The End of 'Marriageability'?

The End of 'Marriageability'?

A week ago, I wrote about an obstacle to solving poverty through marriage: the dearth of available men whom poor women would consider "marriageable," especially in the black community. I wrote, "To make [a marriage-before-children rule] work without telling many black women not to have children at all, we'd have to change some major sociological trends -- we'd have to get women to marry unemployed men, get white men and black women to marry each other more ... or dramatically reduce unemployment and incarceration among black men."

The Brookings Institution's Richard V. Reeves makes the case for Option 1 in The Atlantic. He notes that higher-class, educated couples are open to female economic empowerment, while people in the lower classes still often think that men should be breadwinners:

He'd like to see lower-class people adopt the attitudes of higher earners. He writes:

Here, the traditional marriage needs to be turned on its head. In many low-income families, it is the mother who has the best chance in the labor market. But this doesn’t make men redundant. It means men need to start doing the “women’s work” of raising kids. Although there is a lingering determinism about parenting and gender roles, recent evidence—in particular from Ohio State University sociologist Douglas B. Downey—suggests that women have no inherent competitive advantage in the parenting stakes.

I think it will be tough to encourage these types of marriages among the poor, and I view the survey results from college-educated Americans pretty skeptically, too. Just as educated couples say they're fine with "alternative family structures" while living in their own little Leave It to Beaver episodes, they go along with female economic empowerment to a certain extent without actually letting women out-earn their husbands in the vast majority of cases. From a May 2013 New York Times story:

A recent working paper by economists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the National University of Singapore found that, in looking at the distribution of married couples by income of husband versus wife, there is a sharp drop-off in the number of couples in which the wife earns more than half of the household income. This suggests that the random woman and random man are much less likely to pair off if her income exceeds his, the paper says.

The economists also found that wives with a better education and stronger earning potential than their husbands are less likely to work. In other words, women are more likely to stay out of the work force if there is a big risk that they will make more than their husbands.

Perhaps even more tellingly, couples in which the wife earns more report less satisfaction with their marriage and higher rates of divorce. When the wife brings in more money, couples often revert to more stereotypical sex roles; in such cases, wives typically take on a larger share of household work and child care.

A graph accompanying the story reveals that of households with children, only 15 percent are run by married couples in which the wife earns most of the income. This is up from 3.5 percent in 1960, and another 25 percent are headed by single mothers, but this is hardly a trend that's taking American families by storm.

Further, couples in which women outearn men have a median income of $80,000, and the men are working 71 percent of the time. While it's one thing for a middle-class woman to out-earn a man who also works, it's even more upsetting to traditional gender roles for a lower-class woman to bring home a paycheck while her husband stays home with the kids because he can't find a job. We can debate how much these roles are cultural as opposed to biological, but they're deep-seated either way, and as Reeves shows they're especially deep-seated among the poor.

Of course, all of this is in flux; norms are indeed changing. But this trend is far from conquering the upper class, and it will be even harder to promote it elsewhere.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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