“Is it morally wrong to have a baby outside of marriage?”
“No” is the answer I received from about two-thirds of my sociology-of-family class at the University of Virginia last spring, when I put that question to them in an anonymous online poll. The class of approximately 200 students was diverse geographically, racially, and ethnically. But on questions like this one—asking whether society should promote or value one type of family structure over another—the students I teach at UVA generally say it shouldn’t.
Yet when I asked these same students—who are almost all unmarried—“Do you personally plan to finish your education, work full-time, marry, and then have children?,” 97 percent said yes.
And when I asked, “If you came home at Thanksgiving and told your parents you (or your girlfriend) were having a baby, would your parents freak out?,” 99 percent said yes.
In one sense, these answers are unsurprising. The great majority of my students, about 80 percent, report hailing from an intact family with married parents. (My class at UVA is not exceptional in this regard: 73 percent of students at elite colleges and universities nationally were born to married parents who have since stayed married, versus 51 percent of high-school seniors across the country.) At the same time, a majority of my students are liberal or progressive on many social issues—they are, at a minimum, nonjudgmental about lifestyles unlike their own.
But there’s a problem with this disjunction between my students’ public family ethic and their own private family orientation, a disjunction I see regularly in elite circles. Voluminous research shows that being born into a married, stable household confers enormous benefits on children, whether the parents are rich or poor. The question I put to my students about their life plans involves a variant of what social scientists call the “success sequence.” Research clearly shows that taking three steps—(1) getting at least a high-school degree, (2) working full-time in your 20s, and (3) marrying before you have children—dramatically increases your odds of reaching the middle class or higher and minimizes the chances of your children growing up in poverty.
Yet many elites today—professors, journalists, educators, and other culture shapers—publicly discount or deny the importance of marriage, the two-parent family, and the value of doing all that you can to “stay together for the sake of the children,” even as they privately value every one of these things. On family matters, they “talk left” but “walk right”—an unusual form of hypocrisy that, however well intended, contributes to American inequality, increases misery, and borders on the immoral.
Rob Henderson witnessed this strange dynamic as an undergraduate at Yale in 2016. Henderson, who recently completed a doctorate in psychology from Cambridge University and whom I came to know through correspondence on Twitter, told me recently that during his second year at Yale, a psychology professor asked the students in his class how many of them had been raised by both of their birth parents. Henderson had grown up in a working-class area characterized by lots of family instability, and his childhood had been particularly unstable: He had cycled through 10 different foster families. He knew his own family background was rare at Yale. Nonetheless it “was a shock,” he told me, when 18 out of 20 students in the class raised their hand.
This got Henderson thinking. “Why is it that these people are studying at this great university,” while many of his friends back home were in jail or working at a batting cage or strung out on drugs?
He came to believe that family structure was a big part of why some young adults had a shot at success and others did not. But he discovered that talking about this possibility at Yale was not easy. “I remember discussing my life in this class and there being this weird silence,” Henderson said, partly “because a lot of these students had never met anybody like me.”
Whenever the idea that family structure could affect life prospects came up in any way, “there was always an effort to bring it back to poverty,” he said. Most of his fellow students “retreated into ideas like ‘We just need to give people more money’ or ‘economic opportunities.’” These responses, Henderson believes, were driven partly by the notion that family diversity—the idea that all family forms are equally valid and valuable for kids—is a mark of moral progress in society.
The phenomenon of people in society’s upper strata talking left but walking right is especially easy to spot at elite universities, but it extends well beyond university culture. A survey I helped lead of California adults in 2019 for the Institute for Family Studies, a think tank that seeks to strengthen marriage and family life, manifested a similar sociological pattern. Eighty-five percent of Californians with a college or graduate degree, ages 18 to 50, agreed that family diversity, “where kids grow up in different kinds of families today,” should be publicly celebrated (compared with 69 percent of Californians without a college education). But a clear majority of college-educated Californians, 68 percent, reported that it was personally important to them to have their own kids in marriage. Among those who were already parents, 80 percent were in intact marriages, compared with just 61 percent of their peers in the state who did not have a college degree.
