FOR RICHER OR POORER: The Marriage Problem

Monday, April 1, 2002

Study after study has shown that married people are healthier and wealthier than unmarried people and that children raised in two-parent homes are generally more successful in life than those who aren't. And yet, according to the U.S. Census, about half of all first marriages end in divorce. Additionally, since 1960 the percentage of children born out of wedlock has grown from single digits to 20 percent. What is going on? Is the decline in marriage a symptom of underlying cultural problems in modern America? Or is it misguided to focus on marriage rather than on the economic problems facing all low-income families, whether married or not?

Recorded on Monday, April 1, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, have love and marriage gone the way of the horse and carriage?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the problem with marriage. One study after another shows that couples who are married have higher incomes, enjoy greater contentment and even live longer than those who aren't. Studies also indicate that children raised in homes headed by married couples tend to have better life prospects than those who aren't. Yet since the 1950's Americans have been marrying later, divorcing much more often and having far more children out of wedlock. If the institution of marriage is so good, why is it in so much trouble? And if it's in trouble, is there anything we can do about it?

Joining us today, two guests. Irwin Garfinkel is a professor of contemporary urban problems at Columbia University. James Q. Wilson is a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and the author of The Marriage Problem.

Title: For Richer or Poorer

Peter Robinson: Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal: "Marriage is displacing both income and race as the class divide of the new century." That is to say in the Twenty-first Century, married people and their children will belong to a kind of upper class and unmarried people and their children to a lower class. True, Irv?

Irwin Garfinkel: No.

Peter Robinson: Just flatly incorrect?

Irwin Garfinkel: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Jim?

James Q. Wilson: True.

Peter Robinson: True. All right. Off we go. If marriage is so good, why is it in trouble? Listen to two sets of facts. Set number one, according to one study after another, married people are healthier than unmarried people, enjoy higher incomes, experience greater contentment and live longer. Set of facts number two, by comparison with only a few decades ago, Americans are marrying later, divorcing far more often and having a lot more children out of wedlock. Since 1960, the out of wedlock birth rate for white Americans has climbed from single digits to about twenty percent while the rate among African Americans has climbed from about twenty percent to about half. So as I said, if marriage is so good, why is it in trouble?

James Q. Wilson: I think it's because we have taught young people in this country a lesson that we've acquired as Americans over many centuries and that is that human reason can understand human nature. And human reason alone can design appropriate social relationships. And so when you confront marriage as a way of meeting or dealing with somebody of the opposite sex or in a small number of cases, the same sex, you now think well I can have a relationship, I can cohabit, I can have fun. And this has led marriage to become one option of many whereas when I grew up, marriage was, in effect, the only option. Now this doesn't mean that people don't value marriage. Ninety percent or more of Americans do get married at some point in their lives but it does mean that young people value contacts, relationships and marriage if it comes, only comes much later, often after the birth of a child that's not raised by two parents.

Peter Robinson: Now you referred to something that's been in the culture for centuries, the elevation of human reason as against tradition and custom and so forth. So if it's been in the culture for centuries, why does marriage begin to break down? Why is there a noticeable discontinuity in the 1960's?

James Q. Wilson: Well the discontinuity I think probably would have begun earlier had it not been for two events, the Great Depression and the Second World War. In the 1920's, we came out of the First World War with a radically new view of how people should relate to society in part because of the war. The war had a disastrous effect on Western opinion. Millions of people killed for no apparent reason. It also was a time when people supported a new more emancipated way of thinking. And I think the 1920s would have begun--been the period when these processes had begun were it not for the fact that we took time out for the Great Depression and the Second World War. So we resumed in the 1960s.

Peter Robinson: All right. So it's not a specific pathology of the 1960s.

James Q. Wilson: I think the 1960s gets excessively blamed for a lot of things in this country...

Peter Robinson: I put the same question to you, if marriage is so good, why do we see this dissolution of traditional marriage?

Irwin Garfinkel: There's no question that women's liberation is the fundamental driving force towards the dissolution of families. And the question is how do we cope with that? How do we have both an egalitarian relationship between men and women and still preserve marriage because I agree with Jim one hundred percent, this is an institution that we must preserve. And I may be a little more confident than him that we will but--and he's absolutely right, the processes going on--remember A Doll's House, Ibsen's play. That's at the end of the Nineteenth or beginning of the Twentieth Century. That's about women breaking out of patriarchal marriage. And women's labor force participation, which is the fundamental liberator has been going on throughout the Twentieth Century.

