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Pick One: Marriage Culture Or Government Culture

The Virginia gubernatorial election shows once again that the married-unmarried divide may now be the most important fact in politics.


Virginia’s close gubernatorial election gives observers much to ruminate on. But one exit poll statistic in particular jumps out:

That means Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli didn’t lose women so much as single women. He won a majority of the votes of married women. One fascinating crosstab from race showed that Cuccinelli actually did better with married women (51-42%) than with married men (50-44%).

As John Podhoretz noted:

The hapless Republican Party will no doubt learn all the wrong lessons about what to do in efforts to reach out to more women. It’s not actually that difficult to counteract the idiotic but successful “War on Women” messaging, but the GOP has not figured it out yet.

Still, it’s interesting to reflect more generally on what this divide between single and married women means. Why are married women supportive of a limited government candidate such as Cuccinelli and single women not? Why did marital status trump gender, age, and education in predicting votes in yesterday’s Virginia election?

Or as I suggested:

This resonated with quite a few folks, but confused the New York Times’ John Schwartz:

Another left-of-center reader was even more confused:

It seems obvious to some people who think about the importance of strong institutions in creating a free society, but it’s not obvious to everyone. So a few quick thoughts along the lines of Tocqueville’s understanding that a vibrant civil society is an irreplaceable condition for liberty and human flourishing.

The University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project came out with a fascinating report (“When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America by Brad Wilcox“) showing that marriage in America is becoming something of an elite institution, reserved for older individuals. Wealthy white people are getting married and having strong marriages. Other folks less so. Far less so. Delayed marriage has both costs and benefits. It’s worked out well for elite women and helped them have more career advancement. But the failure to marry has had some serious destabilizing effects on non-elite women. The report notes:

Marriage is a middle-class institution that provides stability and security for family life against the hustle of the market and the bustle of a dynamic society. Indeed, as Tocqueville famously observed, Americans have traditionally embraced marriage more fervently than have Europeans because we need it as a bulwark against the individualism and entrepreneurialism that pervades our society and economy. It is one of the great social tragedies of our time that marriage is flourishing among the most advantaged and self-actualized groups in our society and waning among those who could most benefit from its economic and child-rearing partnership.

Marriage has become something of an elite status marker for aging women and men, as opposed to its former role in the States as a gateway to adult responsibility. But that gateway issue is still key. In a section of the report on the “surprising economic benefits” of marriage, we learn the economic benefits of marriage are substantial for individuals and society. It’s worth looking at:

Compared to those continuously married, those who never marry have a reduction in wealth of 75 percent, and those who divorced and didn’t remarry have a reduction of 73 percent. One might think that the explanation for why marriage generates economic assets is because those people who are more likely to be wealth creators are also more likely to marry and stay married. This is certainly true, but it is only part of the story. The institution of marriage itself provides a wealth-generation bonus. It does this through providing economies of scale (two can live more cheaply than one). And as it implies a long-term personal contract, it encourages economic specialization: working as a couple, individuals can develop those skills in which they excel, leaving others to their partner. Also, married couples save and invest more for the future, and they can act as a small insurance pool against life uncertainties such as illness and job loss. Probably because of marital social norms that encourage healthy, productive behavior, men tend to become more economically productive after marriage. They earn between 10 and 20 percent more than do single men with similar education and job histories... Research has consistently shown that both divorce and non marital childbearing increase child poverty. In recent years, the majority of children who grow up outside of married families have experienced at least one year of dire poverty. According to one study, if family structure had not changed between 1960 and 1998, the black child poverty rate in 1998 would have been 28.4 percent rather than 45.6 percent, and the white child poverty rate would have been 11.4 percent rather than 15.4 percent. The rise in child poverty, of course, generates significant public costs in health and welfare programs. Marriages that end in divorce also are very costly to the public. One researcher determined that a single divorce costs state and federal governments about $30,000, based on such things as the higher use of food stamps and public housing as well as increased bankruptcies and juvenile delinquency. The nation’s 1.4 million divorces in 2002 are estimated to have cost taxpayers more than $30 billion.

It’s pretty simple, really. It may be popular to pretend that women and men are identical, but women and the children they love are the most vulnerable to the downsides of a culture where marriage is delayed or forgotten. We bear far more economic risk and suffer through the deleterious effects of instability. Women in strong marriages tend to have their basic needs cared for by their own family unit and the civil society closest to them. Women who are not in strong marriages tend to rely on the government. Voting patterns reflect how women’s incentives change with changes in their marital status.

We should never forget Julia, President Obama’s central character in the “War on Women” campaign. She lived “her entire life by leaning on government intervention, dependency and other people’s money rather than her own initiative or hard work,” as David Harsanyi wrote.

And she never married.