Likewise, the 2022 American Family Survey, a national survey, found that among college-educated liberals, ages 18 to 55, only 30 percent agreed that “children are better off if they have married parents.” Yet 69 percent of the parents within this same group were themselves stably married.
College-educated elites have outsize power over American culture and politics, and on matters of family, they are abdicating it. They typically don’t preach what they practice, despite the megaphones they hold in traditional and social media, and elsewhere. Sometimes they preach the opposite, celebrating practices they privately shun. More often, they are simply silent and do very little politically or culturally to strengthen the foundations of marriage for Americans outside of their own privileged circles.
As a nation, we have not been shy, historically, about advocating for certain behaviors that typically lead to better lives for individuals and fewer problems for society. Targeted educational campaigns—in schools and the culture—have brought down the rates of teen pregnancy and cigarette smoking, for instance. But when it comes to marriage before children, or the success sequence more broadly, nothing comparable has been done at a national scale.
Social media, meanwhile, tends to send bad signals to kids and young adults. The dopamine-driven ethos that infuses much of TikTok and Instagram enriches the executives at Sequoia Capital and Meta but provides little support for anything but living for the moment, and undercuts the values and behaviors needed to sustain long-term love, not to mention marriage.
Traditional media oscillate between occasionally acknowledging the benefits of marriage and frequently praising the alternatives to it. As David Leonhardt, a columnist at The New York Times, observed, “I think that my half of the political spectrum—the left half—too often dismisses the importance of family structure.”
People with powerful voices aren’t entirely idle when it comes to marriage promotion. Over the years, they have fought, successfully, for the end of “marriage penalties” within the tax code that had made marriage more expensive than single living or cohabiting. The 1986 and 2001 tax bills, for instance, addressed many such penalties. But these laws, quite notably, were aimed at the pocketbooks of the rich and middle classes, who pay the lion’s share of federal income taxes. For poor and working-class Americans, substantial disincentives to marriage remain coded into many federal and state tax-and-benefit laws, and there seems to be little pressure to change that.
These actions and omissions are not small failures. The latest social science tells us, for instance, that children raised in single-mother homes are about five times more likely to be poor than kids raised in stably married homes. That young men raised apart from a stably married home are, according to my recent research, more likely to land in jail or prison than to graduate from college. That the biggest driver of recent declines in happiness is the nation’s retreat from marriage. And that, at the community level, the strongest predictor of economic mobility for poor children is family structure: Poor kids hailing from communities with more two-parent families have a markedly better shot at moving up into the middle class than poor kids from neighborhoods dominated by single parents.
Much of this research is well summarized in the Brookings Institution economist Melissa Kearney’s new book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind. And though some people argue that the active element behind many of these findings is a stable relationship, rather than marriage per se, the social science is equally clear that American couples with kids who do not put a ring on each other’s finger are at least twice as likely to call it quits as those who do.
Some experts acknowledge the evidence indicating that marriage is good for children, adults, and communities but say nothing much can be done to revive falling marriage rates. “The genie is out of the bottle,” Isabel Sawhill, another Brookings economist, wrote in a 2014 essay titled “Beyond Marriage,” in which she noted that “college-educated young adults are still marrying before having children” but the “rest of America, about two-thirds of the population, is not.” The latter group was hit especially hard by the wave of divorces and single-parent households that began in the 1970s; since then, she wrote, the kind of family-go-round characterized by high levels of instability for couples and kids has become more of a norm.
Sawhill laments that “even some of our biggest social programs, like food stamps, do not reduce child poverty as much as unmarried parenthood has increased it.” But from her vantage point, the cultural, economic, and political forces that have been eroding our most important social institution—outside the well-guarded lives of the American elite—are too powerful to resist.
Sawhill is right that the problem is difficult. But this kind of view is nonetheless too fatalistic. If we cared to bridge our nation’s marriage divide, the more privileged among us could do more in government, business, education, media, and civil society to reinforce marriage. We could do this in at least three ways.
