Matt Zeitlin on class in our marriage debate

I threw my hat into the blogosphere’s recent marriage debate (see Martin, Singal, Matthews, and Marcotte, phew) last week with a post on how much gender plays a role in a person’s acceptance of critiques of marriage as weak or strong.

Matt Zeitlin at Pushback adds a critical component to the debate, when he zooms out and reminds us just how bourgeois our debate is:

We all know that when families far apart, children generally suffer. And with the college wage premium and financial returns to education both at all-time highs, any disruption to a working-class child’s life makes advancement much more difficult. Unstable family structures aren’t great for adults either, especially women. When parents split, it is usually the woman who is left to raise the child, meaning that she has to provide a loving, supportive home, all the while trying to make ends meet as the head of a single-paycheck family.

For those with high amounts of social capital and good jobs, this is a much simpler task, but for everyone else, it is incredibly difficult. This all gets worse when children are born out of wedlock; when parents don’t want to sanctify their bond and commitments to each other, it becomes all the easier for one parent to skip out.

I agree with Matt to a certain extent. It’s important to note what the context of considering marriage is for middle class bloggers. However, I’m always skeptical of arguments that suggest the crumbling of the traditional, two-parent family is contributing to economic deprivation for kids. Blaming “the family” for the larger economic and social factors hurting poor kids, especially kids of color, is often a right-wing talking point, in my opinion, and a cop-out for the failures of our government and society.

I have to disagree with Matt’s assessment that parents who don’t “sanctify their bonds,” are less likely to stick around and hold up their end of the parenting bargain. A dead-beat parent is a dead-beat parent in or out of a marriage. While abandoning one’s financial responsibility to his/her children may be more difficult to a certain legal extent within marriage, I’m highly skeptical that one who wants to abandon their children would only stick around because of the inconvenience of divorce. After all, I know a few dead-beat dads myself who just took off at some point but remain married to the mother of their children. If babies are being born to couples in which one or both partners are less than committed to emotionally or financially supporting the child, the obvious problem seems to be that parents who are going to bail are having kids. After all, poor parents, married or single, are poor parents.

I guess this is all a way of saying, I think the marriage disparity between high and low-income people is more a symptom of economic and social turmoil than a cause of it.

The much better explanation for the class-marriage disparity to me, is that wealthy people who are more often married long-term and having children in those relationships, have more of a financial interest in being married and staying married. They’ve got a lot to lose in a divorce. But when a woman gets pregnant with a guy who makes no money and is a dead-beat, why would she want to marry him? If anything, she wants to make sure the courts will be enforcing his child-support payments and to see little of him afterward. Even when completely committed working-class couples get married and have kids, their marriages face much higher levels of stress than the more successful marriages of the privileges, because of their financial struggles. This undoubtedly contributes to the higher rates of divorce.

Now I can see quite clearly that having two parents who are involved in your life, both financially and emotionally, is going to contribute to a more secure life, but then, the argument should be for planned, well prepared parenthood, rather than for marriage.

The myth that marriage is morally sound is part of a larger dialogue to convince people they shouldn’t expect to be able to support themselves and their kin with one, full-time income. I think they should be able to do so. Ideally, the fact that by the time I’m ready to have children, I likely will be able to do so, would be the usual situation for a woman, rather than the exception.

Now I recognize the reality is that in our current society, most people cannot expect to be able to support a family with one income and one committed parent, and this undoubtedly makes marriage or at least reliable, long-term parenting a desirable outcome for many working-class people, but I don’t think the statistics about marriage and class and race mean marriage itself is the answer to working-class problems.

If working-class people do manage to find a partner who will be committed to sharing the responsibilities of parenting, they too will have the opportunity to determine whether this commitment will be in or outside a marriage.

More from the “wealthy people have more virtue” file

Now, it’s not like I find it shocking that David Brooks would write something completely ridiculous and stupid and out of touch, but this column plugging a book which says conservatives can win working-class Americans back by addressing their needs with a bias toward the traditional two-parent family is just completely ridiculous:

Liberals write about economic inequality and conservatives about social disruption, but Douthat and Salam write about the interplay between values and economics and the way virtue and economic security can reinforce each other.

In the 1950s, divorce rates were low and jobs were plentiful, but over the next few decades that broke down. The social revolutions of the 1960s and the economic revolution of the information age have emancipated the well-educated but left the Sam’s Club voters feeling insecure.

Gaps are opening between the educated and less educated. Working-class divorce rates remain high, while the mostly upper-middle-class parents of Ivy Leaguers have divorce rates of only 10 percent.

Um, tell me again how an approach which implies working-class Americans can’t pay their bills because they don’t value their families enough will get their votes?