Peter Robinson: So we're talking about a phenomenon that you can begin to see in the culture in the drama, in Ibsen at the beginning of the Twentieth Century?

Irwin Garfinkel: Absolutely. Absolutely.

James Q. Wilson: You can begin to see it in advanced English thinking at the end of the Nineteenth Century. At the end of the Victorian period, which I regard as the last valiant effort of the English speaking world to control by voluntary means people's passions, that the reaction against it by the time Queen Victoria had died was that this is stuffy, this is ridiculous, this isn't fun and worst of all, it has not advanced the emancipation of women. Even though the emancipation had begun in England, I mean, laws had been passed to free them up. Nonetheless, as Irv said, the emancipation of women was crucial. And whenever I talked about my book with audiences, women say but aren't you restricting the opportunities for women? And I say no I believe in female emancipation. I think it's one of the great things that's happened in the Western world. But I just want you to remember that when you talk about choosing between options A, B, and C, I simply want you to think of consequences A, B and C, not to eliminate the options but to get you to think forward.

Peter Robinson: Can I say this? The emancipation of women implies the emancipation from something. And the from something is largely traditional marriage. Right? So…

James Q. Wilson: No, the something was male supremacy.

Peter Robinson: Let's see if we can untangle the issue of male supremacy from the issue of marriage.

Title: It's a Woman's World

Peter Robinson: If the two of you are both roundly in favor of the emancipation of women, how do you square that with being roundly in favor of marriage? Irv?

Irwin Garfinkel: I think we can have a free men and women who join together in a partnership of commitment where both come from a base of strength. And by the way, I also agree with Jim when he said, right now the sexes, the genders, nobody knows what to do. Everything is up for grabs. And when that's the case and that's true at the top of the society, not just the bottom, when that's the case, you make that partnership and that long commitment far more difficult to achieve. The biggest area I disagree with you on is you keep castigating Sweden and I think it's because you have the wrong statistic. I think if you measure what you want to achieve correctly, Sweden is the country that has gone the furthest in actually achieving what I think we both want to achieve…

Peter Robinson: Hang on.

Irwin Garfinkel: …which is--let me just say--which is that children spend most of their childhood or ideally all their childhood with both biological parents. That's the objective. Sweden does so much better than the United States than all the other English speaking…

Peter Robinson: The castigation of Sweden though to fill in the viewers is that the marriage rate in Sweden is extremely low.

James Q. Wilson: But Irv is right about one thing. One-third of all male-female unions in Sweden are cohabitation rather than marriage. However, when you look at children born to the cohabiting parents, the cohabiting parents tend to stay together whereas in this country, when children are born to cohabiting parents, the father leaves.

Peter Robinson: Okay so let me just…

James Q. Wilson: And that's the big difference…

Peter Robinson: Let's just tighten up the definition of marriage. Is cohabiting couples raising children and sticking together to raise the children, is that good enough? Does that count as marriage in your book?

James Q. Wilson: I wish I knew the answer to the question. I spent a lot of time in Sweden trying to figure out whether anyone knew how the life prospects of a child differed if they came from a cohabiting family as opposed to a traditionally married family. And the answer is from the data I was able to get, no one really knows. There are a few scattered studies but they don't add up to anything. So that I am forced to rely on American data and on American data, I think cohabitation is a bad idea.

Peter Robinson: So I'm still trying to tease out what it is that's good about marriage, what it is that's distinctive about marriage.

[Talking at same time]

James Q. Wilson: What's distinctive about marriage is that it represents a commitment. Even if a non-religious couple gets married, the girl gets dressed up in a white gown, the man gets in a tuxedo and they go often standing before a minister whose church they never attend, they swear before family and friends, we are making an emotional commitment together, despite high divorce rates. They mean it at the moment.

Peter Robinson: Right.

James Q. Wilson: And we plan to stay together forevermore and raise our children. Now I think that making that kind of commitment gives people and in the United States at least, children, a better start in the world than if people don't make that commitment.

Peter Robinson: Let's see what a liberal like Irv makes of this statement by a conservative like James Q. Wilson.

