Dana Milbank Is Incoherent On Marriage
Mollie Hemingway
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Last week, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank mocked me and a few other women for our claim that marriage is good for women. We’d been discussing women’s happiness on a panel at the Heritage Foundation. Our larger discussion centered around how, as women’s opportunity sets have expanded dramatically, our reported measures of well-being (happiness, basically) have somehow gone way down. For more on this, read Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on the Paradox of Declining Female Happiness (2009).

We were discussing some of the reasons why that might be and how this affects voting preferences and what not. One of the things we noted was that elites are getting married but others aren’t — and how this has seriously negative socio-economic consequences for women and children.

Not only does this have the benefit of being true — missing out on the economies of scale and other benefits of marriage is tremendously rough on women, particularly when they’re mothers — it’s also not even remotely controversial in the real, non-media-elite world. According to Gallup, nearly everyone either is married or wants to get married some day. As in, only 3 percent of people aged 35-54 and a whopping 9 percent of people younger than that report that they aren’t married and don’t want to get married. So the collapse of marriage culture is something that is out of alignment with the goals and values of the vast majority of women and men themselves. If you’re unmarried and wish you were, you might wish that society was paying a bit more attention to the decline of marriage.

But according to Milbank, what his man-ears picked up was that we’d actually said women should kick back, take it easy, exit the work force and let men do all the hard work. I’m not joking. He deceptively claimed that we told women to go get their MRS degrees and then “lean back”:

“If Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra is ‘lean in,’ these women were proposing that women lean back: get married, take care of kids and let men earn the wages.”

Now, normally I wouldn’t even bother responding to such idiocy, as I was under the impression that everyone realized Milbank was a partisan hack. But much to my surprise, even mainstream journalists not only read him but take him seriously, as evidenced here, where journalist Erica Grieder, senior editor at Texas Monthly, tweeted out a link to the story with the note, “Conservatives: let me know if you want some useful advice on how to not alienate women.” (For more evidence of mainstream media having sympathy with partisan “war on women” messaging, you have to check out this example from this week.)

Now, before we get to some nitty gritty, I have to respond to Milbank’s mansplaining assertion that marriage, much less motherhood, is all about kicking back and taking it easy. This is part and parcel of a particularly destructive strain of feminism that devalues the work of building loving and nurturing homes in which children are brought forth and cared for. Far from being about “leaning back,” there is literally nothing more forward-leaning or as life-affirming or humanity-perpetuating as building a family — marrying and giving birth to children and raising children to adulthood. I’m a wife and mother and I’m sick to death of being denigrated as a second-class citizen for focusing on my children’s well-being by making career decisions that have enabled me to be home with them every day. Enough. Seriously, enough. Stop ridiculing us for making career decisions that enable us to have lives built around more than paychecks or jobs. Stop blaming us for not all having the same idea about the wonder of STEM careers or corporate executive jobs as that narrow group of women featured so prominently every day by the media. If anything, our culture would be far better off if our major media outlets and our political leaders praised women who use their natural gifts to create safe, loving and nurturing homes for spouse and children.

OK, got that off my chest. As for Milbank’s influence, I should note that MSNBC took his same tack and apparently bashed me and my fellow panelist Mona Charen.

The crux of the Milbank-Grieder-MSNBC objection, then, is that it’s a terrible idea to promote marriage as good for women. I guess when everyone in the media is highly invested in perpetuating a “war on women” meme that serves Democratic interests, it can be politically dangerous to talk about how society must choose between having either a marriage culture or a big government culture. But it does seem like the media play it both ways.

The day after I was mocked for saying my piece, I’ll just note that the same Washington Post published a news story headlined “Democrats target unmarried female voters.” Hunh. Imagine that. It’s almost like if you don’t get married, you’re much more likely to have a favorable view of big government. The story was straight news, no mocking, about how Democrats are building computer models to target single women. No one made any snarky comments about whether it’s healthy for women, much less society, to have a major political party having an incentive of keeping us single throughout their lifetimes.

Who cares about the partisan issues, though. What’s really fascinating in all of this mocking of people who promote marriage is what it means for those who are most hurt by the failure of the American family: Poor women and children.

To make that point best … I’m going to have to quote, well, … Dana Milbank. You’ll never believe what he says about who among us are the poorest people in the country and who are expected to pay for their well-being through the inefficient mechanisms of government. In a discussion of how evil, demonic, awful, horrific, etc., Paul Ryan’s budget is, he wrote:

For example, Medicaid (about 70 percent of adult recipients are women), food stamps (63 percent of adult recipients are women) and Pell grants (62 percent) would be cut. Then there are programs in categories that would face cuts Ryan hasn’t specified: Supplemental Security Income (two-thirds of the poor and elderly recipients are women), welfare (85 percent of adult recipients are women), housing vouchers (82 percent of recipient households headed by women), child-care assistance (75 percent female-headed households) and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

By contrast, government payments that go disproportionately to men — active-duty military and veterans — are relatively untouched. The highest earners, who are disproportionately male, benefit most under Ryan’s tax proposal, while those receiving low-income tax credits, often families headed by women, would fare poorly.

What Dana Milbank is saying is that high-earning (married) men should support poor single mothers via the government. Fascinating, no? He knows that marriage is good for wealth creation and poverty avoidance.

Nick Kristof wrote in the New York Times this week that conservatives have been proved right in various areas of social policy. One of the examples he gave involves family life:

Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right. Children raised by single parents are three times as likely to live in poverty as kids in two-parent homes.

One historic mistake by liberals in social policy was the condemnation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning in 1965 of the breakdown of the African-American family. He wasn’t racist; he was prescient, for the same breakdown has since occurred in white-working-class families as well.

At the panel discussion at Heritage, a man in the audience asked a question. He was an educator who was liberal and disagreed with us on most things, he said. However, he and his wife of many decades knew that children from intact families have much higher educational attainment than those from other family situations. What could be done to improve marriage culture, he asked?

I suggested that everyone who is married should work to improve their own marriage and model better marriages for the culture. I also said that the media should start covering the reality of the marriage situation better. Milbank was sitting right in front of me as I said this, in the front row. He heard my reply and decided that carrying water for Democrats was more important than improving the lives of poor and middle class women.

That’s a decision he’ll have to live with. I’m disappointed in him and I hope he reconsiders whether he wants to be complicit in such a dishonorable approach to the issues that matter most to women and children. Either way, the rest of us — no matter our party affiliations — better think about whether the demise of marriage is hurting vulnerable men, women and children too much to ignore.

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Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @mzhemingway
Photo "Brad Johnson, Dana Milbank, Lee Fang" by Center for American Progress Action Fund

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