Can We Put Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again?: Marriage and Responsible Parenting
Editor's note: The following is a chapter featured in the new book, “This Way Up: New Thinking About Poverty and Economic Mobility.”
The waning of the two-parent family has weakened American society and left it vulnerable to a host of ills: poverty, declining economic mobility, the crisis in the white working class, men dropping out of the labor force, school achievement gaps, child abuse, crime, and racial, gender, and economic inequality. The nation's epidemic of fractured homes has helped inflame all these problems to seemingly intractable crisis levels.
So what can policymakers do to encourage young Americans to commit to marriage before they have children and improve the stability of their unions? Trivial as it may seem to many in the policy world, the battle should start with an unapologetic social marketing campaign that drives home the importance of stable, long-term marriage for both children and communities.
Several generations after the start of what I call the "single-mother revolution," Americans no longer recognize that widespread fatherlessness and the unstable homes that often follow are anything to worry about. Many young Americans already in or nearing their child-bearing years don't view the separation of marriage and children as a social problem—to them, it's just a fact of modern life. Fewer than half of millennials see having children as an important reason for marrying. Forty-four percent think marriage is obsolete. A similar number don't think children need to grow up with a mother and father "to grow up happily."
Of course, there's a risk that a pro-marriage PR campaign could end up sounding like Sunday morning sermonizing rather than a pragmatic policy initiative. But there are ways to avoid that.
One sensible model is the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Launched in 1996 by a nonpartisan nonprofit, the campaign was able to garner support across the political divide from media, popular culture, religious groups, and a wide variety of state and local organizations unified by the goal of discouraging teen childbearing.
What happened in the following years was astonishing: Teen pregnancy has declined by 60 percent. How big a role the campaign played is impossible to say. But clearly it helped mobilize an emerging consensus around the negative consequences of adolescent parenthood.
A comparable "National Campaign for Two-Parent Families" would have the benefit of more sophisticated data analytics and, 30 years after the campaign against teen pregnancy, would likely be more sensitive to demographic differences and do a better job of tailoring messages for different audiences.
A second, more conventional tool would be state and federal policy, particularly policy designed to strengthen the financial circumstances of middle and low-income young people in ways that might encourage them to make more permanent marital commitments.
Any effort should start with so-called marriage penalties. As is, when two single, low-income earners marry, their joint income often rises enough to reduce or negate their eligibility for government benefits. The obvious solution: Eliminate marriage penalties in the federal tax code and in means-tested benefits programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
Another crucial policy tool is the child tax credit, which has not been updated or expanded in 15 years. As is, parents write off only $1,000 per child, and because the credit is nonrefundable—not paid to filers, but subtracted from their income tax liability—it's of no help to low-income earners who don't pay taxes. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have recommended expanding the credit to $2,000 per child and making it refundable. Both are good ideas, sure to help level the financial playing field for low-income couples and boost their capacity to plan for the future.
Still another potential policy tool: improving the earning potential of low-skilled, marriage-age men. Finding a husband is still financially beneficial for most women, but as they have become more financially independent, marriage is no longer essential for them or their children. Means-tested programs that help secure the financial stability of the single-parent home have unwittingly added to the problem by making men even less necessary. At the same time, men's median wages have stagnated, and their workforce participation has declined.
Policy can help by boosting the earnings of low-income men. Many lower-income, less academically inclined men would benefit from programs that integrate work and education—career and technical education—whether in high school or immediately after. More apprenticeships and better coordination between community colleges and local businesses can also help improve the earnings and marriage-ability of young working-class men.
Still another tack would be to look beyond eroding marriage norms to the consequence that concerns us most: the effect on children who grow up in fragile or chaotic homes. Not only is it harder to raise children without a reliable father in the house, but low-income mothers often use harsh or inconsistent discipline and remain emotionally and verbally unresponsive to their infants and young children. Home-visiting programs have had some success in increasing mothers' sensitivity and children's self-control. One well-known and carefully evaluated multisite program providing home visits for poor pregnant women and new mothers is the Nurse Family Partnership, which has also been shown to reduce antisocial behavior among the children it treats.
Many of these programs still need more long-term evaluation. But if they were proven to work, policymakers should consider investing more robustly.
Can we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Can we save marriage? All these tools can help, but policymakers should be wary of overpromising.
George W. Bush's Healthy Marriage Initiative, which offered relationship education to low-income couples, yielded modest results at best and provided an easy target for skeptical critics. And the sad truth is that almost a half century into the single-mother revolution, it's painfully clear that no government policy can bring back old assumptions about marriage or childbearing or the vital tie between the two.
Where does that leave us? The American people need to understand the enormous cost of endemic family breakdown. We also need to grasp that without civic consensus and engagement, the government cannot repair it.
This chapter is featured in the “This Way Up” series
This piece originally appeared in This Way Up