Tuesday, December 04, 2007


An article in Commentary (link: Arts and Letters Daily) describes a positive turn in the social life of this country. Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin tell us that teen drug use is down, crime is down, welfare and abortion rates, also down. (The authors, who seem to have an otherwise socially-conservative bent, note that this last one had something to do with "the greater availability of birth control." There you have it.).

Somehow the authors switch from a discussion of issues about which people across the political spectrum agree, and that they note have improved in recent years, to noting the one downturn, the one exception to the overall upswing, which is "the family." They explain that "the pathologies that still afflict us are serious, and evidently continue to be immune to the otherwise improving trend."

Perhaps most importantly, some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward. Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.

From this they conclude: "The most striking element of the overall picture continues to be the extraordinary turnaround in nearly every area apart from the family."

The authors have found a contradiction where none exists. The increase in premarital cohabitation is in fact part of a trend of improvement. Now that young people are no longer too stoned to think rationally, they understand that it's not such a bad idea to live with a person prior to committing to a life together. Hard as this may be to reconcile with social conservatism, some people take marriage so seriously that they wish to enter into it only when they are sure they will not change their minds.

As for the alleged social problem of out-of-wedlock births, it's important to remember that this includes the children destined for same-sex-parent families, where the parents cannot legally marry in most situations. Parents who choose not to marry (whether put off by religion, discriminatory marriage laws, diamond-ring commercials, or the NYT weddings pages) but who live as married are also offering up "illegitimate" offspring. The classic Lifetime movie scenario of the naive high-school junior whose boyfriend dumped her for a freshman upon learning of her pregnancy is only one of many that count as out-of-wedlock births.

The authors ask, "How to account for the anomalous absence of improvement or, more precisely, the acceleration of decline in the overall marriage rate, in rates of cohabitation without marriage, and in illegitimacy?" A start would be not making reference to "the related areas of crime, drug use, welfare, education, teen sexual activity, teen suicides, abortion, and poverty." These areas are not as related as all that, even if some correlations can be measured, some of the time. A universally-accepted value judgment can be made regarding one set of issues, but not regarding the other. To be fair to the authors, they admit the possibility that illegitimacy might not be the cause of all social problems. But that's only a first step. Allowing individuals, congregations, and families to determine what counts as marriage in the moral sense, and leaving the state out of it, is the only way to move past this abstract and non-existent entity that is "the family."


Anonymous said...

What the heck is a conservative who is not socially conservative?

A liberal. You make a lot of sense, but if you been reading Commentary, NR, or the other conservative mags for the past decade, you'll see that illegitimacy is key to so much else in translating the overall ethos into politically viable concepts.

It's the one thing they all agree on to be against.

Miss Self-Important said...

"Hard as this may be to reconcile with social conservatism, some people take marriage so seriously that they wish to enter into it only when they are sure they will not change their minds."
But it's not clear that people who enter marriage without cohabiting are less serious or less determined to stay together. In fact, as far as I know, cohabiting couples are more likely to get divorced than those who don't cohabit prior to marriage. (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_022.pdf)

Also, I don't think that gay couples or marriage dissenters account for most of the out-of-wedlock births. The poor and minorities do (http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_1_marriage_gap.html). In circumstances of poverty or community disintegration, being born out of wedlock may actually have serious negative repercussions for children's life chances, and it's not clear how privatized marriage would address that.

It's also not clear how the people who have been nagging me for 22 years and call themselves my parents are actually an abstraction or a non-existent entity. That would be news though.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Your family is neither abstract nor non-existent, whereas "the family" is just that.

I didn't deny that one can find correlation between, say, cohabitation or illegitimacy and various agreed-upon social ills, and in fact noted that there can be correlation. My question is why we have to assume there's something inherent in premarital cohabitation causing social ills. We have a choice. We can either ask how to prevent social ills among those who choose to live together before marriage, or we can announced that we will stop whichever problems by stopping premarital cohabitation altogether.

