Could some sort of bipartisan consensus emerge over the debate about marriage and inequality in America? In The Federalist, Brad Wilcox reviews Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. Wilcox concludes, based on the evidence offered in the book, that conservative and progressive explanations for declining marriage rates and family instability are both right. Conservatives are right that changing norms and mores have eroded marriage, but progressives are right that economic shifts have too:
Without access to decent-paying, stable jobs since the 1970s, working-class men are much less likely to be seen as attractive candidates for marriage, to act in ways that make them attractive candidates for marriage, and to stay married. So, score one for the Progressive view that “it’s the economy, stupid.” […]Without the shifts in mores ushered in by these revolutions, the United States might have seen a decline in marriage rates in the last half-century, but it would not have seen the dramatic increase in family instability and single parenthood among the working class that it did. The Great Depression is instructive here, as Cherlin notes: “Despite a terrible job market in the 1930s, there was no meaningful rise in nonmarital childbearing because cultural norms had not changed.” So America’s family problem is not just about money, it’s about changes in mores that have weakened the links between lifelong marriage and parenthood.
Wilcox’s piece can be read alongside a recent report in the NYT entitled “The Vanishing Male Worker: How America Fell Behind.” That article looks at the rise of “prime-age” men without jobs, jumping off a statistic showing that the share of jobless men ages 25–54 is three times higher now than it was in the 1960s. According to the piece, there are a mix of reasons for this. Some are choosing not to work because they can live off of federal benefits or because they are unmarried or childless, and so feel less pressure to provide. Others want jobs but can’t get them. That could be because the jobs don’t exist: There are 10 million jobless prime-age men and only 4.8 million job openings for all ages and genders. What jobs there are may be out of reach due to their low education levels or criminal records (34 percent of the men in question said they had criminal records). Still another factor is the “cost of working”: the money you need in order to enter the workforce in the first place, to pay for child-care or a degree or other certification.In other words, the NYT piece shows, like Wilcox’s review, a world in which there is room for both sides to be right about different aspects of the problem. Read both to get a better picture of the challenges facing working-class men, and the prospects for a bipartisan program to tackle them.