Leonhardt is Wrong about Liberals, Conservatives and the Family Debate

By June Carbone

David Leonhardt, in a recent “Letter from the editor” in the New York Times, wades into the marriage debate. In the new guise of journalist as judge he pronounces that “liberals are wrong” on the relationship between inequality and the change in family structure.  In the process, he misstates what the issue is about and gets the wrong answer to the question he does ask. He makes both mistakes because of an age old journalistic problem: those trained to meet the limited space of physical newspaper column are taught to turn a complex issue into a simple one: does inequality cause a change in family structure or does a change in family structure cause a change in inequality? Here is how Leonhardt initially frames the supposed debate as to which liberals are “wrong.”

“I’ll have to generalize here a little bit, but in broad terms many liberals have argued that economic factors are the ultimate cause of family changes. Marriage has declined among lower-income Americans, according to this argument, because they are no longer able to find the sort of steady, good-paying work that allows for stable families. Among college graduates, on the other hand, marriages have actually become more stable — with divorce on the decline — because they’re still doing O.K. economically.

Conservatives instead tend to see family structure as a cause and inequality as an effect: The rise of single-parent families has caused economic hardships for many people in those families. If the country could find a way to promote stable marriages, across social classes, inequality would be lower than it otherwise is.”

Later in his column Leonhardt pronounces judgment; claiming that “liberals” are so completely wrong about marriage that they have no “claim on the evidence.” He means that there is zero evidence supporting the “liberal’s” position on marriage. To reach this pronouncement he reduces the position of all “liberals” to this caricature: “they argue that marriage isn’t very important.” He, of course, cites no liberal scholar of the family taking the straw man position that he invented for the purpose of making it sound ridiculous.

Let’s begin with Leonhardt’s initial description of the supposed divide between liberals and conservatives. The premise he (inaccurately) ascribes to conservatives is a unidimensional form of causality. “The rise of single-parent families has caused economic hardship.” The interesting word in that sentence is “caused.” Does he think the women wanted to live a life of “economic hardship?” Does he think the women oppose being married?

These questions become even more interesting when we read his next sentence closely. The only option presented is “the country [finding] a way to promote stable marriages, across social classes….” What about providing real sex education and free contraceptives, including “morning after” products? That would greatly reduce single-parent families suffering “economic hardship.” What about providing free, safe abortion services? That could greatly reduce single-parent families suffering “economic hardship.”

Do conservatives, who generally don’t like the government “promoting” personal decisions really want it competing with Viagra in running ad campaigns and teaching classes “promoting” marriage? Does anyone think such a campaign would succeed?

The question that everyone, regardless of politics is forced to ask if they are serious about studying the family is why large numbers of poorer people are deciding not to marry. Marrying an unreliable partner is not a means of avoiding “economic hardship” – it is an invitation to cause an economic (and all too often a safety) catastrophe for women and their children. One of the principal factors that makes a male an unreliable partner is that he does not hold a reliable, reasonably-paid job. On average, working class men still make more than women – when they work. Men who are chronically underemployed, who cycle in and out of dead end jobs, or who have joined the ranks of the long term unemployed, are not simply a net financial burden. Laid-off men help out less at home than those who are fully employed, and the men may become depressed, abusive or more likely to turn to illegal activities.

In other words, as soon as you unpack the simplistic argument that Leonhardt ascribes to “conservatives” one quickly finds oneself back at the simplistic argument that Leonhardt ascribes to “liberals.” Addressing the fundamental harms that government can help avoid – economic hardship, the lack of suitable marriage partners, abuse, and poor life satisfaction – involves (and this is only a partial list) the government ensuring the provision of contraceptives and training in how to use them effectively and good, steady jobs. It is harder to gain a political consensus on contraception these days, but the good news is that there is an emerging consensus among family scholars of very different political views on the need to ensure the availability of good, steady working class jobs.