First, people who teach classes or write articles and books could tell the truth about marriage and family to their students and audiences. Yes, marriage is hard. Yes, some families are dysfunctional. Yes, there are poisonous partners out there. And, yes, it is of course possible to build a good life without marrying. But also … today most marriages are happy, the odds of getting divorced are now well below 50 percent, and married parents (ages 18 to 55) are happier than any comparable group. The public, especially our children and young adults, need to hear this more clearly and more often. The goal would not be to hector young people but rather to underline the ways that marriage and family life foster meaning, direction, and happiness. We can still be tolerant of individual circumstances without losing sight of the fact that not all pathways are equally likely to end at their desired outcome.
Second, to help more young Americans build healthy, stable family lives, we could push our schools to teach them the success sequence as a pathway through education, work, marriage, and child-rearing that is powerfully linked to positive economic outcomes. A 2021 survey by the American Enterprise Institute indicates that teaching it in public schools would be popular with the public across both class and racial lines—for instance, more than 68 percent of Black, Hispanic, and low-income Americans express support for teaching the sequence in public schools.
The success sequence offers an accessible framework, a compelling narrative, and a launching pad for teachers and mentors to help young adults approach family formation with greater clarity and purpose. And it is already being taught in pilot programs and local experiments—in charter schools in the South Bronx, urban public schools in Kentucky, rural schools in downstate Illinois, and more. The full results of these projects likely will be seen only over many years, but so far they have been promising. They should inspire a range of public and private campaigns. Private campaigns, led by churches and nonprofits, may prefer to use moral or religious language. Public campaigns will undoubtedly use a more descriptive model. A successful initiative to promote the sequence, modeled on earlier successful campaigns that focused more narrowly on reducing teen pregnancy, will leave room for a wide range of approaches.
Third, our leaders must tackle the economic obstacles to marriage facing too many couples. Many of our public policies—including food stamps and Medicaid—penalize marriage for a significant number of low-income families. The impact is seldom entirely straightforward—from program to program, it may depend on how poor the family is, or where they live, or how many kids they have. But these penalties tend to hit working-class families with children especially hard—some couples face penalties as high as almost one-third of their total household income.
Policy makers in Congress could tackle penalties in means-tested programs such as Medicaid and public housing by doubling the income thresholds for these programs for married parents with young children. That would be expensive. But having eliminated many of the marriage penalties facing middle- and upper-income families in the tax code, ignoring the financial penalties that many lower-income families still face is inexcusable. Uncle Sam should not be in the business of discouraging working-class Americans from getting married.
More still could be done—and arguably should be done—to encourage marriage financially. The Department of Defense, for instance, provides particularly generous benefits for married service members. Marriage in the military is a pathway to a bigger housing allowance, better health care for your partner and any children you have, and other benefits. The military does not provide these benefits to cohabiting couples, which sets it apart from the more laissez-faire approach practiced by many other federal agencies serving families. But the same incentive could be provided simply by giving bigger benefits, of various sorts, including a more generous child tax credit, to people who marry, without reducing benefits to those who don’t.
We should not underestimate the power of incentives like these. Certainly, they have helped foster a more marriage-friendly culture in the military. Almost 20 years ago, the sociologist Jennifer Lundquist found that working-class and African American members of the military married at much higher rates than their peers in the civilian world, in part because of these benefits. My own, updated analysis of the General Social Survey (GSS) indicates that this pattern continues today. To be sure, some of this is selection: The kinds of Americans who enlist in the military tend to be more marriage-minded. Nonetheless, after controlling for factors such as race, ethnicity, age, and education, the GSS data indicate that a military background among men strongly predicts being married today.
At a minimum, the military’s approach to marriage tells us that we could take stronger measures if we were interested in bridging the marriage divide that has emerged in America over the past half century. Growing up in a married home should not be a privilege reserved for the children of educated and affluent Americans.
This article is adapted from Brad Wilcox’s new book, Get Married.
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