As faithful members, I believe that we have an obligation to take these warnings seriously and, more particularly, to actively strengthen the legal and cultural underpinnings of marriage and family in our respective societies.
But defending the family against attack requires us to first understand what is getting in the way of familial formation.
There is a real problem with familial formation today. In 2012, nearly 41% of births were to unmarried women. That’s up from 32.6% in 1994, and from 3.8% in 1940. That is, over 70 years, the percentage of nonmarital births increase by a factor of more than 10.
So what has caused this huge increase in nonmarital births? Have people (for whatever reason) given up on marriage? In 2012, after all, we had the highest percentage ever of adults aged 25 or older who had never been married (at about 20%). But giving up doesn’t seem to be the answer: 68% of Americans believe that it’s important for couples to marry if they intend to spend the rest of their lives together.
Are we just a more immoral society? In their book Marriage Markets, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn persuasively argue that the primary impediment to marriage is not lack of moral rectitude. And, in fact, today’s morality looks pretty good on most measures. Crime (both violent and property) in the U.S. has been declining over the last quarter century. Cigarette smoking among teenagers is at its lowest level in 22 years, as is teenage alcohol consumption. Teen pregnancy rates are also at historic lows.
And yet. And yet we have this huge, high rate of nonmarital births. What to do about that?
We seem to set our baseline for marriage and family somewhere around the 1950s. But the 1950s were an outlier; according to Professor Ann L. Alstott, “Sociologists have noted that the mid-twentieth century marked an unusual period in the history of marriage. In that era—in contrast to earlier and later periods—couples married young, had children soon after marriage, and remained married, typically for life.”[fn2]
The outlier nature of the 1950s is borne out by Census data, which shows that the median age at first marriage declined for both men and women from 1890 until 1950/1960, then rose again to its present level.
It’s also important to note that as early as the 1930s, people were having premarital sex. Census data tell us that from 1930-1934, one in six first births to women between the ages of 15 and 29 were conceived out of wedlock. (Note that that ratio had increased to one in two by the first half of the 1990s.)
There has been a major societal change, though, between the 1930s and the present: back then, if a boy got a girl pregnant, he married her, often before the baby was born. Today, not so much. (Specifically, in 1960, 60% of premaritally pregnant women were married by the time they gave birth; by 1980, that percentage had dropped to 29%.)
Still, I don’t think rampant immorality explains the changes we see in marriage. And I don’t think so based largely on one set of numbers.
My One Set of Numbers
See, although 41% of births in 2012 were nonmarital, that number doesn’t tell the complete story. Take a look at page 3 of this analysis of 2011 births.[fn3] Note that 57% of births to women with less than a high school education were nonmarital, as opposed to less than 9% of births to women with at least a bachelor’s degree.
Similarly, the nonmarital birth rate falls from about 69% for women with a household income of less than $10,000 to 9% for women with a household income of $200,000 or more.
The relevance? Unless we want to argue (and I certainly don’t) that the wealthy are more moral than the poor, and the highly-educated more moral than the less-educated, the numbers don’t permit us to tell a story based purely on moral failing.[fn4] Instead, it forces us to tell a socioeconomic story.
The Socioeconomic Story
In their book, Carbone and Cahn argue convincingly that one of the big changes in marriage has been in the stratification of the marriage market. In prior generations, marriage was could serve as a socioeconomic stepping-stone. The executive might marry his secretary; high school sweethearts (who may have had significantly different economic paths) would marry. In fact, between 1940 and 1960, the likelihood that spouses had the same level of education fell from 59% to 45%.[fn5]
Then women began to enter the workforce. “And,” according to Carbone and Cahn, “as they did, they looked for men who valued the careers they had chosen and had lives that fit with theirs.”[fn6] Today, marriage has become economically assortive. Men with a college degree are now much less likely to marry women who only completed high school, and vice versa. Carbone and Cahn again: “[T]he woman from the working-class background who makes it into Emory often must choose: give up the boyfriend from back home or see him undermine her prospects for later success.”[fn7]
This market segmentation has real effects on marriage prospects. At the higher income levels, men outnumber women, while, at lower income levels, women outnumber men.[fn8] To the extent that marriage functions like a market, then, and the market is largely stratified by socioeconomic status, that means that men at high income levels have to compete for women, while at lower income levels, women have to compete for men.
