The institution of marriage among America’s poor has been totally destroyed, and this has had devastating effects on our ability to fight poverty. For 40 years after the family’s breakdown in the 1960s and ’70s, leftists have claimed that, as far as child-development and child-poverty are concerned, marriage matters little. Further, according to the Left, if having a second parent in a child’s life did make a difference, this was merely due to a second paycheck—a role government could easily fill.
To a point, the Left still makes the arguments outlined above. Yet modern social science is heavily stacked against this decrepit statist worldview, especially when it comes to the importance of a father. In response, the Left has taken a different tack: admitting that fathers are important and offering greater contraceptive funding and government aid for single parents as the solution. The thinking goes that since we can’t possibly reverse the slide in marriage among the poor, more contraception will keep the poor from having too many children outside of marriage, and greater government aid will make the children that do result from relationships outside of marriage better off.
Such a response is insidious, and should be a learning exercise for conservatives, libertarians, Independents, and moderate Democrats as to the true nature of the American Left.
Where This Contraception Argument Comes From
From 1890 to 1940, the black marriage rate was slightly higher than that of whites. In 1950, only 9 percent of black families with children were headed by a single parent. This changed in the 1960s, as the black family disintegrated. Today, around two-thirds of black children are raised in single-parent homes. The demise of the poor white family soon followed.
These events were ignored for years, until social science made it clear we had a problem. For example, a major indicator of a child’s ability to get out of poverty as an adult, not go to prison, or graduate high school is that child growing up with both a mother and a father.
As the social sciences started to stack against those who claimed fatherhood is meaningless, the Left had a problem on their hands. Conservatives (and much of the actual data trends) placed blame on the welfare state Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society created, a sacred cow for the Left. Other attempted explanations, such as the demise of the blue-collar workforce, failed to explain the massive drop-off in marriage that had occurred among the poor (and failed to explain the racial nature of the initial drop).
Along came George Akerlof (and his wife, Janet Yellen) to the Left’s rescue, in what I’ll refer to as the “Akerlof argument.” In 1996, Akerlof published a paper that claimed the “technology-shock” of birth control and abortion access had changed social norms regarding “shotgun marriage.” The decline in shotgun marriages thus led to the increase in out-of-wedlock births among the poor because the poor lacked access to birth control and abortion. To fix the problem, greater birth control access was the appropriate measure.
Why the Akerlof Argument Is Wrong
Here is the Akerlof argument.
1) Birth control and abortion changed attitudes towards sex, children, and marriage, to the degree that sex was now expected outside of marriage, and having children outside of marriage was less frowned upon by society.
2) Because of the preceding point, the number of shotgun marriages declined. This decline in shotgun marriages disproportionately affected the poor, because the poor didn’t have proper access to birth control (i.e., the rich don’t get stuck with unwanted children because they have birth control, yet the poor have abandoned shotgun marriages without similar birth-control access).
3) The solution is to provide increased birth control and abortion access to poor Americans.
4) Finally, the rise in out-of-wedlock births couldn’t have been caused by welfare expansion, since the rampant inflation of the ’70s eroded the value of welfare, even as fatherlessness continued to rise.
Here is why the Akerlof argument is wrong.
1) The Akerlof argument assumes most pregnancies that lead to single motherhood are unwanted, and this is simply not true. Harvard University’s Kathryn Edin, the nation’s leading researcher on single mothers, has shown that a vast majority of out-of-wedlock births are desired, and a vast majority of the mothers involved had access to birth control and chose not to use it.
2) If fatherlessness among the poor is a problem caused by knowledge of birth control without access to birth control, why were poor blacks affected much faster than poor whites, and why is the white working-class just now beginning to see trends similar to those that the black family experienced 50 years ago? Have poor whites somehow lost access to birth control in the last 20 years?
3) If poor Americans had no access to birth control in the first place, it hardly makes sense that they were, simply by the knowledge of birth control’s existence, caused to abandon the social mores society had followed for thousands of years. The Akerlof argument falls especially flat when polls show a vast majority of the poor still idealize marriage and want to be married—and marriage, especially among the poor, leads to large gains in income (when not factoring in government benefits).
