able to “marry up”, as it were. Once upon a time, in the halcyon days that Murray contrasts to the present, the courting would not have been so crass. There were many fewer markers of social class and future affluence.

Alert Jane Austen!

It`s important to remember that the social conditions of America in 1946-1964 were not some sort of universal Old Days, but a historic high point of affordable family formation, as shown by an extremely young age of first marriage for women. The average age of first marriage for Englishwomen from 1200 to 1800 was around 25. In more affordable America from 1890-1940, it was 23 (before dropping to 20.4 in 1950).

Yet, we didn`t have 40% illegitimacy rates in 1925 or 1880 or whenever.

The best and brightest were not so institutionally, geographically, and culturally segregated from the rest.

This news would have come as a surprise to Edith Wharton and Henry James. In 1900, for instance, a very large fraction of the wealthiest heiresses in the United States spent their summers at Newport, Rhode Island. We should not let our assumptions of what The Past was like be based solely upon watching Happy Days and Back to the Future.

(That is, within the community of white Americans. For black Americans, all of this is old hat.) The risk of “mismarrying”, for a male, was not so great, as he would be the primary breadwinner anyway, and her family, while perhaps poorer than his own, was unlikely to be in desperate straits. Men could choose whom they liked, in a personal, sexual, and romantic sense without great cost.

Women from poor-ish backgrounds had a decent chance at landing a solid breadwinner, if not the next President. Very much like an insurance pool, a large and mixed pool of potential spouses renders marriage on average a pretty good deal for everyone. Really bad future husbands existed then as now, and then as now women were wise to do all they could to avoid marrying them. But the quality of a marriage is never revealed until well after you are in it. In a middle-class society, it was reasonable for a woman to guess that a nice guy she could fall in love with would be able to be a good husband and father too.

Flash-forward to the present. We now live in a socially and economically stratified society. By the time we marry, we can ascertain with reasonable confidence what kind of job, income, neighborhood, and friends a potential mate is likely to come with. The stakes are much higher than they used to be. Our lifestyle norms are based on two-earner households, so men as well as women need to think hard about the earning prospects of potential mates.

But that also means that women would need to think less hard about whom to marry because the financial risk of picking a guy who turns out to not claw his way to the top is mitigated by her earning power.

Increasing economic dispersion — inequality — means that it is quite possible that a potential mate’s family faces circumstances vastly more difficult than ones own, if one is near the top of the distribution. It is unfashionable to say this in individualistic America, but it is as true now as it was for Romeo and Juliette that a marriage binds not only two people, but two families. If you have a good marriage, you will love your spouse. If you love your spouse and then her uninsured mother is diagnosed with cancer, those medical bills will to some perhaps large degree become your liability. More prosaically, if the inlaws can’t keep the heat on, do you wash your hands of it and let them shiver through the winter? In a very unequal society, the costs and risks of “marrying down” are large.

And this wasn`t even truer in the past when people tended to have more in-laws and more of them tended to be close to the edge of actual physical suffering?

Waldman is sort of on to something here, but the lack of understanding of the concept of affordable family formation blurs his understanding. These days we`re supposed to talk about Income Inequality and the One Percent, but what`s really relevant here is not the One Percent but the supply and demand of housing and schooling free of the children of single mothers relative to wages, since Americans expect marriage to go with owning a home with a yard. The One Percent don`t actually use up that much residential land and their swarming masses of children don`t overwhelm public schools.

If they insisted in living Downton Abbeys surrounded by miles of scenic sightlines, yeah, sure. But what really uses up the supply of metropolitan land and tuition dollars is getting away from poor people, especially getting your children away from bastards. But all the Nice People tell us that it`s very, very important to import more poor people from the third world to bring us the blessings of diversity.

As with an insurance pool, too much knowledge can poison the marriage pool, and reduce aggregate welfare by preventing distributive arrangements that everyone would rationally prefer in the absence of information, but which become the subject of conflict when information is known in advance.

Let me try to explain the math of where Waldman is coming from and why it isn`t all the relevant to working class people. If Waldman`s sister (who may be novelist Adelle Waldman, but probably isn`t novelist Ayelet Waldman who is married to bestselling novelist Michael Chabon) is at, say, the 98th percentile of society and she`s considering a man who is only at the 91st percentile, that 7-point gap is a big deal. You have to subtract the numbers from 100%: 9/2 is 4.5. That`s really marrying down.

(I had to do this math once to convince a small town student`s family to have her take the ACT a second time. She had scored at the 88th percentile the one time she took the test, which seemed pretty good to them. But then after I badgered her father into getting her to study up and retake the test, she scored at the 95th percentile. That meant she leapfrogged over 7/12ths of the people in her way, which is a lot.)

On the other hand, if you are talking about some woman who is at the 44th percentile of society and her beau is at the 37th percentile, well that`s not really a big deal. But that`s hard for somebody who writes long blog posts about what Charles Murray overlooked to grasp.

Because the stakes are now very high and the information very solid, good marriage prospects (in a crass socioeconomic sense) hold out for other good marriage prospects.

There is a lot of projection going on here of from the top few percent where people obsess over brand name colleges to the rest of society.

The pool that’s left over, once all the people capable of signaling their membership in the socioeconomic elite have been “creamed” away, may often be, objectively, a bad one. Marriage has a fat lower tail.

Which is why European ancestors insisted upon a harem system. Oh, wait, no, they found a one husband – one wife system worked better than African style one husband-many wives systems. Of course, that big mistake is why Europeans were conquered by Africans: polygamy just makes better societies.