Economics and Sociology Interact in Family Formation

Leonhardt’s decision to take “sides” is particularly misleading because the polarization in views among the social scientists he describes is dissolving. The scholarly discussion of marriage increasingly recognizes that the economic changes in the job markets and the changes in family structure are interrelated. There is broad agreement that the interrelationship compounds both inequality and the harms of greater inequality. There is also a developing consensus that the single best policy contribution to increasing the ability of those who wish to marry to do so is to provide good jobs.   In particular, government policies that provided good, steady jobs with adequate pay for working class males would increase marriages and life satisfaction and reduce the likelihood of abuse and divorce.

The job guarantee programs that UMKC is famous for advocating would be the single most effective pro-marriage step America could take. The benefits of the jobs guarantee program, of course, would extend far beyond its pro-marriage impact. Liberals don’t want to coerce people to get married, but they strongly support the creation of a society and an economic system in which who wish to marry can do so and have better chances of being happy with that choice.

For those of you interested in an explanation of how the economy and family structure are in fact deeply interrelated, however, here is the medium length explanation Leonhardt ignores. In my book with Naomi Cahn, Marriage Markets: How Greater Inequality is Remaking the American Family, we examined the relationship between greater inequality and changing family structure. We explain that what greater inequality does is to change the way that men and women match up and that change in turn explains the growing cultural distrust that undermines relationships.   The greater inequality in our society does three things.

First, it segments marriage markets. In the Mad Men era, executives married their secretaries. Today, they marry fellow executives.   Greater inequality makes it more important to defer relationships that might derail education or employment advancement, and to marry a partner who will be an asset rather than a hindrance in realizing one’s goals. Studies show that the greater the male income inequality in a city, the lower women’s marriage rates at age 30.   The stakes of the right match at the right time have risen.

Second, greater inequality affects men more than women, concentrating more men at the top and the bottom of the economic ladder, while more women are in the middle. Men generally and white men in particular are the big winners in new information economy. In the period since 1990, the overall wage gap between the amounts men and women earn has shrunk; yet, during the same period, it has grown for college graduates. A disproportionate share of all income increases after 1990 have gone to top executives, the financial sector, and the highest earning professionals and those groups are overwhelmingly male. Looking just at college graduates under the age of 35 who make more than $100,000 a year, men outnumber women by more than 2 to 1. Even holding constant for factors such as specialty, education, experience and hours worked, the gendered wage gap has grown significantly at the 90% percentile and above. The one marriage market where men substantially outnumber women is at the top and the only group in society whose marriage rates have increased are women whose income is in the top 5%, with the top 10% staying about the same and everyone else’s marriage rates declining. The successful seek to marry the successful and increasingly succeed in doing so.

At the same time, the biggest losers in the new economy have been blue collar men (though the poorest women have also lost ground). Their incomes and employment stability have fallen, both in absolute terms and in comparison with better educated males and similarly educated women. The gendered wage gap, which in 1990 was about the same for all women irrespective of education, has narrowed the most for the least educated women – because of declining male fortunes.

Third, society writes off a high percentage of low income men because of chronic unemployment, mass incarceration, violence and substance abuse. According to a recent Pew study, 78% of never married women state that a high priority in making a man a good marital prospect is a steady job. Yet, the number of unmarried men under the age of 34 who are employed has fallen steadily since 1990 in comparison with the number of unmarried women.

Taking these three factors together, it means that men outnumber women in a marriage market only at the top. In the middle and the bottom, the number of marriageable women outnumber the men. Sociologists further find in cross-cultural studies that when men outnumber women, the men compete to land the best women and women, which provides women with the increased ability to choose among men who are high earners or companionate equals who treat them particularly well. The result reinforces more stable relationships with greater investment in children.

When women outnumber men in a given marriage market, however, the attractive men (i.e., the ones with jobs) find that they can play the field and they often do. Women respond rationally by being more skeptical of men. Women invest more in their own income prospects and their standards for a husband increase to try to counter the risks of being conned. The same thing happens as a result of increased imprisonment. Marriage matters to the relationships and married partners stay together through a jail stint to a much greater degree than unmarried partners. But when the percentage of men caught up in the criminal justice system increases, so too do women’s employment and educational achievements.

