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Home Publications Blogs CEPR Blog Family Structure is Overrated as an Explanation of Inequality, Part 3 on DeParle's Marriage Plot

Family Structure is Overrated as an Explanation of Inequality, Part 3 on DeParle's Marriage Plot

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Wednesday, 18 July 2012 12:00

Sociologist Loïc Wacquant writes that "binary oppositions are well-suited to exaggerating differences, confounding description and prescription, and setting up overburdened dualisms that erase continuities, underplay contingency, and overestimate the internal coherence of social forms."

It's written in jargony academese, but I think it gets to the heart of the problem with Jason DeParle's piece on family structure and inequality, which is built on the definitely overburdened dualism of unmarried vs. married mothers. 

Just one example, DeParle writes that: "Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man."

But a closer look at the evidence suggests DeParle overgeneralizes here.

"Married couples are having children later than they used to ..."

It's not just married couples who are having children later than they used to, it's women generally. According to the CDC, the average age of first-time mothers have gone from 21.4 in 1970 to 25 in 2006. (And, remember, this is even though oodles more of those mothers are unmarried.) The rise in average age for first-time mothers is a good thing for both married and unmarried mothers (and their children).  Researchers at RAND have found that marriage lowers wage growth for men and women, and childbearing lowers wages for women. They conclude that "early marriage and childbearing can lead to substantial decreases in lifetime earnings."

"Married couples are ... divorcing less."

According to a 2012 report from the CDC: "The probability of a first marriage reaching its 20th anniversary was 52% for women and 56% for men in 2006–2010. These levels are consistent with those reported in the NSFG in previous years, and in vital statistics data three decades ago."

The actual story on trends in marriage, divorce, and education is much more nuanced and interesting than DeParle makes it out to be. As Paula England and Jonathan Bearak note in a useful survey of marriage trends (italics are mine):

If we focus on the early to mid-20s, a higher percent of the less educated are married. The higher educated groups catch up and pull ahead in their late 20s and 30s, possibly because more of them have the economic resources that young people now consider a prerequisite to marriage. If we focus on the rest of life (represented in our data up to age 45), educational differences in those who are currently married are even larger once people move into their late 30s and 40s because those at lower educational levels have higher divorce rates.

So, while DeParle puts all his emphasis on Ms. Schairer's decision not to say "I Do" in her early 20s as setting up a class divide between her and Chris Faulkner, her decision to delay marriage was, if anything, the more "middle-class" one. If she had married the father, I have little doubt—based on what DeParle tells us about the farther and what we know about the very high divorce rates for people who marry in their early 20s—that the marriage would have ended in divorce.

Most likely, this would have left Schairer in worse shape economically in the long run. As Daniel Lichter and his colleagues have found:

...for women who marry, but later divorce, poverty rates exceed those of never-married women. Marriage alone will not offset the long-term deleterious effects associated with unwed childbearing, nor will it eliminate the existing disparity in poverty among various racial and ethnic groups. 

"Many [single parents] have children with more than one man."

But "many" married mothers also have children with more than one man. According to University of Michigan researcher Cassadra Dorius, who has done one of the only national studies of multiple partner fertility: "multiple partner fertility is surprisingly common at all levels of income and education and is frequently tied to marriage and divorce rather than just single parenthood." Here's Dorius: "We tend to think of women with multiple partner fertility as being only poor single women with little education and money, but in fact at some point, most were married, and working, and going to school, and doing all the things you're supposed to do to live the American Dream." 

Finally, dualisms are inevitable, but there are much more persuasive and useful ones out there on this topic than DeParle-Murray's. Naomi Cahn and June Carbone's Red Famlies v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture is one good example, in particular because it actually has something useful to say about what we should doing in the policy realm.

Similarly, DeParle would be wise to take a closer look at what Andrew Cherlin has called "the American difference" in marriage. Comparing the U.S. with other wealthy Western nations, he finds that in the U.S. there is "more marriage, but also more divorce ... more lone parents but also more repartnering ... over the course of people's adult lives, there is more movement into and out of marriages and cohabiting relationships than in other countries."

Articles like DeParle's that make everything hinge on "I Do" only add fuel to this fire. If we want to improve children's lives, increase of promoting marriage to young people, we would be wiser to follow Cherlin's advice: "to the current chorus of 'Get Married,' I would sound a counterpoint: 'Slow down.' ... Although marriage is important, slowing down the process of partnering would be in the best interests of American children. We should make stable families a policy priority regardless of how many parents are present in the home."

Tags: families | income | inequality | jobs | low-wage workers | poverty | working class

Comments (2)Add Comment
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written by larold, July 19, 2012 12:38
Of course family is the most important consideration. But why isn't marriage also the most important consideration? The statistics tell the story: there are 19 welfare families headed by a single parent for every 2-parent welfare family. A child's chances of being raised in poverty are 20 times higher when born to a single parent. It isn't rocket science. To ensure the best chance for your children, get married first, then have kids. And stay together. Why we do this backwards in our society is key to rising levels of public assistance, now being paid out to almost 30 percent of the population.
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written by PeonInChief, July 22, 2012 5:11
A couple of notes: single-parent families are always more likely to be poor than two-parent families. Two parent families have more people to put into either paid labor or to circumvent the need for childcare. And it's necessary to have two incomes to buy most of the trappings of middle class life. Duh.

Second, the main driver of divorce is money. Middle-class couples are less likely to divorce than those of us in the working class simply because they have more money. (Interestingly, that's one of the reasons that blue states have lower divorce rates than red states--blue state families have more money.)

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