J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy explores class and culture in a unique autobiographical analysis that many have called the most important book of 2016. His family’s Appalachian traditions entail loyalty and pride as well as poverty and vanishing blue-color jobs, which contribute to alcoholism and drug addiction. But the epicenter of the tumultuous coming-of-age narrative is the domestic strife arising from Vance’s mother’s more than 15 stepdads and boyfriends. Were it not for grandparents who stepped in as de facto guardians — and a heavy dose of discipline instilled by the United States Marine Corps — Vance’s trajectory from poverty to Yale Law School and the New York Times bestseller list would likely not have taken place.
The domestic backstory to Vance’s journey illustrates the devastation wrought by the runaway train of family instability careening through our country’s poorest communities. Social scientists wisely include marital stability in the triumvirate of opportunity required for upward mobility, along with jobs and education. While better schools and rising employment rates would definitely help the less educated and working class, without access to the many benefits marriage brings — including greater financial security and better mental and physical health for children and communities — their chances for success remain limited.
In an interview with Rod Dreher, Vance faults both liberals and conservatives for their obliviousness to and incomprehension of the family issues keeping the poor in a downward spiral. Liberals, he says, need to “stop pretending that every problem is a structural problem, something imposed on the poor from the outside.” In addition to blaming everything on inequity, they also “weird[ly] refus[e] to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”
Meanwhile, conservatives must acknowledge that “there are public policy solutions to draw from experiences like this,” according to Vance. As he puts it:
“How could my school have better prepared me for domestic life? How could child welfare services have given me more opportunities?…These are tough, tough problems, but they’re not totally immune to policy interventions. Neither are they entirely addressable by government. It’s just complicated.”
One group advocating for putting marriage front-and-center in a national policy agenda includes academic researchers at the Institute for Family Studies. The day after the 2016 election, they released a letter entitled “Dear Mr. President: A Healthy Marriage Culture Is Vital to America’s Success.” The memorandum bemoans “far too little discussion from both sides about the central role that family structure — and in particular marriage — plays in boosting the social and economic well-being of Americans.” The authors proceed to list the overwhelming evidence linking marriage to the following social and economic outcomes: financial security, particularly for women and children; the prosperity of communities with higher marriage rates; the higher academic prospects of students, especially boys, of married parents; the improved safety of women and children in intact families; the lower rates of teen pregnancy and unmarried births for teen girls of married parents; the lower incidence of family fragmentation (with the harms of divorce affecting privileged and lower income children both); and the growing divide between the married college educated and the poor and working class who are increasingly retreating from marriage.
According to those who have studied the benefits of stable marriages for decades, the privilege we need to worry about most in 2017 is “marriage privilege” — a privilege that should definitely not be checked, but, rather, shared by any means possible. Marriage is one entitlement that desperately needs to gain ground outside the enclaves of the educated and the religiously observant. And while government can’t solve all the complexities of family instability, it can, as Vance acknowledges, “help people make better choices, or expose them to better influences through better family policy.”
The Institute for Family Studies has its own inventory of public-policy proposals. These include reducing or eliminating marriage penalties that discourage lower-income couples from marrying; expanding the child tax credit; reforming divorce laws to include modest waiting periods; and promoting marriage for young people with a success sequence in which order-of-operation is paramount — that order being school, work, marriage, and then parenthood. One nationally recognized expert, Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, sees hope in emphasizing this order, rather than trying to bring marriage back as we once knew it. Her mantra to battle the social immobility brought on by the growing gaps in income and education between married and unmarried parents? “Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents,” with a heavy emphasis on birth-control education creating new norms of delayed childbearing for the less educated.
Others are more sanguine about the possibilities of making marriage great again. Well-respected Family Studies experts continue making improvements to community-based Marriage and Relationship Education (MRE) programs that teach couples, teenagers, and young adults in at-risk communities about healthy family formation. Some are documenting incremental improvement in healthy relationship behaviors and stability for those completing MRE programs, especially in the most vulnerable populations.
The Feds continue to research the effectiveness of these programs, which have been funded since 2005 through the Bush and Obama administrations. The mixed results show both the challenges and potential. Funded through Congress with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds, these programs address the reality that in addition to economic problems, changing cultural norms about marriage and family formation have created a socio-economic mess. Even well-respected progressive scholars, such as Sawhill and Andrew Cherlin, author of Labor’s Love Lost, now profess that culture and personal behavior also matter when it comes to understanding people’s personal lives and choices.
Of course, any kind of journey to marriage greatness would be vastly aided and abetted by a supportive cultural component. If movies, books, social media, and pop culture better aligned with research, we’d see depictions of married couples enjoying long-term happiness, better physical and mental health, more financial security, and better and more frequent sex than their single and cohabiting counterparts. But combatting the ethos of moving in together for a trial run and the perception that dating apps like Tinder can somehow fill our deep need for commitment is an uphill battle.
When researchers publish their results on marriage and family, they often call on political leaders to notice the results. “Helping as many people as possible to create the condition for stability is a major role for public policy,” Richard Reeves suggested on the release of the 2017 World Family Map by the Institute for Family Studies and the Social Trends Institute. The report’s essay “The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe” finds that stability for children is associated more with marriage than even a parent’s level of education. Moreover, American and European children whose parents lived together without marriage when they were born are much more likely to see their parents break up by age 12.
Uncle Sam cannot fix problems like these; American families need to learn to do so themselves. A cultural shift — even simply refraining from depicting marriage negatively or as an afterthought, something we slide into without much preparation — would be enormously helpful. And, of course, improving economic conditions would help, too. Multiple components need to come together to help marriage flourish. But until our families catch up and embrace the benefits of stable and healthy marriages, America’s greatness will have to wait.
Alan J. Hawkins and Betsy VanDenBerghe are the co-authors of the 2014 National Marriage Report “Facilitating Forever: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Relationships and Enduring Marriages.”