This story is reinforced by recent Pew survey data indicating that, in choosing a spouse, most women (78%) look for a partner with a steady job. Unfortunately, for every 100 never-married women between the ages of 25 and 34, there are only 91 never-married men in that same age cohort who have a job.
How much does that matter? Plenty. There’s a world of difference between a woman supporting herself and her child and a woman supporting herself, her child, and her un- (or under-) employed partner.
A Legal Story, Too
There’s also a legal story here, though that story is tightly intertwined with the socioeconomic story. Carbone and Cahn explain that our marital laws largely take for granted middle-class status. As such, in divorce, by default, property is split evenly and both parents get custody rights.
For a poor woman, this could be disastrous. Remember, men in this socioeconomic tier are much more likely to be un- or underemployed; it’s possible that, upon divorce, she would have to split assets she brought into the marriage with him. And he would have an ongoing relationship with their child.
Without marriage, she keeps her property. She keeps the child. She can control his access to the child. Sure, there’s no divorce proceeding requiring the father to pay child support, but if he’s underemployed, she may not be giving anything up. Without marriage, if she wants support payments, she can condition access to their child on those payments. But Carbone and Cahn’s anecdotal evidence suggests that many of these single mothers are able to make a go of it, even without support from their child’s father.
Maybe Even a Cultural One
Elite marriage today is one of equality, interdependence, and shared parenting.[fn9] That’s definitely how I—and everybody I interact with in my age cohort—views marriage. (And interesting side note: many of my friends—most of whom aren’t members of the church—have young children, and a stay-at-home parent, generally the wife. But we get there in a different way: it’s a personal and economic choice, not a cultural demand.) This is, I submit, a better way to view marriage, but it’s also intimidating when you can’t do it. As Carbone and Cahn say, “The men and women did not marry because they associated marriage with the new model of equal, interdependent, and shared parenting, not because they rejected it.”[fn10]
So What’s the Solution?
Honestly, it’s probably to make it possible for men (and women) to get jobs that allow them to support a family. At this point, it’s fair to disagree about the best way to do that. Is it to enact protectionist policies that bring solid blue-collar jobs back to the US? Is it to provide a better safety net for the unemployed that provides job training in emerging fields? Is it better parental leave? Do we change the legal assumptions about marriage?
Note that I’m not asserting that my socioeconomic story is the whole story behind the problems we’re seeing with marriage and family. It’s clearly not—the problems are the result of a complex web of cultural, legal, economic, moral, and other considerations. But I do think the socioeconomic story is an integral one, and one that will respond to political action. See, we’re not going to roll back a lot of culture. That is, women aren’t suddenly going to exit the workforce en masse. People aren’t going to stop having premarital sex. (Seriously: even back in the good old days they did it.)[fn11]
But there’s widespread agreement that being employed, and being able to support oneself and one’s family, is a good thing. Even if we disagree about how to get there, I think that’s a goal we can all work toward. And if my socioeconomic story is correct—and more people than just me think it is—then improving the job prospects of young men and women will serve to strengthen marriage and the family—just what we, as members, are charged to do.
International caveat: I realize that my analysis has been tremendously US-centric. Other countries may have different issues surrounding marriage. My main point is not that socioeconomics is the universal solution (though it may be). My broader point is, if we want to defend marriage and family, we need to take a close look at what problems they’re facing. Otherwise, our proposed solutions may not do any good.
[fn1] For more examples, Google site:lds.org “family is under attack.”
[fn2] Anne L. Alstott, Updating the Welfare State: Marriage, the Income Tax, and Social Security in the Age of Individualism, 66 Tax L. Rev. 695 (2014).
[fn3] Note that this is 2011, not 2012, so the numbers are slightly different. The story they tell, though, is the same as what I’ve seen, but can’t currently find, for 2012.
[fn5] Marriage Markets at 62.
[fn6] Id. at 43.
[fn8] Id. at 66-67.
[fn9] Id. at 122.
[fn11] Note that I’m not advocating premarital sex here. I think it should be avoided and, as members, we have even stronger incentives to avoid it. But we’re, what, 2% of the US population? Meaning that, even if every single Mormon was having premarital sex and they all stop, it wouldn’t make a huge difference to the larger culture.