In a recent opinion column in The New York Times , Wharton School economist Justin Wolfers noted an important fact in marriage trends—then delivered an analysis more instructive on how to exacerbate the problem than how to solve it. The important fact is that while recent news reports of declining marriage rates among young people 25 to 34 have focused on the recession as an explanation, marriage rates over the past thirty years have been declining, through boom and bust alike, especially among less-educated Americans. Combine that with the fact that less-educated Americans are now more likely to divorce than better-educated Americans, and you have a yawning marriage gap between the college-educated and the non-college-educated.
What contributed to this shift? Wolfers suggests we now have a new marriage model, the “hedonic” model. In contrast to earlier marriages based on “the economic benefits of playing specialized roles,” the new model is based on “shared passions”—or as Wolfers put it in an accompanying Freakonomics blog, on “consumption complementarities.”
This model privileges better-educated Americans, he suggests, because the success of marriage today depends on couples who share the same tastes “in books, hobbies, travel and so on.” Women with less education, he explains, “likely have the least to gain from modern hedonic marriage” because they have the least capacity for consumption.
Should the decline of marriage among the less-educated concern us? In a 2008 essay for the libertarian Cato Institute, co-authored with his significant other, economist Betsey Stevenson, Wolfers downplays the importance of marriage for less-educated women. “The decline in marriage among less-educated women would be an important concern if we were still in the world where women needed a husband for financial security,” they argue. But today,
Less educated women have their own market opportunities available to them and have less to gain from marrying today than in the past. The new hedonic model of marriage thrives when households have the time and resources to enjoy their lives. This suggests that increasing the financial stability of these households will lead to marriage rather than marriage leading to financial stability.
In other words, less-educated women are punting marriage because they have no reason to get married—and they have no reason to get married because they lack the adequate time and resources to enjoy the hedonic marriage. In the hedonic model, the only people who get married are the people who can afford to consume lavishly. Marriage is imagined as another luxury that only the wealthiest can enjoy. Marriage is of little use to the less educated.
The implication is that if policymakers would only provide the less educated with jobs and money, they could attain what the 30 percent of Americans who are college-educated get to enjoy because of their status. If only the less educated could have more stuff, we could close the marriage gap between the better educated and the less educated.
No doubt it would help if more less educated men had access to steady work. But Wolfers’ assumption that because the less educated have fewer resources they have no reason to get married betrays a thoroughgoing economistic view of the history of marriage—and more deeply of the human person.
His interpretation of the “facts” assumes an impoverished anthropology that treats man as little more than a self-interested animal who vigilantly performs a cost/benefit analysis for every decision in life, including when and whom he should marry. In his view, the only reason for marriage is economic. His reductionist anthropology cannot imagine marriage as a genuine gift of self that is oriented toward the procreation of new life.
And for that reason, he fails to imagine children. (Yes, those little people. They still exist.) While there surely is an economic dimension to marriage, marriage historically has primarily been about bringing children and parents together.
So we invented the vacuum cleaner—did children then stop needing a mother and father? Sure, women have access to the Pill and work in the marketplace—does that mean the children men and women keep creating suddenly lost the need for married parents? Even if we no longer need our children to be hired hands, women are still bearing children.
Indeed, if marriage is not simply another economic institution determined by the laws of the market, but a fundamental human institution that corresponds to our nature as self-giving and procreating persons, marriage remains a vital institution for all people, whatever their income and economic interests. Marriage meets universal human longings and needs: namely, the longing to give a complete gift of self to another, and thus to procreate, and the need to connect children to their parents. As long as there are humans, these reasons for marriage will endure.
Still, Wolfers may be on to something when he notes that, today, the people with the greatest ability to enjoy the goods of the consumer economy enjoy the most stable marriages. Let’s assume he’s right—at the least, we know that the upper and middle class are more likely to eventually get married and to enjoy stable marriages. But how did we get to this point? How did we go from a society in which marriage thrived among people of all classes, to what Kay Hymowitz calls a “marriage caste”?
While economic explanations abound, less appreciated is how now-demolished traditional norms helped to maintain marriage as a broadly democratic institution. Traditionally, marriage was governed by norms that aimed to help all people, regardless of class, to attain a thriving family life—which resulted in a more equitable society.
Take the norm of lifelong marriage. A society in which married couples are expected to be faithful to their marital vows “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health” is a society that assumes all people, regardless of class, can experience marriage as a “school of love”—no matter what economic hardships may confront them. Indeed, the norm sustains husbands and wives through economically hard times and if the two endure, helps them to see that happiness does not consist in possessions alone, but in living a morally excellent life.
Or consider the norm of bearing children only within marriage. Society says, “Trust us: even though every instinct in your body right now is telling you how wonderful it would be to be a mother and that your boyfriend will be a loving, committed father—trust us when we say that marriage is the institution designed to bind parents to their children.” The norm is meant to protect people—especially women and children—from the fickleness of human nature and to ensure that children have a mother and father. The norm of chastity (now a taboo) does the same.
What happens when society discards those norms? Marriage becomes about the survival of the most resourced. Consider the acceptance of permissive divorce. If the social expectation is that marriage lasts only so long as one is subjectively happy, only the most subjectively happy enjoy stable marriages. Who tends to be the most subjectively happy? It surely helps if the couple makes over $75,000, has the luxury of spending week-long vacations at the beach, and can travel to their favorite destinations.
But even then, the acceptance of children outside of marriage comes with a caveat: in this case, the most resourced assure everyone else that all family forms are valid, children are resilient, and can thrive just as well in single-parent families as in married families—and then turn around and admonish their children that they should never, never have children outside of marriage.
Meanwhile ordinary women take their cues from the culture and bear children outside of marriage—and then, single and thirty, lament that they can’t find a man willing to be a father to the children from their previous partners. As W. Bradford Wilcox has pointed out, statistics show that whereas more than fifty percent of non-college-educated women have had a child outside of marriage, only seven percent of college-educated women have. And having a child outside marriage has all sorts of pernicious effects. Again, it’s the folks farther down on the class ladder taking the brunt of the cultural assault against traditional norms.
Contra Wolfers, less-educated people would powerfully benefit from a society-wide reinvigoration of the norm that upholds lifelong marriage and that connects children with marriage—after all, they have been the most vulnerable to the loss of these traditional norms. A proposal for these norms is a proposal for a more equitable society.
David Lapp is a research associate at the Institute for American Values. A recent graduate of The King’s College, he and his wife, Amber, are co-investigators of the “Love and Marriage in Middle America” project, a qualitative study based on 100 interviews with young people about their views on relationships and marriage. They blog at FamilyScholars.org.
Justin Wolfers’s New York Times opinion column, How Marriage Survives.
The New York Times’ report on marriage trends, Saying No to ‘I Do,’ With the Economy in Mind
Justin Wolfers’ “Freakonomics” blog, What Is Going On With Marriage?.
Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson’s Marriage and the Market.
W. Bradford Wilcox’s The Evolution of Divorce.
Richard John Neuhaus’s The Future of Sex and Marriage.
Ryan T. Anderson’s Marriage and the Public Good.