Thursday, November 18, 2004

Marriage and Social Policy

Many thanks to Harry Brighouse of Crooked Timber for linking to my post on Alabama and the likely rejection of Amendment 2, which would have removed the language which denied the existence of any general right to an education from the state constitution. Quite a few people posted insightful comments, including Harry himself; I'll have to fish some of those out (along with a few comments from some earlier posts as well) and present them along with some comments of my own about libertarianism, Christianity, and "moral values." But for now, a couple of quick notes on some related subjects, specifically having to do with welfare, marriage, and the role of the state.

This week, Slate ran a dialogue which featured posts from Mickey Kaus, Ron Haskins and Jonah Edelman on Jason DeParle's new book, American Dream, which closely describes the lives of the poor in America during the era of welfare reform. All of the e-mail exchanges on DeParle's book are superb; one should read the whole series (here, here, and here). Among their praise for DeParle's work, several conclusions emerge: that Clinton-era welfare reform got at least a few very crucial things right; that linking welfare to work is a crucial step in breaking the cycle of poverty; and that an immense distance remains to be traveled if equal opportunities are truly to be available to the urban poor. All three discussants agree that the single greatest contributor to that distance is the dreadful state of the family in inner cities. Again and again, the facts makes themselves undeniable, in the words of poor women themselves as well as in statistics: the violence, despair and bad choices which plague the poorest communities in America are profoundly wrapped up in the irresponsibility and criminality of men who father children, refuse to look for or keep jobs, abuse girlfriends and the welfare system, sell and do drugs, intimidate friends who try to change, and generally fill the lives of so many struggling working mothers, desperately trying to raise their children (usually illegitimate, generally torn between multiple homes as well as the street), with pain, confusion, and fear. What could possibly alter this dreadful legacy? Obviously what's really needed is both a general cultural revival as well as the preservation of a economic world where the jobs which cities once provided cannot so easily be taken away by globalization or illegal immigration; but the discussants don't go in that direction. What they do talk about is increasing the minimum wage (to try to compete with the drug economy which "employs" so many poor black males) or even legalizing drugs (if only to bring some disciplinary consequences and legitimacy to the "jobs" most of these men have at least some familiarity with). Mostly, however, they talk about marriage: whether the slowly increasing earning power of formerly welfare-dependent working mothers will lead to more women finding the strength to refuse to put up with unproductive men in their lives, and what, if anything, the state can do to them help get to that point. This leads to a discussion of Bush's "marriage initiative"--which DeParle, who has long been associated with liberal critics of Republican efforts at welfare reform, has cautious approval for. It isn't every day that one sees a discussion about welfare embrace both promoting marriage and universal health insurance--but to my mind, they both have the same goal in mind: helping people get into the sort of situation where they can live a life of security, both financial and emotional. The pathologies of poverty in the U.S. make it clear that both the Republicans and the Democrats have missed, or refused to see, for a very long time how both of these two securities are profoundly mixed.

Meanwhile, here in Arkansas, our governor is pushing "covenant marriage"--a recent legal innovation, also available in Arizona and Louisiana, which requires couples to accept pre-wedding counseling and allows divorce only in cases of adultery, imprisonment, abandonment, abuse and after a substantial waiting period. Arkansas has a very high marriage rate, but also an extremely high divorce rate, which is pretty common throughout much of South (a point that can be legitimately made as part of an accusation of red-state hypocrisy). Again, the real issue here is one of education (the lack of it), poverty (the extent of it), and the culture of divorce itself--which is present everywhere, but more easily manifest in areas where the sort of habits and choices that clearly work in favor of staying married are less common. Fighting this culture is thus only one part of the problem (and a difficult one, so long as no-fault divorce remains the law of the land), but nonetheless an important part, and trying to make marriage into a stronger and more binding association through political and social pressure sounds like a good (if limited) strategy to me. For those who find any sort of state intervention or involvement in the supposedly "private" matter of marriage to be distasteful (which is really a way of saying that any sort of public judgment about one's lifestyle is to be avoided), Governor Huckabee's agenda will of course seem like more moralistic interference. It think, on the contrary, that it's one aspect of a broad and necessary movement, a movement to strengthen and make more valuable the marriage relationship for everyone, for dozens of easily empirically demonstrable reasons. Of course, that won't satisfy those with philosophical objections, which is why my arguments about the legitimacy of (some) state actions in relation to a popularly held, communally articulated moral agenda continues (and will likely long continue) to run up against the arguments of those who don't see why there need be many (or perhaps even any) collective obligations, whether financial or personal, in a liberal state. But in the meantime, the fact that at least some people are recognizing the relevance of the "moral issue" of marriage to social policy, both for the inner cities as well as elsewhere, is an encouraging sign.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

If I've got it right from the article, "covenant marriage" is to marriage is to domestic partnership what Guinness is to ale is to Coors Lite - an option for those who prefer a greater amount of legally binding contract in their lives. I do find state interference in family structure distasteful (when I don't find it completely outside the government's legitimate purview) but as long as Governor Huckabee's agenda doesn't include extra rights or privileges for covenant couples, I'm not sure why I'm supposed to be upset.

This seems to me to be a step towards the death of traditional one-size-fits-all state-sponsored marriage. While I'm all in favor of that, I'm surprised that it's gained the support of so many social conservatives. 