Title: Family Ties

Peter Robinson: I quote now from your book, The Marriage Problem. Irv, this one is for you. "We are materially better off than our parents but spiritually worse off. The reason I think is clear. It is not money, material goods, but the family that is the foundation of public life." That is an arresting formulation. "The family, a private institution, is the foundation of public life. As that foundation becomes weaker, every structure built upon it has become weaker." Do you buy that?

Irwin Garfinkel: I do.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Irwin Garfinkel: I do. I would not argue that the family is not a fundamental building block but just as--capitalism is the most productive system known to humankind. Doses, elements of socialism are essential to the success of capitalism.

Peter Robinson: Such as?

Irwin Garfinkel: Well, the United States was the first country in the world to socialize education, elementary and secondary education. It's no accident that we're the most successful capitalist country in the world because we socialized the most important thing first. But just as capitalism needs certain amounts of socialism to be as productive as it is, the family needs certain things taken care of in the environment for the family to flourish. And some of those I agree are moral imperatives. I don't disagree with Jim on that. But some of them are also practical, material things that are available and that we can do socially. We led the world with education. We don't any longer, except at the top, we're way ahead at the very top, higher education. But on lower education, three-year olds, four-year olds, five-year olds, Sweden and France are way ahead of us. They have universal education down to the age of three that liberates women, it makes men and women more equal and it makes the lower class and the upper class more equal.

Peter Robinson: So your argument is that to foster the formation and durability of families in this country, you need a little socialism for that too? You need better education, daycare, what welfare transfer payments to…

Irwin Garfinkel: Welfare's the last thing…

Peter Robinson: …poor families. No…

Irwin Garfinkel: Welfare is a palliative. It's when everything else fails, you need welfare. We've always had welfare as long as we've had capitalism. They go together.

Peter Robinson: Irv give me the top three things that you'd like to see the…

Irwin Garfinkel: Extend the age of school down to age three. I would say that's the single most important thing you could do.

James Q. Wilson: Irv may be right that there are material things that the government can do. I don't disagree with him about the importance of socialized education. In fact, I would point out that Adam Smith advocated in his book The Wealth of Nations; he was very much in favor of public…

Peter Robinson: You're not a voucher man? You don't want…

James Q. Wilson: I am indeed a voucher man. But that's a different question. The question is where did the money come? The money should come from the government.

Peter Robinson: Gotcha!

James Q. Wilson: How do you spend it is a different question.

Peter Robinson: All right.

James Q. Wilson: But it's possible that these material changes pushing the age of education down to age three might help. But I'd like to see an experiment on that subject first because when I grew up, there wasn't education down to age three. There wasn't really education down to the kindergarten years. People were poor. There were fewer social services and yet somehow marriage was more common. Now Irv may be right that the emancipation of women has changed all of this and therefore we have to alter our practices but I'd like to see the theory tested first before we make it a national policy.

Peter Robinson: Our guests agree on the importance of marriage so what, if anything, should the government do about it?

Title: In the Bedroom

Peter Robinson: Before we address the question of practical solutions or at least attempts at solving the problem, as a matter of principle, is it right for government to take an explicitly pro family position? Irv?

Irwin Garfinkel: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Not a doubt in your mind?

Irwin Garfinkel: Absolutely. The fact that the left has ceded this to the right is mystifying to me. And I must say I give the right great credit for their tactical move on this but it's a principled move. Some of the allies of the left are people who don't want to be the family. Because it's part of the enlightenment that you're describing. So you've got gays and lesbians and--let me just finish--if they want to have children, that's hunky-dory, fine. I don't object to that.

Peter Robinson: You have no objection to gay adoption?

Irwin Garfinkel: No, and to gay insemination but the idea that that would drive the politics of the situation; that's a minority and that's fine. We want to protect the minorities but the ninety-five, ninety percent of the population; they're going to have heterosexual relationships. They want to raise their kids together and…

Peter Robinson: So you want the left…

Irwin Garfinkel: …it's the obligation of the government…

Peter Robinson: You want the left to repudiate the sexual revolution?

Irwin Garfinkel: No!

[Talking at same time]

Irwin Garfinkel: No, I just…

Peter Robinson: But the sexual revolution...

Irwin Garfinkel: …I want the left to get serious.

Peter Robinson: …helped to dissolve marriage?

