Recently in these pages, the president of the Yale College Republicans argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom, conservatives should endorse gay marriage. As a supporter of same-sex marriage, I think he’s right. But as a Democrat, I’d like to present a companion counterintuitive argument: progressives should do more to promote and strengthen marriage. In other words, liberals shouldn’t limit their support for marriage to that of the same-sex type.
Currently, one-third of all babies are born to unmarried parents. Despite a slight decline in divorce rates, half of marriages are still projected to end in divorce. The result is that 28 million American children — 40 percent — live in homes absent their father or mother. The average child today can expect to spend a significant part of her childhood living apart from one of her parents.
These statistics are troubling given what scholars know about the relationship between family structure and child well-being. Far from being “just a piece of paper,” marriage is the most pro-child social institution we have. Years of research reveal that children tend to do best when they grow up with their biological, married parents (provided the marriage isn’t marred by high levels of conflict). Compared to kids in intact, two-parent homes, children from single-parent or stepparent homes are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs, commit crimes and suffer from emotional or behavioral problems. The differences persist after controlling for income, race and other socioeconomic variables.
Moreover, such studies can’t fully capture the suffering or longing children experience when Dad moves out after an unnecessary divorce — or when Dad was never around much in the first place. Children deserve to grow up with the day-in, day-out presence and love of both parents.
So why don’t more progressives speak out on the importance of marriage? First, there’s the fear of being perceived as anti-feminist. However, this criticism seems outdated. Promoting marriage does not mean promoting patriarchy, nor does it mean turning a blind eye to domestic violence. Besides, research also suggests that marriage tends to benefit women. Married women tend to be happier, healthier and wealthier than unmarried or cohabiting women. Married mothers are also less likely to suffer from depression or domestic violence. Feminists typically want fathers to take a more equal parenting role, but that won’t happen without marriage.
There’s also the concern about stigmatizing single parents, many of whom struggle heroically to raise their children. But pro-marriage advocates need not — and don’t — denigrate divorced or unmarried parents and their children. It’s a complex world and individual situations differ. Liberals know this and can bring compassion and understanding to discussions about family structure. What liberals shouldn’t let happen is allow “tolerance” to slip into indifference when the well-being of children is at stake. Besides, few single parents want their own daughters and sons to grow up to become unwed mothers or absent fathers.
Perhaps the most salient factor behind progressives’ reluctance to talk about marriage is the fear of sounding, well, “conservative.” After all, no liberal wants to be caught agreeing with the Religious Right (God forbid!). But over the last decade, liberal scholars, journalists, policy wonks and politicians have started to speak out on the problems of unwed childbearing and father absence. In a 2002 paper titled, “Progressive Family Policy in the 21st Century,” two leading Democratic policy experts, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, sketched out a policy vision grounded in four key principles. Principle number one: “[P]ublic policy should encourage and reinforce married, two-parent families because they are best for children.” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), LAW ’64, described the issue well: “The disappearance of marriage in large sections of our communit[ies], poor and middle class, means that elected officials are mopping up while the faucet is still on. We cannot leave this right-wing critique with us on the defensive, acting as if it’s really all right. We’ve got to talk about marriage again. We’ve got to make it fashionable.”
Progressives are also better positioned to enact public policies that could increase rates of marriage and marital stability. Some conservatives have a tendency to minimize the economic and structural factors behind fatherlessness and rely too heavily on facile “family values” rhetoric. For example, poverty contributes to unwed childbearing. In low-income communities, there is a dire shortage of “marriageable” men. Men and women with education and stable, living-wage jobs make more attractive marriage partners. Democrats are more likely to expand and create programs to help address those root causes.
Nevertheless, even Democrats should support the Bush Administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative. Though it’s been mischaracterized as a sop to the conservative base, the proposal is essentially another liberal anti-poverty program. The initiative’s goal is “to help couples, who choose marriage for themselves, develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages.” This translates into using a small portion of welfare dollars to provide increased marriage-related social services, such as conflict management and relationship-skills education, to low-income couples. It subtracts no funding from other anti-poverty activities. All participation is voluntary. As with any new policy initiative, nobody knows if it’ll work, but it’s worth trying.
But wait, shouldn’t liberals fight for more money for income supports, child care, education and job training? Yes, yes, yes — of course. Public policy should do more to help poor parents and children in all types of households. But it’s not an either/or situation. No concerned parties can ignore the connections between single parenting, poverty, and child outcomes. Public policy, within appropriate limits, should also try to ensure that more children will grow up in stable two-parent homes. Supporting marriage is a vital part of any comprehensive, long-term anti-poverty strategy.
Tom Sylvester is a first year student at Yale Law School.