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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Ross Douthat, Stable Families, and Economics

Ross Douthat, Stable Families, and Economics

Monday, 10 May 2010 04:40

Ross Douthat gave us a quick morality discussion about the growing numbers of children born out of wedlock. It might have helped to add some of the economic dimension to this story, both positive and negative. The positive is that economic opportunities for women have increased enormously over the last four decades. This means that many women who might have felt trapped in a bad or abusive marriage years ago now feel that they can survive on their own.

The negative side is that wages for most workers have stagnated for the last three decades as the bulk of the gains from productivity growth have gone to the most highly educated workers. Lower and insecure income places more stress on families and undoubtedly has been a factor in family breakups in many cases.

Okay, now we can go back to Douthat's morality story.

Comments (10)Add Comment
Nice post
written by Aditya Savara, May 10, 2010 6:07
I think you're probably correct that it has contributed to family breakups. Well, then again, the recession decreased divorces because it became harder financially to live alone. It must be a bell shaped curve, with the recession pushing things to the other tail.
written by rickstersherpa, May 10, 2010 8:05
Besides the atavistic desire to stigmatize women for having sex without being bonded to a single man, there is a long line of studies, going back to Pat Moynihan, showing that decline of employeeability and earning power of men at the lower educational levels, both in cities and rural areas, has eroded economic basis of such families, starting with Blacks in 1960s and 70s, and then extending to whites during the 1980s through the oughts.
written by izzatzo, May 10, 2010 8:29
How many moral relativists does it take to put a price on morality?

A hundred, one to make up demand fantasies and 99 to move the supply cuve into equilibrium with sin, shame and subsidies.

Stupid liberals.
even the army wears helmets
written by frankenduf, May 10, 2010 9:18
yo rickstersherpa- not sure what atavistic is, but surely the stigmatization is on women having sex without demanding the horse use a trojan, no?- whether this is more morality (i would say common sense) or lack of education from lack of resources is another story
written by skeptonomist, May 10, 2010 10:25
When welfare was expanded by Great Society programs in the 60's, wages were high enough that there was incentive to leave welfare and take an entry-level job. The record since the Depression had been of steadily increasing wages, so the outlook for decreasing poverty (winning the "war on poverty") was optimistic. But while welfare rates increased automatically with the cost of living, low-end wages crashed through the 70's. The difficulty of getting people off welfare was a result of the failure of the private economy, not the welfare state.
written by Queen of Sheba, May 10, 2010 11:18
If Douthat's morality story had been written along more economic lines than social lines, he might also have picked up clues from his "red state/blue state" statistics that one of the main reasons unmarried women with children have a much more difficult time of it in the red states is that, despite these states' insisting on abstinence before marriage and shotgun weddings, the laws in these states regarding child support payments are rarely enforced.

It is far too easy for the fathers of children to simply disappear, leaving the women alone to fend for their households and forcing them to rely more and more on the social safety net. Red states also have the most niggardly rates of state support for single mothers, thereby compounding the problem. In the Southern states support is so lacking that if a woman is not a member of a church, and therefore can not beg for help from a religious congregation, her family is certain to suffer the worst consequences of single parenthood.

If Ross wants to write a column that might be helpful, he should exit the "single motherhood" train and board the "make the fathers pay" express.
written by PeonInChief, May 10, 2010 11:21
Marriages are more stable in blue states because blue states are richer, and the primary determinant in marital stability is lack of financial stress. Very simple. And when women have more educational/occupational choices, they're likely to explore those choices before marriage.

And we don't stigmatize out-of-wedlock births because the stigma never attached to the father, but to the mother and, amazingly, the child. When, in a burst of unexplained intelligence, our society stopped stigmatizing kids, it was a good thing.
written by carlianschwartz, May 10, 2010 2:01
The 800-pound gorilla missing from Douthat's discussion is economic stability/opportunity for most Americans. Back in the 1950s, America not only innovated but manufactured goods, leading to stable employment, which, in turn, enabled families where only the father worked.

Then--and today--women were hired for a smaller wage than men, especially "men with responsibilities."

Right-wing ideology is blindered, to say the least. You cannot have the stability needed for 1950s-style marriage with a thirty-plus-year history of outsourcing. Combine this with a mindset that demonizes abortion, sex education (other than abstinence-only) to inform on non-procreative means of having sex, and reducing access to contraception, and we have the present mess. And a mess it is, no matter how skewed, sanitized, or propagandized the discussion.
written by Larry Signor, May 11, 2010 12:05
Douthat uses his entire column as a book review to set up a platform for his views on abortion. I happen to agree with most of his position on abortion but find his literary mechanisms alarming. If he has an opinion, it should be stated and not obfuscated by literary dissembling. Working footnotes would help him justify some of his more problematic statements.
written by Steve Athearn, May 11, 2010 12:32
This is an iceberg tip of a terrible dilemma: Alleviation of the social conditions that are decried depends on economic growth (increasing opportunities for women, workers taking home their fair share of productivity growth), yet economic growth is certainly not a condition that can be sustained; rather it is an anomalous side effect of a peculiar historical conditions in which, for a brief interval, fossil fuels were available in such abundance growth could seem normal. That remarkable circumstance permeates every aspect of the culture, but in particular it has spawned a group of intellectuals known as "economists" who specialize in not understanding more than marginal aspects of "economies" (nothing is more central than the fact that I have just alluded to). Unfortunately, this generalization extends to the so-called "progressive economists" as well.

Richard Heinberg sums up the reality at the conclusion of an article posted today on The Oil Drum:

"But we can't wish these limits away. Impossible things (like unending economic growth) won't happen just because people want them to. And awful things (like the wreck of the China train) won't be averted just because acknowledging them makes us uncomfortable."

"There are of course steps that Chinese officials—everyone, in fact—could take to make the situation better. We should be developing and deploying renewable energy as fast as possible, with a wartime mentality in terms of priority and commitment. And we should be planning for the end of growth, indeed for economic contraction. These things will be difficult, there's no getting around it. Still, they are possible in principle. But we will fail for sure if we remain sunk in denial and do not even make the effort."

"China's economic bubble in some ways represents a microcosm of the entire industrial period—itself a relatively brief era of urbanization, fossil-fueled expansion, technological innovation, and unprecedented explosion of consumption. China has taken only two or three decades to accomplish what some other nations did over the course of a couple of centuries. This suggests that, for that country, implosion may come just as quickly."

"It is all a remarkable spectacle. Sit back, watch, and marvel if you wish. But know one thing: unless we collectively wake up, engage the brakes on this runaway train (and here I am speaking not just of China), and start discussing how we will adjust to the end of economic growth as we have known and defined it, none of this will end well."

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Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.