Why Stick With Marriage?

Dear Friends,

My latest column on National Review is a response to two recent books by major family scholars Andrew Cherlin, and Isabel Sawhill–both of whom suggest we should give up on promoting marriage per se and promote stable committed relationships:

I explain why that is not a practical suggestion:

“In Generation Unbound, the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill regretfully says she no longer believes reviving marriage is possible for the less-educated two-thirds of America. The old marriage norm should be replaced with a new social script: It is wrong to have children that are unplanned. “The old norm was ‘don’t have a child outside of marriage.’ The new norm should be ‘don’t have a child before you want one and are ready to parent.’” How would a young adult know whether he or she is “ready”? Like Cherlin, Sawhill retreats to the idea of “commitment”: “For most people it means completing their education, having a steady job, and having a committed partner.”

Here’s my problem with this nice-sounding new script: I think the majority of young people who have children outside marriage are already doing that, to the best of their limited youthful abilities.

Sixty percent of births to unwed mothers, as Sawhill notes, are to cohabiting women. Most of the recent increase in single motherhood has come from increasing births to women who are cohabiting, not solo moms.

The problem with retreating from marriage as a bright line is that, in practical terms, young women in love are not very good at figuring out whether or not they are in a committed relationship.

A 2008 study by Kathryn Kost and colleagues, found that . . . .cohabitation is one of the most serious risk factors for contraceptive “failure.” In 2002, one out of five cohabiting women reported contraceptive “failure,” double the risk for married women. Compared with never-married or divorced single women, only cohabiting women had a significantly higher risk of contraceptive failure than married women.”

Retreating from marriage to “stable relationships” doesn’t work because cohabiting women believe they are in stable loving relationships, that is one reason they aren’t that motivated to prevent birth. I end with a modest proposal:

“[T]he truth is we simply haven’t tried to do very much to encourage marital childbearing in this country. Before we give up completely, may I suggest one idea that would cost virtually no money at all and would involve no new government program?”

Read the rest of the story here.

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