Is marriage a “luxury good”?

I have used the phrase “luxury good” to describe homeschooling many times. Our family is able to homeschool because we are relatively well off and have considerable flexibility surrounding our daily schedules. What we are doing is not cheap. We pay thousands of dollars in property taxes every year to support a public school system our child will never attend. We pay close to the same amount buying the best academic curricula on the market, a library full of excellent children’s literature, and scientific equipment for a home laboratory. This is a luxury that ranks right up there with sending a child to some elite private school.

Sure, you can homeschool your child using free resources on the Internet and by making extensive use of your public library (assuming your public library has not been taken over by social justice warriors who want to purge its contents). There are a lot of wonderful websites out there explaining how to do this. But homeschooling is a lot easier if you are relatively wealthy. That’s why vouchers are a durable political concern for people who advocate for school choice. Being able to keep some of their hard-earned income to pay for high-quality education materials would make a big difference to many families who do not want to send their child to a government school.

But one could also argue that every aspect of having a stable domestic existence is a “luxury good” these days. Parents who are tethered to a traditional corporate gig generally do not talk about gourmet cooking or baking for fun. They talk about “meal prep” strategies and devices to nuke food in ever shorter periods of time. We have an entire industry based on mail-order food and pre-selected recipes to follow so people can purchase the illusion of being a gourmand. Alexa can read your children bedtime stories selected by an algorithm. I get outright attacked on a regular basis by some women about homeschooling, and not because they think homeschooling as a practice is bad (though I don’t think I would care if they did). They don’t want to feel guilty about how little time they spend with their own families. Making sense of what they are doing versus ideals of motherhood seems to be a tremendous source of anxiety for them, especially as their children are getting older, and it makes me genuinely sad. It’s not like their careers are making them rich and powerful, either. They are making these sacrifices just to keep up with the Joneses. It’s not surprising so many people carefully curate fake lives on social media.

I know I say this all the time, but American culture would be much improved if more people had the ability to work and attend school remotely. (Not to mention it would slow the spread of bizarre viruses and help the environment significantly.) People need to be allowed to have a quality family life to be happy and flourish and that requires a healthier balance of their time. Women should not be forced to abandon their kids weeks after they are born and pump their boobs in a maintenance closet when they could easily put together a spreadsheet at home. Parents should be able to have a starring role in their child’s education if they want to. Historically, we are not far from norms where parents treated their children as apprentices so they were never without skills they could monetize. Now we have people in their 20s who do not know what they want to do when they grow up. It’s insane and unnecessary.

I was thus intrigued by this article in today’s Wall Street Journal: Affluent Americans Still Say ‘I Do.’ It’s the Middle Class That Does Not. The authors argue that marriage is now a luxury good:

The middle three-fifths of U.S. earners have experienced the sharpest declines in marriage rates over the past four decades compared with people at the bottom of the income ladder and those at the top, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of census data from 1980 to 2018, the most recent available. These households earned from $25,000 to $125,000 in 2018.

Affluent Americans who marry are more likely to pool six-figure incomes, buy homes and watch their assets grow. Among people ages 25 to 34, the median wealth of married couples is four times that of couples who live together but aren’t married, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The divide reflects another facet of the nation’s income gap.

More couples are deciding to live together instead of marrying, and strained finances are a top reason many cite. A survey last year by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that among those who live with a partner and wish to get married, more than half said they or their partner weren’t financially ready.

“Economic conditions, even in the good economy, remain difficult for many working Americans,” said Daniel Schneider, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied marriage. “That is not conducive to you feeling like you could get married, or people wanting to marry you.”

Marriage remains a goal for most young Americans. Every year since 1976, University of Michigan researchers have asked high-school seniors across the U.S. whether they expect to marry: Three-quarters of them said yes in 2017, a share virtually unchanged since the first survey, according to an analysis by Bowling Green State University of the survey data.

Now, many young adults no longer see marriage as the first rung on the ladder to adulthood. Instead, they want to first start careers, or at least land secure jobs and have some money in their pocket.

“The meaning of marriage has changed, and marriage is now viewed as this capstone achievement once all of these other milestones have been achieved,” said Susan L. Brown, chair of sociology at Bowling Green State. “It’s almost like a luxury good that’s attainable only by the people who have the highest resources in society.”

About half of middle earners were married in 2018, a drop of 16 percentage points since 1980. Among the highest U.S. earners, 60% were married in 2018, a decline of 4 percentage points over the same period. That marks a reversal. In 1980, a higher proportion of middle-class Americans than top earners were married.

This is one of the saddest stories I have read lately:

Stagnant wages and lost manufacturing jobs, especially since the financial crisis, have eroded the financial security that helped previous generations of working-class Americans form married households, researchers said.

