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Marriage Penalty

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 4/3/2002

When the buzz-phrase "family values" started gaining currency on the national scene around the late '80s, I was single, and still emotionally bewildered from the effects of my parents' horrible marriage--which officially ended in divorce court around that time, but which really should have been put out of its misery 10 or 15 years earlier.

I hated, hated, hated the sanctimonious mournfulness of social conservatives decrying the divorce rate, and the glib rhetoric of politicians who made it sound as if staying together for the Sake of the Children--that holy abstraction--was always the right choice, no matter how dysfunctional the marriage or how neglected, victimized, or just plain unhappy the children. The only thing I could see at the time was the truth of my own family situation: years of fighting and misery while we all lived under the same roof, and the faint glimmer of hope that things might change for the better once the primary belligerents had put some distance between them.

So I had a tendency to take public anti-divorce rhetoric as both a personal insult and a threat. What I didn't understand at the time was that when politicians and televangelists squawk on and on about "virtues" and "values" and "traditions," they are generally not concerned with the complicated emotional realities of people's lives. They are actually talking about money and power, about taxes and the kinds of social programs Americans want--or, rather, don't want--to pay for.

Consider the federal government's current interest in promoting marriage among the welfare population. The Bush administration's proposed reauthorization of welfare includes $300 million for grants focused on promoting healthy marriages and reducing out-of-wedlock births. Sound like a wise, humane, and thoroughly blameless agenda? Take a closer look.

The April 8 issue of The American Prospect has a package of excellent articles on this issue and related developments in the current politics of family. Several writers point out that, yes, there is a broad consensus among social scientists that children tend to be better off emotionally and financially when their parents are married to each other. Moreover, married adults themselves have better lives--fewer health problems, higher savings, increased job productivity. Such findings partly reflect the fact that well-adjusted people have an easier time succeeding in marriage. But they also show that when people get married, they do act in healthier and more productive ways. In other words, a healthy marriage is both a cause and an effect of the individual health of all its members.

This is an idea that I could not have understood as a 21-year-old whose parents' relationship had been bad from the beginning. It makes a lot of sense to me now as a 36-year-old. I value my own strong marriage and work to make it work. But I also take some comfort from the knowledge that, if things ever got irredeemably bad between my husband and me, we could end it if we had to.

So while I agree that a good marriage is a good thing for individuals and societies, I am still aggravated by those who think it a panacea for widespread social ills. Many conservatives seem to think that a higher marriage rate and fewer out-of-wedlock births will automatically result in decreased poverty and, ultimately, the obsolescence of all forms of welfare. This is backward thinking. As one policy analyst observes in an American Prospect article, "It's not just the case that single mothers find themselves poor because they are unmarried; they find themselves unmarried because they are poor. Successful marriages are more difficult when husbands and wives are poorly educated, lack access to jobs that pay decently, and cannot afford decent child care. Economic hardship and other problems associated with poverty can wreak havoc on couples' relationships."

Or, as another writer puts it, marriage could be the solution to poverty "if poor women in the South Bronx could marry stockbrokers in Westchester."

No one has proposed legislation forcing people to act along those lines--although the implicit coercion seems nearly as absurd and heartless in some ideas promulgated by conservative commentators, such as Charles Shaar Murray's proposal to eliminate all state welfare aid to unmarried mothers under 18.

Looking at these issues, I find myself once again wondering how it is that social conservatives and economic conservatives ever agree on anything. The societies that truly support marriage are the ones that shell out the dough to make pro-marriage policies work--Sweden, Norway, France, and other European countries that still have a strong social safety net. The social programs or policies that would truly create an environment for healthier American marriages are the very ones that tax-hating conservatives generally block, dismantle, or refuse to consider: universal health care and paid parental leave; job security and benefits for part-time workers; full-time jobs that pay well but don't demand egregious amounts of overtime; and fully supported public education. (In a study of the 1998 federal Current Population Survey, UC-Berkeley's Michael Hout and Claude Fischer found that "while two-thirds of American children live in two-parent families, only 43 percent of children in households headed by a high-school dropout do.")

The low-divorce, low-poverty, family-friendly America that people claim to want will not be purchased through punitive laws, "covenant" marriages, or nostalgic rhetoric about values and personal responsibility. You get what you pay for, and only that.

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