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  • "There is overwhelming consensus that growing economic inequality and changes in family structure are interrelated." Tweet This
  • "Recognizing the role of family structure in economic outcomes threatens many progressive values." Tweet This

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt published a brief letter arguing that increasing economic inequality is both a cause and an effect of changing family structures. He suggested that this is one area where conservatives, who emphasize the causal impact of family structure on economic factors, have a greater claim to the evidence than liberals. We asked a few scholars to weigh in on the significance of his piece. Their responses are below.

The Marriage-Income Relationship Goes Both Ways
Shoshana Grossbard

David Leonhardt recognizes that in addition to family structure depending on economic achievements and income inequality, it also drives economic outcomes. I agree. In my book The Marriage Motive (published by Springer, 2015) I argue that marriage influences whether we work or stay home, how much we work, what we produce at home and what we buy, and how we deal with our finances. Were the marriage-income relationship simply a reflection of how income affects marriage, it would not follow that marriage market conditions influence income. Research would not demonstrate that an indicator of marriage market conditions, the ratio of men to women in society—the sex ratio—affects what we buy, what we produce at home, how much we save, and our employment patterns. Where sex ratios are higher women work less in the labor force, men work more, and savings rates are higher, which in turn affects incomes and income inequality.

Furthermore, laws that influence family structure also have an economic impact. For example, Victoria Vernon and I have shown that in states with common-law marriage laws, where cohabitation is more likely to be considered as marriage, women are less likely to be in the labor force. Geddes et al. (2012) have shown that when women gained the right to keep their own earnings in the U.S., the terms of marriage changed and women acquired more education. Laws regarding marriage and cohabitation thus have real effects on the economy.

Education, employment, savings, consumption: all economic decisions that result in where people stand on the income inequality measures; all decisions influenced by marriage market conditions, such as sex ratios, and by laws aimed at regulating marriage and cohabitation. Variation in marriage prospects and successes is thus more than a side effect of the income distribution.

Shoshana Grossbard is Professor of Economics at San Diego State University and founding editor of the Review of Economics of the Household.

Home Economics
June Carbone and Naomi Cahn

David Leonhardt’s decision to take “sides” on the debate over whether diverging family structures cause inequality or whether inequality causes diverging family structure conflates two things that should be kept separate: core values about marriage (is it a Biblically mandated ideal or a matter of personal preference?) and the relationship between inequality and family change.

On the first question there will never be agreement. On the second, there is overwhelming consensus that growing economic inequality and the change in family structure are interrelated, and no doubt that the changing family makes inequality worse. Between 1982 and 2006-08, family change has become a hallmark of class, not cultural choice. During that period, teen-aged children of college graduate parents (white or black) became more likely to be raised in a two-parent family, while family stability declined for everyone else. Societal support for families accordingly tends to remain marriage-centered, as elites call the shots on support for the terms of family life. Moreover, greater inequality increases both community and family instability, weakening schools and after-school programs and increasing crime in the neighborhoods in which single-parent families are most concentrated. The effects of these changes are interactive and cumulative.

The critical question is what to do about it, and here the causal issues matter. Many conservatives make the same move Leonhardt does. They see the class-based division in families and say if only single parents married, they would be more like the elite. Yet there is scant evidence that any of the marriage promotion efforts of the last two decades have succeeded—and one reason why they cannot succeed is that they do not address the causal factors that connect inequality with family instability. Explaining that takes a book not a blog, but there is one word that does unite liberal and conservative solutions: jobs.

June Carbone is Robina Chair in Law, Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota Law School. Naomi Cahn is Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at George Washington University. Together they are coauthors of Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family.

In Denial: Progressive Values, Science, and Marriage 
W. Bradford Wilcox

Progressives such as Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein often hammer the right for ignoring, downplaying, or distorting the science on topics like evolution or climate change when the evidence challenges conservatives’ beliefs. Not surprisingly, however, progressives are generally unable to see the cases where their own ideology blinds them to the facts. That’s because, as Klein pointed out in Vox, people on both sides of the spectrum “subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values."

One subject where the some on the left ignore the evidence is the science on marriage, child well-being, and the commonweal. I’ve seen family textbooks that gloss over the connection between family structure and child abuse, journalistic accounts of single motherhood that minimize what we know about the links between single motherhood and child outcomes, and dozens of stories on income inequality that say nary a word about the role that the retreat from marriage has played in fueling it. I know why this happens: recognizing the role of family structure in these domains threatens many progressive values, from the cultural left’s devotion to expressive individualism to the view that economic structures ultimately determine family behaviors rather than vice versa.

This is why David Leonhardt’s forthright essay on liberalism and family structure published this month in the New York Times is so encouraging. The editor of The Upshot, the Times’ data journalism arm, could not have been clearer, calling out on those on the left who put “more weight on their preconceptions (inequality is bad for society) than on the evidence (changes in family structure are both an effect and a cause of inequality).”

Judging by some of the responses that Leonhardt’s essay garnered, some on the left remain in denial about the facts of marriage and family life. But the fact that such a clear-minded essay on marriage can be published by a Pulitzer-prize winning editor at the nation’s “newspaper of record,” and liberalism’s most important paper as well, suggests that the times they are a changing.

W. Bradford Wilcox serves as the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, as well as the Home Economics Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.