4) The claim that one cannot blame the welfare state for the rise in out-of-wedlock births, because welfare’s real payout declined in the inflationary era of the ’70s, forgets that welfare’s benefits can’t be examined in a bubble. They must be examined alongside the payout for employment. Just because welfare’s real benefits declined doesn’t mean welfare’s payout to a single parent stopped exceeding the benefits of marriage for a low-income couple. Also, inflationary eras are not good for blue-collar workers, especially for those that live paycheck to paycheck, as many times price rises outpace wage rises, eroding the real benefits of labor.
Repeating the Akerlof Argument
In today’s America, the Akerlof argument, made back in 1996, echoes across the nation’s newspapers and blogosphere. Last month, in the illustrious New York Times opinion page, the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill echoed the Akerlof argument in an article titled “Beyond Marriage.” Here, Sawhill talks about how restoring marriage is a lost cause, and how a “new norm” is needed:
The old social norm was, ‘Don’t have a child outside of marriage.’ The new norm needs to be, ‘Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents.’ Whether or not it was a realistic norm in the past, it is now — precisely because newer forms of contraception make planning a family so much easier… If we combine an updated social norm with greater reliance on the most effective forms of birth control, we can transform drifters into planners and improve children’s life prospects.
She goes on to make a claim, also made in an article by Nicholas Kristof, that “[c]onservatives, however, have never explained how to restore marriage. Everything they have tried — from marriage-education programs to changes in the way marriage is treated in tax and benefit programs — has had little or no effect.”
This is simply not true. When Sawhill and Kristof claim conservatives have marriage promotion strategies with no result, they mostly speak of tax-code reforms and a predominately faith-based marriage counseling program created under the Bush administration. These programs either dealt with the financial disincentives for marriage within the income-tax code (but poor Americans don’t pay income taxes), or they didn’t deal with the financial disincentives at all. No program has reversed the disincentive for marriage among the poor caused by America’s current state and federal welfare programs.
Deconstructing Civil Society
The real problem is not that the Akerlof argument is wrong, but that it is insidious. Here is where a lesson on the true nature of the Left can be learned. Radical leftists the world over, from Marx to Mao to Chavez, have always made an enemy of civil society. The American Left is no different. Despite the compelling social science, at the end of the day the American Left is committed to obfuscating on the issue of marriage among the poor because the Left hates the institution of marriage—children living in poverty be damned.
Due to tax liability if income is earned, and welfare checks if no income exists, poor moms in America are better able to feed and clothe their children when human fathers are traded for the Government Father. If we want children to be successful in life, however, they need a human father. In this light, increasing aid to single mothers will only make matters worse.
Further, although making effective contraception cheaper for consumers is laudable, what organization will be lucky enough to get the Akerlof plan’s extra federal cash? If you guessed Planned Parenthood, the Left’s favored special-interest, you’d be right. Worse, treating poor women as if their lives purely revolve around sex, and failing to acknowledge their sincere want of a husband and children, denies an intrinsic element of a poor woman’s humanity. Either way, dumping more birth control on poor women won’t solve the lack of marriage among the poor.
Par for the course, the Left’s proposed solutions to rectify declining marriage among the poor are nothing more than an attack on civil society, an attempt to rabidly individualize the citizenry and grow the state until no barrier exists between the state’s direct and exclusive intercourse with the individual. This is, essentially, the Progressive’s idea of utopia. For many Americans, and for our country’s founders, this would be the definition of hell.
The real solution to America’s marriage crisis is to counteract the ill effects of government handouts. This could be done through raising benefits for poor married couples. A first step could be drastically increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit benefit for poor married couples, and making sure that the benefit appears paycheck to paycheck, not as an end-of-year tax credit. Both Republicans and moderate Democrats should support such a plan—it wouldn’t cut benefits for anyone, and would raise benefits for many Americans with children. Would the far Left (the majority of the Democratic Party today) support this strategy? Given the real motives at play, probably not.