Amidst the Sturm und Drang of spring 2020, two items in the news went largely unnoticed and unremarked upon. Both the marriage rate and the fertility rate in the United States hit record lows in, respectively, 2018 and 2019, the most recent years for which we have data on these two trends.
The financial fallout of the 2020 pandemic recession will undoubtedly worsen these statistics. That’s because young men and women will be reluctant, in the face of so much economic uncertainty, to move forward with plans for marrying or having children.
We should be concerned about the falling fortunes of the family in this nation because, as Thomas Klingenstein has noted, such a downfall poses a very real threat to the health of the American way of life.
Consider three key elements of our way of life: economic opportunity, “the pursuit of happiness,” and respect for the rule of law. The science tells us that the number one predictor of economic mobility for poor kids in America is the share of two-parent families in their neighborhood. Marriage is one of the best predictors of happiness for adult men and women. And the rule of law is strongest in communities where stable married families dominate the local landscape.
So, the decline of the American family—a decline that has transpired under both Democratic and Republican administrations over the last half century—has put the success of the American experiment in question. Indeed, the steadily dropping share of men working full time from the 1970s to the present (even before the COVID recession), along with recent increases in deaths of despair, can be traced directly to the shrinking share of Americans who are living in, or have grown up in, a stable married family.
One recent study found, for instance, that the “rise in White mortality is limited almost exclusively to those who are not married.” My own research indicates that one of the best predictors of incarceration, at the neighborhood level, is the share of single-parent families in a neighborhood.
All this suggests that more talk of “freedom” and “limited government,” as Klingenstein observed, will be of little help in confronting our contemporary family travails—which is to say, our national wellbeing.
Our nation’s recent history is instructive. The standard economic agenda of the Right, as exemplified by free trade agreements that have stripped millions of working class men of decent-paying jobs and driven their families to breakdown, is obviously no help here. And the cultural agenda of the Left, which seeks to celebrate family diversity rather than speak the truth about which kind of family is most likely to give kids a shot at the American Dream, is equally unhelpful.
In their own ways, each of these two agendas has served to undercut the economic and cultural foundations of American family life—especially in working-class communities across the nation hit particularly hard by the nation’s recent retreat from marriage.
We need a new way forward—a new politics that puts family, not freedom, first. This must be a politics that seeks to shore up the economic foundations of family life for ordinary Americans, even as it also works in partnership with schools, communities, and other civic institutions to strengthen the culture of American family life. We must make progress on three fronts to renew the economic and cultural foundations of ordinary families in America.
First, if we wish to strengthen the economic fortunes of ordinary families, we must reform American education so as to support all Americans. Vocational education should receive as much attention, status and financial support as higher education. It’s time for our high schools to devote as much attention to students who are not on the college track as those who are on the college track.
After all, even today, most young adults in America will not get a four-year degree. And the research tells us that well-designed vocational education in our high schools boosts the earnings and the marriageability of our young men.
Second, the federal government has to stop penalizing marriage in our social welfare policies. Today, a majority of working-class families with children confront marriage penalties in programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and the earned income tax credit. These penalties can run as high as 32% of a working class family’s income.
This is unconscionable, especially as Congress has moved to address most of the marriage penalties facing upper-income Americans in the U.S. tax code. Congress should move quickly to eliminate marriage penalties by doubling the threshold for married families in federal means-tested programs.
Finally, a range of public and private actors should get behind a coordinated campaign to promote what’s been called the “success sequence.” This is the idea that today’s young adults should get at least a high-school degree (or vocational degree), work full-time, and then marry before having children—in that order. Young adults who follow this sequence have a very low risk (just a 3% chance) of being poor long-term. They generally end up in the middle or upper class as they move into mid-life.
Yet today, the value of this sequence is not generally known outside of the upper-middle-class communities where it is given tacit if not explicit support. The value of the success sequence needs to be communicated in campaigns aimed at the general public by schools, states, churches, and other civic institutions.
If we are to renew the fading fortunes of the American family, we must act boldly to shore up the economic and cultural foundations of the family with measures like these. The alternative strategy is to do nothing and so to accept a world in which broken financial dreams, unhappiness, and social unrest make the American way of life impossible to sustain.