Love or Money?
The Real Enemy of Marital Bliss Are Those Most Opposed to Marriage Equality
A new book argues that marriage is on the decline not because of changing gender norms or a breakdown in morality, but it’s just simple economics.
Although there are a few Flat-Earthers out there who still believe gay marriage can be stopped, everyone else has accepted (or celebrated) it as an eventual inevitability.
So now the question is: what’s next? Not just what’s next for LGBT equality—but also, what’s next for marriage?
Earlier this year, I took up this question and asked whether marriage will change gay people (by domesticating and normalizing us) or whether gay people will change marriage (by mainstreaming non-monogamy and lessening gender roles).
The recent book by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, Marriage Markets, suggests that I was on the wrong track. Their argument? That the fate of marriage as an institution has little to do with morality—and a lot more to do with money. Quoting James Carville early on, they write, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
In fact, Cahn and Carbone show, trend lines on marriage and divorce don’t seem to follow the shifts (if any) in public morality. But they do follow those of economics. For the last 20 years, marriage rates among college graduates—those most likely to support LGBT equality and reproductive freedom—have actually gone up, and divorce rates have declined. Meanwhile, marriage rates among high-school graduates have declined, and those among high-school dropouts have plunged.
This trend defies conservative predictions.
If liberalizing norms about marriage were eroding marriage as an institution, then one would expect to find that erosion most pronounced among gay-marriage proponents. In fact, however, the data shows that the more educated you are, the more you support marriage equality—and the more likely you are to get married yourself.
Similarly, marriage and divorce rates don’t seem to track the arc of “sexual liberation.” Empowered, educated women actually marry more than disempowered, less-educated one. These are the women who have their own careers, who don’t need a “strong man” around, who are more likely to be using contraception, and who participated in “hookup culture” back in college. Yet, they’re the ones marrying the most. Clearly, something other than feminism and the sexual revolution must be at play.
To Cahn and Carbone, the answer is economics. Guess what, America: poor people are rational too. Facing a dating pool (or “marriage market”) of men with poor economic prospects, women don’t marry them.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The famous/infamous “Moynihan Report,” penned in 1965 when the future senator was just a Labor Department staffer, made some of the same claims about African Americans. Moynihan’s thesis was that job losses among African Americans in the inner cities had eroded social relationships, and caused a severe decline in marriage rates.
Today, to oversimplify somewhat, the white working class resembles the inner city blacks of 1965. The black out-of-wedlock birth rate in 1965 was 26 percent; today, the white rate is 41 percent, while the rate among blacks is 70 percent.
As Cahn and Carbone show, the Moynihan report became a social policy Rashomon: everyone saw what they wanted to see. Liberals such as the NAACP’s Julian Bond accused Moynihan of blaming the victim and perpetuating cultural stereotypes about irresponsible black men—but they liked the economic part about racism and job loss.
Conservatives, meanwhile, seized on Moynihan as pointing to culture as the explanation for changes in marriage norms, but ignored his economic data. Instead, they argued that welfare had created a “culture of dependency” which either emasculated hard working men or rendered them irrelevant.
These disputes continue to this day. It would seem that conservative cultural claims have been refuted: the welfare state has been dismantled, yet marriage continues to decline. But, writers like Charles Murray (who somehow continues to be popular on the Right, despite the shameful ignorance of his 1994 book, The Bell Curve) argue, it hasn’t been dismantled enough. And without strong, clear moral values that shame “illegitimacy,” tame male “barbarians,” and keep women married to their abusive husbands, black folks have no one to tell them what to do. Which, you know, is what they need.
(To their credit, Cahn and Carbone devote an entire chapter to moralists like Murray, thoroughly debunking their claims on the basis of ample contrary evidence.)
Cahn and Carbone take Moynihan’s legacy to the next level. They wholeheartedly agree that massive job loss has eroded working class family structures, and while maintaining an attentiveness to race, they focus more on class. Essentially, with the evisceration of the American working class, pregnant young women have the choice of taking care of one dependent (the baby) or two (the baby and a husband with little reliable wage potential). Which would you choose?
So, yes, women’s empowerment is a factor—but only because male disempowerment has taken place as well. Inequality is the real culprit. In class contexts in which both men and women have bright career prospects, education, and control over their bodies, they marry more. In those in which they don’t, they don’t.
The results are shocking: 96 percent of babies born to African American high school dropouts are born out of wedlock.
Cahn and Carbone’s economic analysis—which they insist is not based on rational choice theory, even though it certainly seems to be—is primarily a response to right-wing moralism. But it is also a rejoinder to the view, which I expressed, that ethical norms are paramount.
In other words, maybe same-sex marriage won’t change marriage, and won’t change gay lives, because inequality is the real determining factor.
Cahn and Carbone also provide a rejoinder to liberal critics of marriage, including Nancy Polikoff, Dean Spade, Lisa Duggan, Katherine Franke, and many others. These critics have charged that marriage is a tool of social control that apportions benefits based on a narrow band of lifestyle choices, restricts the bounds of permissible sexual expression, and maintains patriarchal biases.
Cahn and Carbone do not engage with these critics at all—none of them are even mentioned in Marriage Markets. But the book does make an implicit progressive case for marriage, based on the econometric data: marriage is good for working people, and for childrearing in particular. “The relationships of parent to child is still a matter of public concern,” they write, and call for a variety of changes in family law that defy both conservative and liberal political perspectives.
To be sure, there are many ways to legally tether two parents together besides marriage, and many ways to legally favor other forms of non-parenting relationships. But at the very least, the notion that oppressive marriage norms are restricting personal autonomy seems, on review of the data, to be a somewhat privileged and class-specific point of view. Actually, working class people, especially African Americans, are less oppressed by marriage than completely uninterested in it—to the detriment of the next generation. Marriage is a choice they are not making.
Perhaps the greatest impact same-sex marriage will have on the American family is that it will provide yet another way for conservatives to give moral explanations for economic problems. Blaming irresponsible black men, slutty feminists, and now libidinous gays for the collapse of the American family is a good way to avoid confronting the real cause: unprecedented economic inequality. Ironically, those who preach the most about traditional marriage are the ones who are destroying it.