This is from the Family Studies blog. It’s an interview with moderately conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.
I just want to highlight the problem and a couple of his solutions. If you find it interesting, read the whole thing.
First, the problem:
IFS: Why should we be so concerned about the state of the American family today? Of all of the family issues on the nation’s agenda—marriage, divorce, cohabitation, single parenthood, the fatherhood crisis, or something else—which one has you most concerned?
Douthat: We should be concerned because the family is the taproot of identity and community, the pre-political unit on which politics depend, the place where all the ladders of psychology and personality start. And right now, a familial experience (growing up in an intimate relationship with both your natural parents) that used to be average, boring, typical is increasingly a luxury good, an aspiration that’s rising out of reach for people whose talents and resources are limited or modest.
But in thinking about why this is happening, and what’s going wrong, I wouldn’t single out just one issue, because they’re all too deeply intertwined. The biggest problem the American family faces right now is a problem of compounding: The way that many of the trends you cite have, since the 1960s but in certain ways especially in the last generation, effectively all been pushing in the same direction, with each problem making other problems worse. There’s a perverse cycle, in other words, that’s hard for people to escape: A higher divorce rate creates a cultural context in which young people don’t see lifelong monogamy as a plausible goal and don’t want to take the chance of being hurt in the way that one or both of their parents were . . . which, in turn, prompts them to delay marriage and cohabit for an extended period instead, to effectively test their partner . . . which makes it more likely that they’ll have a child during such a “test” period, without a marital bond with the other parent . . . which raises the odds, whether they marry or not, that the relationship will dissolve, creating more instability in the life of their child or children . . . who in turn will grow up with an even-more pessimistic view of marriage and family life than their own divorce-shy parents did. All of these effects are then amplified by the “social contagion” aspect of family breakdown, in which just having peers or neighbors whose marriages are failing or who have had kids out of wedlock creates a context in which that seems like the norm, and a stable or flourishing family life like an exceptional, nearly-unattainable ideal.
The first three solutions I think of when I read this are: 1) eliminate single mother welfare, 2) get the normalization of premarital sex out of the schools, and 3) repeal no-fault divorce. The trouble is that feminists oppose all three of these policies. They want money to be transferred from traditional families where one man works to single mother households. They want women to get away from “sexist” notions like chastity, courtship and chivalry. They want women to be able to get out of her obligations to her husband and children if she feels “unhappy”. So unless we roll back radical feminism, none of those ideas are going to happen.
But does Douthat have any other policy ideas?
This one for no-fault divorce:
IFS: With one recent study indicating that divorce has actually been on the rise over the last generation or so, what do you make of the recent efforts of some states to tighten up their no-fault divorce laws? Is there a way for the state to encourage couples to think twice about ending their marriages without returning to an era where spouses and their children could be stuck in violent relationships?
Douthat: I’m basically supportive of the mix of proposals in (IFS Senior Fellow!) Brad Wilcox’s 2009 essay on divorce for National Affairs—waiting periods and counseling for divorcing couples (especially couples with children), preferential treatment in court for spouses who are being divorced against their will (in the absence of evidence of abuse)—and I know that some of those ideas have been taken up by the Coalition for Divorce Reform, which is trying to push state-level changes. My sense is that this kind of incremental tightening of divorce law is a better bet than the “covenant marriage” approach that some social conservatives pressed in the 1990s, where couples would be given the option of entering into a marriage without a no-fault escape hatch. The evidence we have from the three states that adopted the convenant option suggests that almost nobody actually opted into it, and I think it’s safe to assume that the people who did choose it were at pretty low risks for divorce already. Better, I think, to push for legal changes—however modest—that might apply across the board, and thus shape incentives for the marginal, most-at-risk couples.
And this one for welfare:
IFS: If you could magically pass a set of policies aimed at strengthening marriage and families, what would those policies be? (Set aside, for now, budget constraints and the chances of getting the proposals through Congress.)
Douthat: My economic program would expand on some of the ideas being kicked around already. There would be an even larger child tax credit than the one Republicans like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have endorsed, and the existing earned-income tax credit would be expanded and converted to a direct wage subsidy. I would impose—I’m the enlightened despot here, right, so federalism no longer applies?—various regulatory reforms on states and municipalities aimed at eliminating a lot of zoning and licensing rules that impose particularly steep costs on working class families. I’d cut and cap tax subsidies that disproportionately benefit upper middle class rentiers. I’d pursue some version of the Paul Ryan vision for welfare reform, with much more state-based experimentation in the provision of non-cash benefits. More broadly, I’d combine relatively loose monetary policy with relatively tight immigration rules, seeking a lower unemployment rate and higher wages at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. And then I’d spend less on prisons and put more money into hiring and training (but not heavily-arming!) cops, and I’d put UCLA’s Mark Kleiman in charge of reviewing sentencing policies at both the state and federal level, with an eye toward achieving significant reductions in incarceration rates wherever possible.
So maybe my ideas are not realistic, because I am too conservative, but I’d certainly like his to be enacted if mine can’t be. How about you? Do you have any ideas to save marriage? We can’t keep going life this – eventually we are going to run out of money for the social programs that prop up the people who bought into the sexual revolution. The spending on social programs for broken homes has got to stop somehow, one way or the other.
Filed under: Commentary, Divorce, Family, Marriage, Ross Douthat, Welfare