Irwin Garfinkel: I want the left to get serious and the fact is getting serious there's an old principle in social work but I think it's true, which is you start where the people are and the people are for getting married. I'm studying, Sara McLanahan and I, and you quote Sara, my wife, quite…

James Q. Wilson: Is Sara your wife?

Irwin Garfinkel: Yes.

James Q. Wilson: I didn't know that. I'm astonished. Well, she's a brilliant scholar. Congratulations on marrying up so well.

Irwin Garfinkel: I feel the same way. It was a marriage up. But we are running a study of where we're studying non-marital births and these people want to get married. They just had a baby and they tell you they want to get married. More than half of them--three-quarters of them say the probability is fifty percent or better they will get married. But they don't get married, most of them. And why? And that's a big puzzle. And part of it is moral issues, that moral issues in the sense that we don't have clear messages of how to do this. But part of it is structural supports that encourage that. And if the right and the left can get serious and have a good discussion…

Peter Robinson: I don't understand. I have to confess I don't understand. A young couple has just had a baby. They're not married. Why don't they get married? What's it cost? What's the license cost to go to the Justice of the Peace?

Irwin Garfinkel: Well actually some, believe it or not, some of them say we're saving up enough for the wedding.

James Q. Wilson: Yes.

Irwin Garfinkel: Literally.

Peter Robinson: Oh really?

Irwin Garfinkel: Literally.

Peter Robinson: Is that the case?

James Q. Wilson: That's one explanation. I don't think it's the real explanation. I think that…

Peter Robinson: So what's going on?

James Q. Wilson: Well I think that…

Peter Robinson: Because I mean this data is not in dispute.

James Q. Wilson: No it…

Peter Robinson: The people tell you they want to get married.

James Q. Wilson: No Irv is absolutely right about this. I think that the first problem is with men. They want to preserve their options. They don't think their adolescence and youth is behind them yet. What we have to do when we're thinking about an eighteen-year old is to distinguish between the immediate benefits and the long-term benefits. Eighteen-year olds of which I was one once, have one thing in common. They think of the immediate benefits. Now if there's no social structure that consistently says through churches, neighborhood associations, and your own parents, you've got to think of the long-term run here and don't think you're going to just have sex now and it's all over. Absent those social structures, the guys will give in to the immediate urge.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask James Q. Wilson what he'd do about an American culture that just doesn't seem to value marriage?

Title: America Pie(d Piper)

Peter Robinson: You just said these structures, churches, neighborhoods, a consistent cultural message and yet, in your book and in articles that you've written, you're very pessimistic about the notion of turning the culture around.

James Q. Wilson: Yeah, I am pessimistic…

Peter Robinson: Once we've turned off that message, how do we turn it back on?

James Q. Wilson: I confess that I'm pessimistic because I gave up trying to think of a strategy. And it's not because I'm opposed to somebody creating a strategy that will provide the social structure that Irv thinks is important and I agree with him. I think as he does the government should have an explicit, consistent, formal policy in favor of marriage as it has a consistent, formal, explicit promise in favor of education. I think these are absolutely essential. But how do you convert the government's message into action? And I think it requires people to write books, complain publicly, agitate the press about the cultural breakdown so that people start thinking about it seriously. Here's the message I want every parent to give to his or her child. I said you're sixteen. Okay. The world is opening up to you but you've got to remember three things. If you want to remain non-poor, you have to finish high school, get married before you have a child and don't have a child until you turn twenty. Seven percent of the country that does those three things is poor. If you don't do any of those three things, seventy-nine percent of you will be poor. That's the message they have to get across.

Irwin Garfinkel: Can I make a minor amendment to that?

Peter Robinson: Please, please.

Irwin Garfinkel: And, at some level, it's very minor. At another level, it's major, which is I get--the distinction you make in your book between marriage and family is critical here. I think the government should be a hundred percent pro family. Sometimes that will involve marriage. It may not always involve marriage. If you ask what proportion of children who grow up in different countries spend their entire childhood--the numbers we have are only up to age sixteen--with both parents, in the United States, forty-five percent of children--at least forty-five--flunk that test. They don't grow up. They grow up from at least one parent. In Sweden the percentage is only fifteen percent.

Peter Robinson: That may be true of Sweden but it's not true in the United States. It seems to be the case that in the United States for deep cultural reasons or who knows what the reasons but you'd better face the facts, in the United States, durability of families and marriage do go together. So it would seem prudent for the government, which wants to establish families, to be explicitly pro marriage. Right?

