Monday, February 27, 2012

The real threat to marriage isn't the gays: it's the economy

Frank Bruni writes in the NY Times:
In the intensifying debate over same-sex marriage, what I sometimes find hardest to understand is why so many opponents don’t see gay people’s longing to be wedded as the fundamentally conservative, lavishly complimentary desire it is. It says marriage is worth aspiring to and fighting for. Flatters it. Gives it reinvigorated cachet, extra currency, a sorely needed infusion of fresh energy.

….more than half of births to American women under 30 happen outside marriage. I doubt that a significant fraction of those babies’ parents are gay men or lesbians forbidden to wed. No doubt the huge majority are straight people who haven’t bothered to.
And those people are disproportionately at the lower end of the economic ladder, in red states, and otherwise "socially conservative". Marriage has, at some level, become a "luxury commodity" (see more about the trend in this NY Times story)

 As it turns out, some of the most socially traditionally views are people like me: blue state liberals, with an education, who believe that one should get an education before getting married, and get married before having children. I find the idea of bearing children out of wedlock (or for LGBT couples who can't wed, outside of a firm and committed relationship) to be deeply concerning. But rural and poor folks, not so much.

Indeed, the real threat to marriage isn't the dully conventional gay folks like me who value marriage and its meaning. It's not gay people who have separated straight procreation from marriage. it's the increasing distancing of marriage as a goal from the lives of poorer women, in which a child can belong to them in a way a husband does not.

Here's a discussion with Dr. Kathryn Edin, one of the authors of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. You'll note that marriage equality is no where in the discussion as a threat.
   There are three main ideas in the literature [about poor women and single motherhood]: One is that marriages aren’t happening because low-income men can no longer find stable jobs. The second one is that it is the welfare system breaking up the family by providing an alternative husband to the mom and discouraging marriage. And the third idea is that women are now doing so well that they don’t need men. By the end of the 1990s, it was pretty evident that none of them were plausible explanations for what was going on. 
[What we found is that] marriage is seen as sort of the ultimate thing you do in your 40s, once you’ve made it economically, [whereas] having children is a normal part of early adulthood. People were saying, “Well we want to marry, but first of all we’ve got to have that white picket fence.” They were interested in establishing their own economic independence so that when they went into a relationship they could claim equal power and they could have insurance if things went bad. That was very new. That was nowhere in the literature. And it makes sense in a situation where poor men do have more traditional sex-role expectations … [and] so many of them act in ways that are so deeply problematic, with the abuse and violence and infidelity.

She goes on to explain how divorce is viewed far more negativity than unwed motherhood in these communities.

Another interview with her in the Atlantic points out that the real threat to marriage is the economy.  
Among couples without college degrees, says Edin, marriage has become an “increasingly fragile” institution. In many low-income communities, she fears it is being supplanted as a social norm by single motherhood and revolving-door relationships. As a rule, fewer people marry during a recession, and this one has been no exception. … 
Edin explains that poor and working-class couples, after seeing the ravages of divorce on their parents or within their communities, have become more hesitant to marry; they believe deeply in marriage’s sanctity, and try to guard against the possibility that theirs will end in divorce. Studies have shown that even small changes in income have significant effects on marriage rates among the poor and the lower-middle class. “It’s simply not respectable to get married if you don’t have a job—some way of illustrating to your neighbors that you have at least some grasp on some piece of the American pie,” Edin says. Increasingly, people in these communities see marriage not as a way to build savings and stability, but as “a symbol that you’ve arrived.” 
Childbearing is the opposite story. The stigma against out-of-wedlock children has by now largely dissolved in working-class communities—more than half of all new mothers without a college degree are unmarried. For both men and women in these communities, children are commonly seen as a highly desirable, relatively low-cost way to achieve meaning and bolster identity—especially when other opportunities are closed off. 

I do agree with the conservatives on one thing. The trends away from stable family units towards single motherhood are not ideal for children. However, it's not the fault of the gays. Studies show convincingly that  stable gay couples have excellent outcomes in raising their children, at least equal to stable straight couples.  

There's a common ground here, for us all to work for healthier families…. if only the other side were susceptible to facts as they are.

But they'd rather scapegoat the gays for the flaws of straight men (and women).  Kinda like Maggie Gallagher. 

(Cross posted at Friends of Jake)

1 comment:

Want Some Wood said...

Very well said, and at the risk of being repetitive, this dovetails well with what I've been arguing about the case for gay marriage rights being cast best as a case for marriage.