Stephanie Coontz: The Death of Marriage Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Roundup: Historians' Take

Stephanie Coontz, Evergreen State college professor and author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage” and “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap,” squared off against Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Children and Families in an online debate on governmental pro-marriage policies, produced by The Economist.

Haskins argued that pro-marriage policies promote the "general welfare" because there is a direct correlation between married parents and well-adjusted children, and that "children in single parent-families, despite government benefit programmes [sic] for the poor, have around a four times greater chance of living in poverty than children in married-couple families."

Coontz's rebuttal:

Rumours of the death of marriage are greatly exaggerated. Marriage rates are calculated on the basis of how many women over age 18 are married. With the age of first marriage at an all-time high, the percentage of married women has shrunk to new lows. But most women will still marry at some point in their lives. The real change is that marriage is no longer the master event that organises people’s entire lives and within which they make all their major life transitions, and there is increasing class divergence in those transitions.

Educated women tend to marry later than any other group of women, but encouraging them to marry earlier is not necessarily wise, because every year that a woman postpones marriage, right into her 30s, decreases her chance of divorce.1 Educated women also tend to postpone childbirth until after marriage.

Poorly educated and low-income women, by contrast, are less likely to postpone motherhood.2 But encouraging unwed mothers to marry may simply be a route to more divorce. A three-decade-long study by Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist, found that of more than 300 unwed teenage mothers, only 20% of those who married the father of their children and just 10% of those who married a different man remained wed throughout their children's lives.3 Impoverished women who divorce often end up worse off economically than if they had never married, while their children face the added risks of marital conflict and chaotic transitions in living arrangements.It seems odd, then, that American policymakers would put more emphasis on encouraging such women to marry than on implementing policies known to be associated with delayed childbearing: access to safe and affordable contraception (with legal abortion as a back-up measure); and expansion of educational and employment opportunities that give young people the incentive to avoid pregnancy.

Governments should certainly foster policies that make it easier for people to enter and sustain stable relationships. But when policymakers view marriage as a cure-all for poverty and other social ills, encouraging marriage can become a substitute for policies that actually improve child well-being....

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