Irwin Garfinkel: There's no question that the durability of marriage is longer than cohabitation but most of the data we--in fact, all the data we have--these cohabitations are without kids. Most cohabitation is pre-child.

Peter Robinson: So we don't have data that just shows cohabitation with children…

Irwin Garfinkel: That's the data we're gathering now. And I still think, by the way, Jim will turn out to be right. Unfortunately I think it'll turn out to be the case that those who don't get married and just cohabit will wind up having a higher breakup rate. So that's why I'm not opposed to favoring marriage but what I am ardently in favor of is favor of the family. That is, create structures that make those two parents better able to weather their fights and, you know, and most important, accommodate women's liberation.

Peter Robinson: Irv seems to place more emphasis on being pro family than on being pro marriage. What does James think of that?

Title: All in the Family

Peter Robinson: You are now advising let's say the Republican leadership in Congress. And you say that…

James Q. Wilson: They would be the last to ask me for advice but go ahead.

Peter Robinson: You say to them look fellows, we'd like to be pro marriage in an ideal world but the truth is you need the Irv's of this world and the left--we want to make this bipartisan to make it work. Therefore, let's give up on being pro marriage and simply be pro family.

James Q. Wilson: No, I wouldn't say that.

Peter Robinson: You wouldn't do that?

James Q. Wilson: I wouldn't say that. I would say that at a fundamental level Irv is right, that what we want to do is encourage families. But in the United States, what we have to do as the first step is to encourage marriage because our cohabiting couples are different from the ones in Sweden. In Sweden, they're not only politically on the left; they tend to be well educated, well employed. They stay together. In the United States cohabiting couples are poorer. They're technically on the political right. They're very different groups of people. The decisive thing that has to happen in the United States even if someday we become like Sweden and cohabitation works as well for children as marriage, which would be wonderful if it happens, we have to encourage marriage as the first step because for a variety of reasons, we're not like Sweden. And so encouraging marriage has to be a preliminary to encouraging families.

Peter Robinson: What one reform would you make to encourage marriage?

James Q. Wilson: I would ask the government to put a large pile of money out and say we want to encourage churches, neighborhood associations, universities, to come around and take some of that money, provided they will do a carefully controlled experiment with a group of people to see whether by this marriage encouragement strategy, whether it's money or social services or some combination of them, you can get the marriage rate up. Now we've had this tried in Minnesota with the Minnesota Family Investment Program in which fourteen thousand people were followed for three years under highly progressive rules and lower tax rates, more welfare benefits, more counseling and the number of people getting married who were single parent families went from seven percent to eleven percent. Now it's a step in the right direction but it's a little, tiny step.

Peter Robinson: Last question. In 1970, the proportion of American households headed by married couples was about three-quarters, seventy-five percent, the clear norm. By 1998, just twenty-eight years later, the proportion had fallen to barely more than half. Twenty-eight years from today in 2030, what will the proportion be? Irv?

Irwin Garfinkel: Well the proportion married will be higher because we will pass what I consider to be the most single important piece of legislation. It's another form of childcare, which we call parental leave but that's all about childcare. And what it does is it says to women if you work before you have a child, then you get paid when you take off and same with men. It doesn't have to be gender specific but for a woman to get a paid parental leave, she has to work first. That reinforces women's liberation but it also reinforces the family and it provides the best form of childcare that we know and it makes the message unambiguous. When you have a baby, the mother is going to stay home and take care of that baby at least for the first few months.

Peter Robinson: Jim?

James Q. Wilson: I persist in the view that though parental leave may help employed women, it does not help children having children. It does not help fifteen-year olds and sixteen-year olds who are now taking their babies to daycare centers in junior high schools and senior high schools and whose only job at best, at best, would be to make hamburgers for McDonalds.

Peter Robinson: So your position remains, the federal government ought to spend a little money to conduct experiments and see if we can figure out ways…

James Q. Wilson: Including the parental leave experiment. Including what Irv suggested. Let's find out if it works.

Peter Robinson: And you don't want to lean optimistic or pessimistic?

James Q. Wilson: I don't want to lean. I've learned from failed experiments in the past you should never be optimistic.

Peter Robinson: Jim and Irv, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.