Conservatives, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) being the most high-profile of late, like to tout marriage as a cure for poverty. There’s something to this, and the idea of crafting policies designed to stabilize the family structure isn’t a crazy one. But the conservative vision is too myopically focused on pushing people into marriage, an idea with a dubious track record at best.
Salvaging the core conservative insight behind “marriage promotion,” however, is possible. It just needs to borrow some ideas about the welfare state and delayed childbearing from the progressive playbook. This cross-ideological approach to marriage policy could make people better off, stabilize the family, and help combat the structural sexism that limit women’s career possibilities — all at the same time.
One of the biggest problems facing modern single parents isn’t their singlehood; it’s their age. As several good studies on marriage by both progressive and conservative authors have recently shown, the norm among the highest educated Americans is to delay big life decisions like marriage and family until the formative period of college and work are well under way. The basic mantra for many successful professional class families is: “Get educated; get a career; get married; and then have children.”
The propensity to delay parenthood has given wealthy, educated young adults a leg up. College educated women who have delayed marriage end up with more personal income, “markedly” higher household incomes, and are much less likely to end up divorced, according to researchers from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia:
The story among lower-income and less educated women is more complicated. Many women without four-year college degrees are delaying marriage but not childbearing. Unfortunately, the consequences of a bad marriage, an unwanted pregnancy and single parenting are much more difficult for lower-income women, who often suffer lifelong setbacks in their educational attainment and earning capacity. Unlike their college educated and wealthier peers, there’s virtually no support system helping these women and their children get back on track if things do not work out as planned when they are younger.
Recent public opinion research released by the Center for American Progress and The Shriver Report shows that American women recognize the problems inherent to young parenthood. Fifty-two percent of low-income women and 63 percent of single mothers say that if they could do it all over again, they would have delayed getting married. Seventy-six percent of single mothers wish they had “gotten out of a bad relationship sooner.” Forty-seven percent of single mothers say they would “delayed having kids or had fewer kids.”
What would these women have done instead? More than three-quarters (77 percent) of low-income women and nearly seven in ten (68 percent) of single mothers say they would have “put a higher priority on [their] education and career.”
So it’s fairly clear that delayed marriage and childbearing is good for women’s advancement and overall family economic security. However, the reality today is that more than half the children who are born to mothers under the age of 30 are born outside of marriage.
So what is to be done?
As center-right parties in Europe have long recognized, the path to stronger families requires both cultural norms that facilitate good family decisions and an adequate social welfare system that helps families and those who fall through the cracks.
A narrow emphasis on marriage alone can’t solve these problems. Women and their children will ultimately do better if the sequencing of important life decisions (and policies to support these decisions) puts more emphasis on education and career in one’s younger years followed later by marriage and then children as people become more established. Trying to push “traditional” marriage, where women put their careers on the back burner to assume primary child rearing responsibility, is part of the problem here: it pressures women who might not want that life to become wives and mothers early on, which, as the data show, is often not good for anyone.
Moreover, Americans understand that this ideal setup does not apply to all families. Some women either will be or want to be single mothers; progressives, by-and-large, think that society must adapt to the reality of single parent families and help these women and children succeed regardless of their family status. That’s a social vision Americans largely share. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent overall, and even higher shares of low-income women, single mothers, and women of color) agree with progressives on this front.
At the same time, a majority of Americans also agrees with the conservative view that we must reduce the number of children born to single parents and do more to encourage marriage and two-parent families. The most popular policy, in other words, is one that helps women pursue independent careers while, at the same time, creating policies that make it easier for parents to settle into stable marriages.
There’s a huge slate of progressive economic policies available that fit the bill. First, expanded child care, pre-k, and support for low-income women to pursue higher education will help women from all sorts of economic strata pursue their careers on their own terms. More flexible work arrangements and an end to pregnancy discrimination will make marriage and childbirth more attractive to women who care deeply about their professional lives.
Expanded access to family planning and contraception, alternative paths for single mothers to enter the workforce, and improved training and mentoring on the job to help them move up will reduce the number of women barred from professional advancement as a consequence of early pregnancy. And, as conservatives argue on occasion, support for economically displaced men, more financial incentives to encourage two-parent families, and expanded counseling for young people to help them make decisions that will lead to greater economic success later in life will help as well.
Sensible family planning and a stronger safety net to help single mothers get back on track with their educations and careers can make headway in strengthening families — a goal conservatives and progressives alike can share and promote.