Nick Cotter, 31 years old, grew up in Pittsburgh’s Brookline neighborhood. His father was an electrician, and his mother worked raising four children. The family usually went to Catholic Church services at least twice a week.

Mr. Cotter faced bleak prospects after finishing high school in 2007. He worked as a supermarket stock boy at minimum wage until he was 21. He tried college before dropping out, in part because he couldn’t afford it.

His low-skill, low-wage job wasn’t conducive to dating, much less marriage, he said: “When you don’t feel that good about yourself, you definitely don’t think other people will think that much of you.”

He took a second crack at college and received a bachelor’s degree from Wheeling University in West Virginia in 2013. He eventually got a master’s degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon University. He now works as a local government researcher on affordable housing and neighborhoods.

Mr. Cotter is hopeful he will find the right partner. “I feel like if I ever get married it would probably be because of the tax benefits, or if they really wanted to,” he said. “That’s a definite change from what my parents thought.”

But is this also a story about religion?

Couples living together are under less pressure from family and friends to tie the knot than in the past. The steady decline in mainstream religion helped remove the stigma once assigned unmarried couples living together.

More couples are forming families without matrimony. One in four parents living with a child is unmarried, according to Pew. More than one-third of them are living with a partner, up from one in five in 1997, the Pew study of 2017 data found.

Some churches are expanding marriage-support services over concerns that falling rates of matrimony are a main reason fewer people go to church.

“Family decline is what’s driving faith decline,” said J.P. De Gance, president and chief executive of Communio, a nonprofit in Alexandria, Va. The group helps churches build ministries that encourage healthy marriages and relationships.

The shadow of divorce might also play a role. People born from 1965 to 1980, Generation X, as well as millennials, born from 1981 to 1996, grew up in the era when such breakups became common. Their childhood experiences sowed cynicism about marriage for some, experts said. The U.S. divorce rate, after peaking in 1979, is now at a 40-year low.

Well, the divorce rate is at an all-time low because people aren’t getting married and having children in the first place. That’s not exactly an achievement.

I do not believe that data (including Pew’s own data, which I have fisked before) suggest that Americans are becoming more secular. They are certainly becoming more non-denominational, however. That’s why surveys about religion are problematic.

People who consider themselves religious “nones” when asked about their beliefs are not necessarily atheists. They are rejecting institutionalized religion en masse, like the Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist churches, which have all had struggles with putting toxic people in positions of authority and sometimes vicious identity politics spats. Evangelical churches in the United States are booming, and they tend to be exceptionally pro-family, traditional values places. The main difference between evangelical and traditional churches is that evangelicals are not splitting hairs about who does and does not belong and the minutia of what adherents must believe. They are more about the experience of communion, not parsing who belongs at the Lord’s table. That is an attitude that works well for many younger people.

A more likely explanation of the data is that America is cleaving in two in many ways, and it’s not only about politics and religion. It’s about every dimension of culture. There’s a lot of resentment over ideals versus real lifestyles and bad faith narratives all around.

The problem with depicting marriage as a luxury good or evidence of status is that a marriage-less society becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy:

  • Getting married confers tangible economic benefits. You can share labor and pool earnings. You can raise children who will offset a lack of earning power later.
  • The earlier people get married in their adult life, the more these benefits multiply, like compound interest. You can buy assets that appreciate (like real estate) earlier in life and trade those assets up even higher. You can help put each other through higher levels of education WITHOUT MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF STUDENT DEBT. You can start saving and investing money that becomes a source of future wealth over time.
  • When young people become convinced that marriage is a sign of success and not a path to success, they eliminate the economic advantages associated with marriage in their own lives.
  • This is why the traditional view of marriage worked well for creating a genuinely prosperous society. Young married couples were expected to be poor and make sacrifices to get ahead, but they were repaid many times over by middle age. Now people are approaching middle age with zero net worth because they shirked household formation for a career thinking a career alone would be a source of social mobility.

There are a lot of politically-minded activists in our society (especially on the political left) selling a narrative to women in particular that cannot be objectively or quantitatively supported by economists. Being married and having children are actually essential components of social mobility. You are even better off financially if you can put together a stable extended family that can help you and your children through inevitable periods of crisis. It’s the Sex and the City ideal that trashes your earning power and happiness.

If you want to elevate the standard of living of younger generations, a good place to start is by helping them understand the concept of courtship as opposed to dating. It’s not a coincidence that the student debt crisis in our country has coincided with cultural views that dating is about sex without consequences (what one might call “fucking”) instead of searching for a life partner. That is where a lot of malaise begins – and it’s not just a spiritual malaise, but an economic one. The best way to restore the middle class in this country is to restore a pro-family worldview.

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