Reflections on Marriage Debate

By: Vienna Scott

Recently, keeping with the tradition of Buckley himself, the Wiliam F. Buckley Junior Program hosted a Firing Line Debate between Professor June Carbone and Professor Brad Wilcox on the topic “Why has America retreated from marriage?” 

Dr. Carbone is the Robina Chair in Law, Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota Law School, where she specializes in contracts, family law, remedies and bioethics. She has published books on this subject including Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture and Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family.

Dr. Wilcox is Professor of Sociology and the current director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He is also a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Much of his research is on the institution of marriage around the globe and the ways that marriage impacts family life, civil society, and economies. He has coauthored works such as Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives, and Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christiaity Shapes Fathers and Husbands. 

Professor Carbone opened the conversation by positing that culture mediates economics. The real story of the changing American family is the story of the decline in high paying manufacturing jobs, the end of permanent employment, the increased emphasis on education and experience in hiring, and the increasing demand for women’s labor. She marked these as the products of the Industrial Revolution. During the industrial revolution people began to seek higher education because their jobs were automated and this naturally shifted demands in the job market. But even through the seventies, economic class did not seem to cause a decline in the family. Family form, the average hours worked, and parental time with children did not vary between white and blue collar workers or between those with high school and college degrees.

Now, in the information age, there has been a reorganization of the family. Unlike the changes in the 20th century, the modern era paints a demonstrably class based picture of family change. Citing statistical evidence in the forms of birth rates, marriage age, likelihood of divorce, unintended pregnancy rates, and male employment rates, Prof. Carbone demonstrated that unlike in the seventies, there is a great inequality in the decline of the traditional family across economic backgrounds. For poorer people, marriage is legally risky. When men are very likely to be incarcerated or die prematurely due to accidents or overdoses, there are fewer men in the community as a whole and thus more single mothers and a decline in marriage. These have unfortunate reinforcing effects. As this cycle has perpetuated, women have learned assortative marriage pays off. More than ⅔ of divorces are now initiated by women and this is more likely to be women lower on the socioeconomic ladder. Women are initiating divorce for many reasons but the general picture is that if men cannot be financially reliable, the incentive to get married and stay married greatly diminishes. 

Why has America retreated from marriage? Because marriage requires stability, trust, and commitment to partnership above all. When males lack access to reliable jobs and thus have more transient lives, there are more single parents and conditions are bad for women and children. Changing economic conditions change culture and economic instability destabilizes relationships. Part of the solution is to think about a socially rewarded status for male employment and ways to move stable jobs into low income communities. 

Then Professor Wilcox took the podium and painted the facts Prof. Carbone described in a new light. He conceded that working class and poor children are more likely to experience familial instability and that there are both ethnic and gendered dimensions to the decline in families. The real difference between his and Prof. Carbone’s speech came when he highlighted the statistics about the outcomes of wealthy families in America. Instead of arguing that economic instability is the cause of the decline in American families, he proposed that the decline in American families causes economic instability. When rich parents get divorced, their children are more likely to end up in the middle or lower class than their peers. Intact families at any level are more likely to produce college graduates, have lower rates of incarceration, and less teen pregnancies. Marriage matters- even for rich kids! 

He further addressed Carbone’s economic account by demonstrating that the transformations of the American family were underway in the cultural revolutions of the 60’s which is well before the dramatic income inequality and mass incarceration of the 80’s. In fact, these phenomena in the 80’s may be products of the earlier family changes. Wilcox pointed out that if economics really drives culture in the way Carbone supposes, then there should be a change in family structure around other major economic downturns like the Great Depression. But in the 30’s there was no big increase in divorce or family instability thus culture is really what shapes communities even if economics matters. This role of culture can also explain why minorities and religious communities are disproportionately succeeding at marriage. His solution? We need to renew the structural foundations and the cultural foundations of family life. 

Naturally, one firing line debate did not resolve all the questions about the role of marriage in American life going forward. Students posed questions to the Professors about the role of female empowerment, polyamory, criminal justice, moving manufacturing jobs, and welfare policy in changing families. These questions showed just how complicated addressing the decline in families will be. Nevertheless, their debate gave a great insight both into the historical narrative of marriage in America and the current conditions that we will have to face as we approach careers that impact policy and as we approach marriage ourselves.