It’s Jessie again, for the final installment of The Marriage Problem. I don’t think marriage is going to make a triumphal return. I believe it will become increasingly restricted to some conservative religious communities and to people of privilege. In my experience, more women than men would like to marry, but many men, especially young men, and especially those of low income and social status, resolutely avoid it. So how can we make the Marriage Problem less devastating fpr impoverished, extranuptial families like Rochelle’s? It will take an attack on two fronts. First, there needs to be a revolution in the American approach to social services and support for the poor, with specific attention to female headed households. And second, the expectations and education of girls and women need to change radically. I think the same is true of boys and men, but the truth is that they are a lot harder to reach psychologically on these issues. And in fact, we know much less about them. Unfortunately, few unmarried fathers are willing to talk to female researchers about the subject (I’ve had no success), and very few male researchers seem very interested in doing one-on-one interviews with unmarried fathers.
We have already discussed the two-track organization of American marriage and childbirth: elite women get married and then have children; lower status women are much less likely to get married and much more likely to have children without husbands. And yet it is elites who make the laws and establish the policies and regulations that to a great extent determine the well-being of impoverished households. In general, elites are culturally conservative. That is, they tend to maintain old traditions, mostly because they have prospered from them. They are not always aware of this motivation. Mostly, they just believe that the ways of the ancestors are good merely because they have been around for so long. They are seldom aware of how differently other people may be living, and how much their lives and expectations may diverge from their own. Like most people, they also often resent the idea that they might have to provide economic support for cultural practices that they see as not “following the rules.” This is particularly true in the United States, which is extremely culturally conservative. In Sweden, social policy provides a modest but adequate standard of living for extranuptial households, on the grounds that comfortable families will produce better educated, more successful, and less alienated members of the next generation. American social policy has another goal. US policies tend to be guided by the notion that extranuptial households are the result of activity that ranges somewhere between sin and folly, and that they should not be rewarded for their mistakes. Although moral judgement is consciously and specifically directed at the unmarried mothers, it inevitably also affects the children in pretty terrible ways. And the money that is saved by not providing comfortable lives for these female-headed households is more than made up for by the costs associated with the health, educational, unemployment, and often criminal justice problems associated with the children of poverty. Americans tend to prefer to pay for poverty on the installment plan, without recognizing the high cost of credit.
Clearly, American federal and state governments need to increase support for poor families, most of which are headed by unmarried women like Rochelle. And perhaps the single most important element of this increased support should be free and affordable childcare, the lack of which is the greatest barrier to improved education and employment for single mothers. These improvements will lead inevitably to generally better lives for all the members of extranuptial families.
Then there are the expectations of life that American culture and institutions build into the upbringing and education of children, especially of girls. Despite vast evidence to the contrary, even in their own lives, many girls develop the assumption that they will be supported by men. They do not understand that the majority of all American women, including mothers of small children, now work, and that increasingly they are the sole support, not only of themselves, but also of their children. Sometimes, girls don’t even think about where their support, or that of their children, will come from. I have asked many single mothers about this, and most of them have told me that they had never thought about it. They just figured their lives would go on as they always had, working at low paying, mostly fast food jobs. They didn’t think about who would take care of their children.
Finally, there is a widespread lack of understanding about birth control. Few young men will use condoms, though they are easily available. Girls and inexperienced women often don’t know where to go for oral contraceptives, or they are too embarrassed to investigate. Rochelle’s prescription for oral contraceptives expired, and she couldn’t afford the required new exam. Some girls may even believe they can’t get pregnant the first time they have sex. Or they just want to please their boyfriends and continue the relationship so much that they refuse to think about contraception.
It seems essential to me that the schools need to do two things immediately. First, they need to introduce and maintain the idea that all people, males and females, will work outside the household, so they need to prepare for this work. It is not an alternative to motherhood, or an optional pathway for women; it is a universal reality. And second, the schools need to make sex education universal, concrete, and specific, and include practical information about birth control and how to obtain it. The preaching of abstinence is merely a prescription for pregnancy.
So now my soliloquy on the Marriage Problemis over. I’ll post again before too long.