Sociologists have not spent much time investigating the family patterns at the top of American society, but they have devoted considerably more energy to examining the patterns at the bottom. They find that gender ratios in a given community explain a lot about family patterns. Once sociologists control for gender ratios in poor communities, much of the racial difference in marriage rates disappears. Kristen Harknett & Sara McLanahan, Racial and Ethnic Differences in Marriage after the Birth of a Child, 69 Am. Soc. Rev. 790, 792 (2004). Indeed, looking at couples who were living together at the time of the birth of their child, gender ratios in the community were a more accurate predictor of whether the parents would marry than individual factors such as attitudes towards marriage or gender roles.

The sociologists also find that gender ratios predict the satisfaction parties derive from non-marital relationships. Kristen Hartnett, Mate Availability and Unmarried Parent Relationships, 45 Demography 555 (2008). Employment opportunities contribute to the effect. Sociologists Hartnett and Kuperberg broke down labor market conditions by education in selected communities. They found that strong male labor markets significantly increased marriage rates for men of every educational level and that controlling for labor market opportunities largely eliminated the marriage differences between more and less educated men. Kristen Hartnett & Arielle Kuperberg, Education, Labor Markets and the Retreat from Marriage, 90 Soc. Forces 41 (2011).

What these studies show is how greater inequality affects not just marriage rates at the margin, but the culture that makes a community more or less marriage oriented. Greater employment instability is disruptive in itself. It increases family tensions and leads to more break-ups. But what our society has done is to write off a large number of men altogether. The result means that in many communities, the supply of women looking for a partner exceeds the number of acceptable men. The result changes the behavior of everyone in the community.   The women, seeing more unhappy relationships around them, respond rationally to their reduced ability to rely on higher and steady income contributions from male partners. They expect less of the men and invest more in themselves. The men with jobs who could be good candidates for marriage find that if one relationship ends, they can easily more on to another, but they also resent the increasing distrust they encounter from women. Relationship stability declines in the entire group – those who are employed and those who aren’t.

Journalists like Leonhardt and sociologists with an ideological ax to grind point to these results and say, see, we told you that the problem is the culture of the poor. You can’t say that people don’t marry because of a lack of jobs, because the marriage rates of the men with jobs in these communities are also falling. Instead, people don’t marry because there is too much infidelity and distrust. What they fail to acknowledge is that the increase in infidelity and distrust is a predictable consequence of the change in gender ratios in a given marriage market, which in turn is a predictable consequence of the decline in employment opportunities for blue collar men. These patterns have been repeated over and over again. Sparta, with fewer men, had a freer sexual culture than Athens, which had more men. Counties in post-war France that lost more soldiers during the war had more non-marital births than those with fewer casualties, and in the urban rustbelt North, African-American marriage rates declined along with the first wave of declining blue collar prospects. Today, the same thing is happening to a large part of the American population.


Explaining these interactions requires more than the eight short paragraphs of Leonhardt’s column. His pronouncement that “liberals” are wrong about the family is based on the straw man claim that liberals think marriage isn’t very important. The good news is that scholars of the family from different viewpoints increasingly realize that providing good, steady employment is the key. The U.S. can and should ensure that the economy provides those jobs.

One Response to Leonhardt is Wrong about Liberals, Conservatives and the Family Debate

  1. Outstanding explanation here. I think this speaks to so many issues in our financialized culture, like the density of payday lending stores in predominantly lower to lower middle class communities. When is the last time we saw a payday lending store next to a country club, or an affluent suburb?

    And probably the most salient point not specifically dealing with marriage, has got to be the one about dearth of knowledge about elite families versus the abundance of information (often unused in policy spheres) with respect to poverty scholarship.

    Thanks Dr. Carbone