Posted by yami

Anonymous said...

Jobs are more important than marriage. Child care is more important than marriage. Health care is more important than marriage.

Until people start working seriously to provide these to people, I can't take all the talk about marriage very seriously. If women can't get jobs, child care, and health care from men, then they don't need them and won't get married. Simple as that.

Also, making marriage harder to get out of means that fewer people get married. While this might be a good thing in a benighted place like Arkansas where people marry very young without knowing what they are getting into, I can't see it as very useful in a place like Massachusetts, which has very low levels of divorce. In fact, if you make divorce very hard, you just get cohabitation - see Ireland and Chile for good examples. 

Posted by Hektor Bim

Anonymous said...

I see thing rather similarly to Hektor. The age at marriage shows a strong correlation to staying together, right? Let's encourage and facilitate a social environment where young adults are encouraged to establish their independent personalities and lives--socially and economically--before they make a lifelong commitment. This would be a way of strengthening marriage that wouldn't make it harder for marginalized, disconnected women in abusive and destructive marriages to get out. The specific content of the form of patriachy that pervades many such marriages can make it quite difficult to get out, even with no-fault divorce laws. I must say I find it a bit disheartening that this obvious cost to higher hurdles for divorce doesn't merit a mention in your discussion here.

For some of us, though, the best thing that could be done to strengthen and encourage marriage is to stop using it as a tool for discrimation. I'd no sooner participate in state-sponsored marriage right now than I would patronize a whites-only country club, and I have many acquaintances who feel the same way. 

Posted by DJW

Anonymous said...

The term 'hypocrisy' is one of the most ill-used and overused terms in political discourse. Am I a hypocrite if I am against SSM while those who share my sexual orientation get divorced at rates which some consider too high? Or is it only hypocrisy if I live in a red state? Perhaps I think that there should be no SSM, but that the current divorce law is not in need of changes, because divorce is so rarely contemplated without cause that making it harder would cause abused spouses to remain in marriage to an unacceptable degree. Perhaps I am wrong about this assessment. Does my faulty reasoning or misperception of the social facts make me a hypocrite?

Besides the incoherence of the hypocrisy (or somewhat more sensibly, the inconsistency) charge against opponents of same-sex marriage, the discussion on both sides fails to come to terms with the basic meaning of marriage. On the one hand it is a kind of contract that is freely entered into my any who are of age. But on the other hand, the legally-created right to such a contract results in a social insitution intended to serve certain ends. Proponents of SSM cite only the first aspect when explaining why SSM must be granted, and why opposition to SSM amounts to bigotry. But then they use primarily the second aspect to beat heterosexuals over the head for their high divorce rates. If marriage were only an individual right belonging to all adults, wherein the government had no business trying to steer it toward certain uses, it would make no sense to worry about divorce rates in political discussions. If marriage were only an individual right to "the mutual use of sexual organs" it would make as much sense to decry divorce rates as it would to worry about the buyout of work contracts from NBA players. Perhaps the social facts will indicate that SSM will not hurt the goals we have in mind when we ask the government to issue marriage licenses. But disagreement on this issue does not necessarily constitute bigotry, and using a legally granted right to promote legitimate social goals is not the same as unjust discrimination. 

Posted by Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

Jeremiah, I don't think it would be appropriate for you and I to turn this thread into a debate on SSM, since it is not the topic of RAF's post. I only brought up the issue in the limited context of observing that for a (very small, admittedly) group of straight people, of which I am a member, the discriminatory nature of marriage laws serve as a disincentive to participate in the institution. I don't think this discrimination is justifable; you do. That's an argument for another time and place (email me if you're dying to have it out).

Other than that, I'll only note that it's a bit odd that you'd choose to begin your post with a discussion of the overuse and abuse of the term "hypocrisy" (I don't disagree) when no one else has used that term in this thread. Certainly, I think you can hold a wide range of views on SSM and divorce laws without being a hypocrite. I can't see how that could be inferred from my post, or Hektor's.

Nor has anyone used the term bigotry, for that matter. It's unclear who or what in this thread your post is responding to. 

Posted by DJW

Anonymous said...

Sorry, DJW, if you thought the post was directed at your comments. They were tangential to the main issue, I know. I wasn't directly disagreeing with anyone on the thread, but commenting on some things that had been alluded to in Russell's post and your post. Russell mentioned the charge of hypocrisy, but did not accuse anyone of it. And, I admit, you accused no one of bigotry.

Perhaps you, Russell and many other people are weary of SSM debates. I know that they used to be an almost daily event over at Times and Seasons. I never got involved in them, mainly because of some of the excesses I describe above. So while I'm not sure of what position I want to take at this point, I don't have the same weariness. At any rate, sorry for veering off-topic. 

Posted by Jeremiah J.

Thomas said...

It is a kind of contract that is freely entered into my any who are of age. But on the other hand, the legally-created right to such a contract results in a social insitution intended to serve certain ends. Proponents of SSM cite only the first aspect when explaining why SSM must be granted, and why opposition to SSM amounts to bigotry. But then they use primarily the second aspect to beat heterosexuals over the head for their high divorce rates. If marriage were only an individual right  belonging to all adults, wherein the government had no business trying to steer it toward certain uses, it would make no sense to worry about divorce rates in political discussions. 

Posted by Scott Brison