Last year Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves joined the growing chorus of concern about the nation’s widening marriage gap. “Matrimony,” he wrote in this Atlantic article, “is flourishing among the rich but floundering among the poor, leading to a large, corresponding marriage gap.” As he documents, children raised by single parents are far more likely than those whose parents are married to live in poverty and less likely to achieve and act in ways that will enable them to escape it.
The “marriage gap” is a genuine problem. But the solution Reeves offers is not only highly implausible, it also betrays just how low is his view of the traditional female role in marriage. His solution is to spread the contemporary elite form of marriage, which he calls the “High-Investment Parenting” or HIP model of marriage, to lower-income Americans, but with a very important twist.
In Reeves’ description, the HIP model is a modified form of what he terms the “traditional model of marriage.” Like the male-breadwinner/female-homemaker model, the HIP model is “built on a strong, traditional commitment to raising children together.” But in the HIP model, husband and wife share in the responsibilities of breadwinning and homemaking, instead of splitting them. When the children arrive, Reeves suggests, such couples may “decide that for a period, one parent will devote more of their time to parenting than to career, especially when the children are young.” “If the mother takes some time out,” which he presumes will (or should) be no more likely than the reverse, then HIP marriages will “masquerade, briefly, as traditional ones: a breadwinning father, a home-making mother, and a stable marriage.” But only “briefly.” The novelty of the HIP model of marriage is thus that it is “liberal about adult roles,” even where it is still “conservative about raising children.”
Reeves attributes the rise of the HIP model of marriage in part to “feminist advances.” Feminism urged women to go to college and keep working even after marrying and having kids. Today, women are graduating from college at higher rates than men and are the main (or sole) breadwinners in 40 percent of families. Reversing “this half century of advance” is not only “impossible,” he contends, but also “deeply undesirable.” Encouraging mothers to devote themselves full-time to the care of their own children is, apparently, unconscionable.
And yet that is exactly what Reeves encourages low-income men to do. “HIP marriages are an elite invention,” he writes, “that could make the greatest difference in the poorest communities, if only attitudes can be shifted.” But because the “labor market prospects of poorly-educated men are dire,” we must turn the traditional model of marriage “on its head”: specifically, “men need to start doing the ‘women’s work’ of raising kids.”
Reeves’ solution for shoring up marriage among low-income Americans, then, is not actually to promote the HIP model of marriage, but to restore the traditional model in reverse. He would have men embrace full-time a role he seems to regard as demeaning for women. No doubt low-income men will sign up in droves.
Even odder, however, is that though Reeves seems to recognize the importance of the many things elite parents do to prepare their children for the future—he specifically mentions how children benefit from bedtime stories, healthy meals and adequate physical activities—he still does not see devoting oneself full-time to such cultivation as a worthy thing for a woman to pursue. So much for being liberal about adult roles.
Tiffany Jones Miller is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas.