W. Bradford Wilcox thinks marriage is worth saving.
The head of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia believes the fortunes of the middle class depend on it.
Wilcox is an associate professor of sociology as well as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. In these roles he researches family structure, civil society and culture and their effects on family life. He is the author of many books, articles, and reports, including When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America.
His research, which does not address same-sex marriage, has drawn attention from Republican policy reformers, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
In a conversation with the Washington Examiner, Wilcox explained why he stresses marriage and what can be done to promote it. The following is a lightly edited interview.
Examiner: Why is marriage so important? What does it do that government programs can’t do?
Wilcox: Three pillars undergird opportunity in America for most men and women. Those three pillars are: one, education; two, work; and three, marriage.
We know from work that Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have done at the Brookings Institution that Americans who pursue a success sequence, in which they first get educated, then get jobs, then get married, then have kids, in that sequence, enjoy markedly higher levels of economic success as well as a lower risk of divorce and poverty.
On both the Left and Right there’s been a substantial focus on education in recent years, partly because people recognize if you improve schools, you improve kids’ odds of making it in America. And there has been new attention devoted to employment policies, on matters ranging from the minimum wage to the Earned Income Tax Credit.
In different ways, the Left and Right have offered competing alternatives designed to strengthen those first two pillars: education and work. But there hasn’t been as much effort devoted to shoring up that third pillar, which is marriage and, more generally, strong and stable families.
It’s unfortunate because we know as an empirical matter that coming from a strong marriage, an intact married family, and then going on to form your own marriage are strongly linked to better economic outcomes both for adults and kids. Today, for instance, men in their 40s who are now married make about $18,000 more than their single peers from otherwise similar backgrounds.
Examiner: Should we be worried about marriage rates?
Wilcox: There are definitely reasons for concern about the health of marriage in America.
We have seen marriage rates fall, nonmarital childbearing rates rise, and family instability also increase as a consequence of this retreat from marriage, so there’s definitely cause for concern. All this is particularly worrisome because a large marriage divide has opened up between Americans with college degrees and the less educated.
Marriage is in pretty good shape among college-educated Americans, the vast majority of whom will get married, stay married and have their children in marriage.
But marriage is becoming weaker not just among the poor, as it has been since the late 1970s, but also among the working class and lower middle class. More and more people in small towns, rural communities and outlying suburbs are having their kids outside of marriage, They also have a much higher risk of divorce. In consequence, family instability and single parenthood have climbed dramatically among this moderately educated demographic in the last 25 years or so.
Examiner: So marriage rates are falling. Could the trend be reversed?
Wilcox: There are two reasons for hope when it comes to marriage.
Number one, college-educated Americans have come to their senses about its importance for themselves and the kids they have.
One of the good things we’ve seen since the height of the divorce revolution of the late ‘70s or ‘80s is the divorce rate has come down for college-educated people.
That’s partly because of a renewal of a marriage mindset among the college educated, where people are investing more in their marriages and are more reluctant to get divorced.
One example from the political class is the story of Newt Gingrich vs. Barack Obama, and I’m not making a political point here, I’m making a generational point.
Gingrich came of age in the ‘70s, at the height of the divorce revolution, and his marital experience reflects that.
Whereas Obama comes of age later, and gets married in the 1990s, and his married life is much more stable and secure than what Gingrich’s has been.
So I think the Newt Gingrich-Barack Obama example suggests the way there’s been kind of a generational shift in college-educated Americans toward more marital stability.
Examiner: Why does it matter that Obama has a different marriage history than Gingrich?
Wilcox: Among elites, marriage has done pretty well. The question is, can we take this cultural wisdom, the return of a marriage mindset, and extend it to our society as whole?
Number two, many of the trends we’ve been talking about for decades now have stabilized since the Great Recession hit or even before that.
Since the Great Recession, we’ve seen nonmarital childbearing stabilize at 41 percent since 2007, which is a marked departure from before, when it went up every year.
We may have reached a ceiling when it comes to single parenthood and nonmarital childbearing. If so, that’s an opportunity we should build on to encourage people outside of the third of Americans who are college educated to invest more in their marriages and to give them the economic and cultural support they need to do so.
Examiner: But what can politics or policy do about it? What would you tell people in Washington to do?
Wilcox: From the perspective of Washington, D.C., the first point I would make is “First, do no harm.”
The idea here is that many public policies unintentionally undercut marriage.
In particular, many of our means-tested policies penalize any young couples who are expecting a child together, or have had a child together, and are weighing marriage as one way to go about forming a family.
I’m not saying that people are going to not get married simply because of some federal policy, but it is a factor, particularly considering something like Medicaid. If you’re having a baby, that’s pretty expensive, and if your Medicaid eligibility is going to be shaped by whether or not you’re a single mother seeking support or a married mom who is not eligible for Medicaid because your husband is earning just enough money to make the family ineligible, that’s a consideration.
Examiner: Other than reforming marriage penalties, what could be done?
Wilcox: Policymakers need to think more about strengthening the economic foundations underneath working-class and lower middle-class families. Americans without college degrees have seen their real wages decline since the 1970s. So measures such as increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, in the spirit of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal, would help, especially in making less-educated men more marriageable.
I also would support proposals to increase the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 and to extend that not just to income taxes but to payroll taxes, in the spirit of Sen. Mike Lee’s plan. That would put a substantial amount of money into the household accounts of many working-class and lower middle-class families across the country and help to stabilize the economic foundations of their families.
On the education front, the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S. We can do a lot better in both funding and focusing on vocational education and apprenticeship training, taking lessons from Germany, England and Japan, and from states such as South Carolina, for instance, that are moving more aggressively to make middle-skilled jobs more accessible to young adults in their communities.
I think if we do that we’ll not only boost incomes but also the sense of self-worth and dignity that come from having a good job paying a decent wage.
Examiner: Would that policy wish list be enough to accomplish what you would like to see?
Wilcox: It’s important to note that public policy can only go so far and do so much when it comes to strengthening marriage and family life in America. Absent some kind of cultural and civic shift in which marriage becomes a stronger norm, and where there are more civic institutions to support families, we’re not going to see a major reversal from the retreat in marriage in America.
So, the biggest question facing the nation is this: Will civic leaders, religious leaders, advertisers, educators and pop cultural leaders get behind a marriage campaign for the 21st century in the same way that they got behind recent campaigns to fight smoking or teen pregnancy? If they would, I think the U.S. could make substantial progress in renewing marriage and bridging the marriage divide that now separates our country.