I’m committed to it. You should be, too. The inequality’s a scandal in our society. Like good schools, marriage has become something the rich can take for granted. Everybody else? Well, they’ve got to make it on their own. We need to do something about this. It’s time to get together and fight for marriage equality.
The new social reality is shocking. The children of wealthy people go to good schools, get good jobs, and get and stay married. Meanwhile, the rest struggle to get together, and if they do marry often end up divorced.
Charles Murray’s report on white America in Coming Apart gives us some of the vital statistics. In 1960, among top earners—the uppermost 20 percent—more than 90 percent of prime age white adults (30-49 years old) were married. Hardly any of them were divorced. The lives of the poor white population of America—the bottom 30 percent measured by income—wasn’t all that different. More than 80 percent of them were married, and although the number of divorced adults that age was a bit higher than among the well to do, it was only around 5 percent.
This relative equality is now long gone. Beginning in the 1970s, the top and bottom began to diverge. There’s been a downward drift in marriage among the rich, but not by much. Today 85 percent of prime age economic winners are married, a surprisingly modest decline given all the media attention to single professional women. Meanwhile, marriage has collapsed among the white poor. In 2010 less that 50 percent of prime aged poor whites were married. That’s partly because fewer get married, and partly because divorce rates skyrocketed—again, for them, but not for the rich.
Social scientists agree that family stability is a key factor—the key factor—for healthy, happy, successful lives. So our growing marriage inequality contributes to and reinforces the gap between winners and losers in America. Divorced and single people have more health problems. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Their self-reported happiness among unmarried adults is lower than for those in stable marriages. Moreover, marriage inequality means that poor kids are overwhelmingly more likely to grow up without a mother and father than rich kids, which as we know from social scientific studies foretells worst life outcomes for them.
In sum: in America today the rich have the money and the social capital. They’ve got all the good jobs and the stable marriages that allow them to pass on those advantages to their children. This inequality is so extreme, that even the poor people who get and stay married are getting ground down. Sixty-five percent of rich white Americans self-report that they have happy marriages. Slightly more than 30 percent of poor Americans say the same. Again, that reflects a stark divergence as compared to earlier decades—another growing inequality.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leader in gay rights, claims to promote marriage equality. If you’re one of the small minority of gays and lesbians in America who wants to get married, I suppose that makes sense. But viewed with any degree of objectivity, it’s an absurd claim, because it ignores the increasingly profound marriage inequality in society at large.
The Human Rights Campaign and supporters of gay marriage from Andrew Cuomo to Alan Simpson also ignore an inconvenient fact: the striking correspondence of the increasingly elite support for sexual freedom and the accelerating growth of marriage inequality. As the Human Rights Campaign succeeds in achieving its goals of normalizing homosexuality and securing same-sex marriage, poor America gets hit with declining economic prospects and a zippy, new, postmodern marriage culture that works for the rich but not for them. Elton John gets a husband and baby while the ordinary Jims and Janes in America get—nothing.
Culture is not a machine. You can’t directly trace alterations to this movement or that change in the law to broad social changes of the sort we’re seeing in the growing marriage inequality. But is it really so difficult to see that gay marriage is today’s luxury good for the rich that’s being paid for by the poor? Apparently so.
There was a time when progressivism meant something akin to the Catholic emphasis on the preferential option for the poor. Yes, it’s painful to give up some of your wealth and status to empower to poor. We’re fallen creatures; we want what’s best for us. But we must move beyond a me-centered view of society and support policies, initiatives, and ideas that promise to empower those stuck at the bottom, and thus renew our democratic solidarity.
The culture politics of the American “progressives” today betrays that tradition. The abortion license, gay marriage, feminism, a fixation on free contraceptives, “empowering” sex education for middle school students—in these and other ways the rich have deconstructed the moral universe for the poor (and increasingly for the middle class as well), almost always at little or no cost to themselves and their children. Whatever legitimate goals were once part of these initiatives—and aside from abortion there often were some—have long ago been left behind.
Thus a paradox of history: Social conservatives have inherited the best aspect of the progressive tradition in America, its concern for inequality, especially the dramatic inequalities suffered by the poor.