When you marry, you risk physical abuse,

Fortunately, all these young women who don`t marry join convents where these bad marriage prospects can`t get at them to beat them up.

Oh, wait, no, they`re actually sleeping with, getting impregnated by, and getting smacked around by these guys.

you risk appropriation of your wealth and income, you risk mistreatment of the children you hope someday to have, you risk the Sartre-ish hell of being bound eternally to someone whose company is intolerable.

Whereas having a couple of kids by a couple of guys you didn`t marry ushers you into a social world where all your beaus are as decent and supportive as Mitt Romney.

More commonly, you risk forming a household that is unable to get along reasonably in an economic sense, causing conflicts and crises and miseries even among well-intentioned and decent people. It is quite rational to demand a lot of evidence that a potential mate sits well above the fat left tail, but the ex ante uncertainty is always high. When the right-hand side of the desirability distribution is truncated away, marriage may simply be a bad risk.

Whereas motherhood before marriage is a safe bet.

If you are at all libertarian, what the behavior of the poor tells you is that it is a bad risk.

Whereas being a welfare mom is the quintessence of playing it safe.

After all, marriage is not subject to a Bryan-Caplan-esque critique of politics, where people make bad choices in the voting booth that they would not make in the supermarket because they don’t own the costs of a bad vote. The consequences of a decision to marry or not to marry or who to marry are internalized very deeply by the people who make them. Humans, rich and poor, have strong incentives to try to make those choices well. Both common sense, social science, and revealed preference suggest that marriage rates among the poor have declined because the value of the contingent claim upon the future represented by the words “I do” has also declined within the affected population.

Promoting marriage among this population is not merely ineffective. It is at best ineffective. If the marriage-promoters persuade people to marry despite circumstances that render it likely they will marry poorly, the do-gooders will have done outright harm.

Or maybe they can persuade the person that having a child before marriage is not such a hot idea?

Pacific Islanders no doubt bore some cost to build their wooden planes, lashed to a mistaken theory of causality. But lives were not destroyed. Overcoming peoples’ well-founded misgivings about the quality of potential mates with moral exhortations and clipboards of superficial social science might well destroy lives. It would create plenty of success stories for marriage promoters, sure, because even bad bets turn out well now and again. But it would create more tragedies than successes, tragedies that very likely would be blamed on personal deficiencies of the unhappy couple while the successes would be victories for marriage itself in some insane ideological version of the fundamental attribution error.

I`m really not clear on the math here. Waldman seems to think it would be catastrophic for many women to be persuaded to have children only by their own personal Loser. But the real world alternative is having children by several losers. How does that work out better?

… But what about the children? One variant of marriage-centric social theory refrains from pushing marriage so hard, and simply asks that people delay childrearing until the marriage comes. (See e.g. Reihan Salam for some discussion.) If a woman is likely to find a good spouse at a reasonable age, then it might make sense to suggest she delay childbearing until the happy couple is stable and married, since kids reared by married biological parents seem to do better than other kids. Even that is subject to a causality concern: Perhaps childrearing is best performed by the kind of mother capable of finding a good mate, and at a time some unobservable factor renders her both ready to raise a child well and likely to take a husband.

E.g., she finally notices the older she gets the sexier she ain`t.

A huge fraction of modern marketing is aimed at convincing women that they can get sexier in the future. All I Have to Do is buy the right makeup, lose the baby weight, get a new wardrobe, get a gym membership, eat at the right restaurants, and I`ll be sexier than I am now. Would Oprah lie to me? So why should I throw away my sexytabulous future and settle for some guy who likes me now?

This would create a spurious correlation between the presence of biological fathers and good kid outcomes. We can’t rule that out, sure. But we have no reason to think it’s so, and lots of common sense reasons to think a biological father in a stable marriage improves outcomes by contributing to better parenting. So, I’d agree that women likely to find great marriage partners should by all means delay children until they have actually found one.

But women likely to find great marriage partners already do exactly that. Single motherhood is not a frequent occurrence among women who expect to marry happily and soon. The relevant question is whether we should discourage from having children women who reasonably expect they may not find a good spouse at all, at least not while they are in their youth.

Because while it`s apparently hard to find a man Good Enough to Be My Husband, it`s evidently easy to find a man Good Enough to Be the Father of My Child.

That is to say, should we tell women who have been segregated into the bad marriage market, who on average have lowish incomes and unruly neighbors and live near bad schools, that motherhood is just not for them, probably ever? 

Yes.

We could bring back norms of shame surrounding single motherhood, or create other kinds of incentives to reduce the nonadoption birth rate of people statistically likely to raise difficult kids. It is possible. 

Indeed.

I think it would be monstrous.

It would be monstrous if the taxpayers chose to subsidize less lavishly the breeding of more Democrats.

I believe that, as a society, we should commit ourselves to creating circumstances in which the fundamentally human experience of parenthood is available to all, not barred from those we’ve left behind on our way to good schools and walkable neighborhoods. Women unlikely to marry who wish to have children by all means should. The shame is ours, not theirs.

We`re up to 40% bastards now. Why not 80%?

It belongs to those of us who call ourselves “elite”, who are so proud of our “achievements” that we walk away without a care from the majority of our fellow citizens and fellow humans, from people who in other circumstances, even in the not so distant past, would have been our friends and coworkers, lovers and spouses. It’s on us to join together what we have put asunder.

You know, what married parents are spending huge amounts of money to do is to get their children away from the ever-increasing numbers of bastards in the schools. How is having even more bastards in the schools going to lessen the economic pressures to get your kids into schools with few bastards?