As for gay couples, marriage dissenters, the poor, and minorities (and these groups are, of course, not mutually exclusive)... All it proves, if most of the cases are indeed not just poor/minority but *not* gay/marriage dissenter is that out-of-wedlock birth itself is not a problem, but can, under certain circumstances, indicate a problem.

More later, I don't feel like I've quite finished the thought...

Anonymous said...

" My question is why we have to assume there's something inherent in premarital cohabitation causing social ills .."

Because that assumption is central to the conservative ethos - The prevailing politics of our time suggest that is something people agree on.

Much of conservatism is based on mysticism and nostalgia. Statistics abour illegitimacy are a way to add some social science quants heft. That's just one reason Moynihan became popular with conservaives even though he has a liberal voting record - They were willing to overlook that because he gave this line of thinking a scholarly imprimature.

It's also a convienient way to unify otherwise divided religious orientation. Even liberal Dems bow to this reality, no matter what they think. Btw, Happy Hanukkah.

Anonymous said...

i think the issue is that there is this idea that somehow "the family" (the abstract not msi's parents) is inherently good and the only thing that works. the problem is that "the family" is only as good as the people in it. we've all heard about or witnessed families that simply don't work (neglect, abuse, unfaithful spouses). if the people involved in such families are lucky they will fix the existing family, if possible, or find/create a new family. wouldn't most people agree that family works when people love each other and provide each other with physical and emotional support, treat each other with respect, etc. there is nothing inherent in the state sanctioned (i.e. conservative version) marriage that guarantees that. Being for marriage or focusing on the family doesn't mean squat when it comes to virtue, as Senator Craig, et al demonstrate.

Miss Self-Important said...

If the argument you're trying to make is that, in some instances, cohabitation has worked out well, or out-of-wedlock birth has not caused any problems, I wouldn't disagree. No one is suggesting that every child born out of wedlock or to an unmarried couple is doomed to poverty and delinquency. Obviously not. There can always be individual mitigating circumstances. But Levin's and Wehner's article is about trends, and, on average, cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth are problematic because, on average, they occur in settings that lack compensatory advantages.

If you're suggesting that it's only a matter of distributing compensatory advantages to those who lack them, rather than encouraging them to compensate themselves by marrying or having children in marriage, the problem is that it's hard to pinpoint just what it is that makes some instances of out-of-wedlock birth, single parenthood, cohabitation, etc. turn out fine while others are disastrous. In general, there are better outcomes among the more affluent, but is that because they have more money? More education? More progressive values? It is a massive and questionable undertaking to redistribute wealth to such an extent that it would actually make it possible for the poor to live like the affluent, and all that merely so that they can avoid the responsibility of marriage?

Or is it because they are more likely to be surrounded by familial stability on all sides, and have many more friends, neighbors, and relatives to rely on who can compensate for the lack of stability in their own immediate families? If the latter is true, then it remains necessary to encourage marriage at all levels, since even the exceptions to the norm rely on it for their own happiness.

So, basically, yes, if cohabitation is inherently a less stable familial arrangement than marriage, and familial instability is deemed to be a social ill, then cohabitation is inherently the cause of social ills.

Also, what is the connection between the nonexistent family and my concrete family? The law is also abstract, but that doesn;t make it nonexistent.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"If the latter is true, then it remains necessary to encourage marriage at all levels, since even the exceptions to the norm rely on it for their own happiness."

So what's to be done to mitigate the harm done by marriage to those who for whatever "individual" reasons do not wish to marry, but are, in the new social-conservative order, pushed to do so? The social ill that is bad marriage is well-documented and not just in 19th century French novels. Simply asking, all things equal, for people to choose marriage seems like it's missing a step.

What this discussion we've been having seems to be missing is, who are the partners whose potential marriages are being discussed? How did the men and women in question first meet? What say, if anything, do families or communities or 'the family' or 'the community' have in any of what happens pre-marriage, leaving aside, for the time being, sex or not, cohabitation or not. It seems to ask for changes in marriage is to ask for changes in coupling off at all levels, at all ages.