Brookings’ Event Recap: The Future of Marriage in the U.S.

by Barbara Ray



If you missed today’s debate at the Brookings Institution, hosted by its Center on Children and Families, about the findings of the “Knot Yet” report, you missed a lively back and forth. I’ll try to recap it here.

The key points I heard—and there were many—were this:

  • The problem is not marriage, but having kids in unstable relationships. Ultimately, it is less a concern that marriage is delayed. What is more problematic is that for far too many, children are not delayed, and the instability of cohabiting relationships in the US, coupled with the material hardship in many single-parent families, means kids suffer.
  • Economics matter. The trend in delayed marriage and more (unstable) cohabitation among those with less education is because the wages for those with less than a college degree are dismal and can’t support a family.
  • Culture matters too. There’s a declining trust in social institutions (work, marriage, etc.) among working-class Americans, and marriage in particular has taken a big hit.
  • What role social policy? There’s overall doubt that social policy can do to affect the delay in marriage and the rise of single parents in their 20s.


The discussion centered on “the great crossover,” that moment in 2000 when the age of first marriage fell below the age of first birth. In other words, more women and men are postponing marriage but not kids. And that, the panelists, both Left and Right, agreed, is not good for children.

The trend is driven not by college-educated women, who are delaying both marriage and kids, but by middle American, working-class young adults in their twenties. The consequence is that, today, nearly half (48%) of first births are to unmarried women. (This amid the backdrop of sharply falling teen pregnancies: Where teen mothers in 1970 made up 50% of unwed births, today, it’s only 23%. Fully 60% of first births to single mothers are among 20-29 year olds.)

This wouldn’t be such a problem if the cohabiting relationships were strong and lasting. But as I wrote in my post, “Is Cohabitation Hard on Kids?” this is not the case in the US> And this is a problem because children whose parents are in poor or fleeting relationships have poorer outcomes, the kind of which can have a lasting impact on their own life’s chances.

Economic Story

But why are young adults choosing to put children first and delay marriage? As panelist
Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, might have put it, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

If a young man with minimal education could get a decent job with decent pay, this crossover wouldn’t be as big a problem, agreed Jamelle Bouie, staff writer at the American Prospect.

There’s no doubt that the wages of men with less than a college degree have suffered mightily since the 1970s. In a woman’s eyes, a man’s “marriageability” hits all-time lows when he doesn’t have a job. As Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas found in their study of lower-income single mothers, the women institute a “pay to stay” rule, and if a guy can’t pay his share (or more), then there’s no reason to get married.

And yet, some might wonder, why do women in these circumstances have children? After all, children aren’t cheap. One reason is that children are meaningful to a woman’s life. And since, as one woman told Kefalas, “It’s not like I’m going to ever make the big bucks,” so why wait?

Cultural Story

But economics is not the whole story, as the Knot Yet report reveals. The cultural story surrounding marriage has changed as well. As panelist Andrew Cherlin, professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University, noted, when he told his parents years ago that he was living with his girlfriend, his parents nearly fell off their chair in shock. “Now I’d be shocked if my own daughter had NOT lived with her boyfriend first,” Cherlin said.

Others, like Hymowitz, in Manning Up, and Charles Murray in Coming Apart, have argued that men aren’t as industrious anymore. They’re content to be slackers while women stride ahead, in many respects leaving them behind.

The role of religion in society is particular pertinent to marriage. The link between church and family stability is obvious and explicit in the US. Ross Douthat, op-ed columnist at the New York Times, argued that whatever happens with American religion is probably the biggest driver affecting views on marriage and children. Yet, he noted, we have to get beyond the cliché of working class as pious pillar of society. Religion’s institutional bedrock is weakening and it’s not just among Liberals. The “none’s” (those who check “none” when asked about religious affiliation) are not just college graduates reading Richard Dawkins. The “none’s” are just as likely to be working-class men.

In the end, as Knot Yet author Brad Wilcox said, the overarching question is: does it really matter that marriage is not as powerful an institution when it comes to kids? Kate Roiphe, for example, would argue, that kids will thrive in almost any kind of family structure. They’re pretty resilient. Wilcox, the son of a single mom himself, agreed that there are of course cases in which children will thrive. But as a sociologist, he knows that the odds are against them. In the end, family stability does matter for kids on the whole.

So What’s to Be Done?

The panelists debated policy options for improving children’s lives and encouraging more stability in relationships. However, many were skeptical there’s a policy solution at all. The decline in marriage doesn’t rise to “crisis level” politics. Twenty years ago people warned that family breakdown would lead to spikes in crime, for example. That didn’t happen. Instead, the problem manifests itself in social mobility or in personal issues, such as higher rates of depression, more drinking. But as Douthat said, these ordinary human life issues are not a crisis in public order, the kinds of problem we as a society leap to address. The decline in marriage can have a negative impact on human flourishing without dragging us down into the abyss that public scolds thrive on.

That said, the panelists did brainstorm some possible policy-like solutions:

  • Create better vocational training and clearer pathways into good jobs.
  • Eliminate the marriage penalty in the tax code. But, any policy that makes an explicit marriage advantage will seem stigmatizing to other family forms. Therefore, take care to couch it in language of eliminating the penalty rather than explicitly privileging marriage).
  • Improve child tax credits
  • Attend to the economic issues and shore up the middle class.
  • Move toward full employment in the economy
  • Create a wage subsidy for young men (and women) working in low-wage jobs.
  • Culturally, promote a new ethic of responsibility for all Americans. If we want to move to a better future, we have to return to thinking about marriage as a cornerstone, and children as a capstone, something you do only when you’re ready and prepared to take the responsibility.
  • Work to make cohabitation more stable.
  • Ensure that Medicaid covers birth control, up the income scale. The most effective forms of birth control are expensive and require a doctor’s visit. Reduce the barriers.
  • What not to do: Spend more money on marriage counseling and relationship enhancement programs for fragile families. The evidence to date is that they are not effective.

The panel was hosted by Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families, Brookings Institution

Panelists were: