For some reason, almost all modern discourse and politicking around marriage is an absolute disaster. In many areas — Oklahoma included — it is still held up as the primarily life goal for women in particular, above and beyond individual projects. It plays a supporting, if not leading role, in the institution of slut-shaming. The inability to access it has almost entirely consumed LGBT advocacy groups to the exclusion of what appear to be far more pressing LGBT problems and issues. And finally, the declining rates of marriage are wrongly used as an excuse/blaming device for poverty and inequality. If only those single mothers would get married, it is said, all the problems on the low-end of the economy would somehow go away. This is nonsense.
First, as background, it is important to point out that marriage rates are down literally everywhere across the industrialized world. What we are seeing is not some sort of acute American crisis of morals and decadence; rather, there is a broad international shift in preferences against the institution. And this is not a bad thing. On the contrary, what it likely reflects is the growing workforce participation of women. When marriage is no longer an economic necessity for women, surprise: they are not that interested in it.
With that out of the way, let’s move to the inequality claims. All sorts of folks — including the “state’s most trusted news” — have tried to claim that low marriage rates drive inequality and poverty. In the Oklahoman version of the argument linked above, we get what is basically a rewrite of a Heritage Foundation report. For the unacquainted, the Heritage Foundation is a right-wing joke of a think tank, even by right-wing think tank standards. In any case, what you get from the study and these arguments in general is something that ultimately looks like this: single mothers are poor and married mothers are not; therefore lack of marriage is what is causing the poorness.
If that was the case, you would expect some sort of international trend of this sort. If low marriage rates were driving higher and higher inequality, then surely the countries with the lowest marriage rates would have the highest levels of inequality. Right? Well, that is not what you see at all. In fact, when you plot measures of inequality against marriage rates for OECD countries, you actually get a slight, statistically insignificant trend in the opposite direction.
At minimum then, something else is at play. What might that be? Our old friend the gender pay gap. According to AFL-CIO and Institute for Women’s Policy Research study from 2000, closing the gender pay gap would reduce the single mother poverty rate from 25.3 percent to 12.6 percent, and reduce single women poverty rate from 6.3 to 1.0 percent. That won’t do the complete trick, but it certainly gets us on our way to understanding the structural causes of single women poverty, a far more serious way of approaching the problem than pleading with people to get married when they do not want to.
Ultimately, the “marriage matters” argument — this being how The Oklahoman editorial board embarrassingly put it — is totally misguided from the very start. The undeniable reality is that more and more marriage does not matter, not to those who increasingly opt out of it. And it is their opinion about the importance of marriage that actually matters. If folks no longer want marriage, then a society that legitimately cares about individual freedom should respect that. You build your economic institutions — including institutions of income distribution — around the preferences of the people in your society.
In this case, that means creating a society where there is no financial penalty for not getting married, not ridiculously insisting that people get hitched against their will. Using declining marriage rates as an excuse to do nothing about single women poverty — which is what this is really about, let’s be honest — is totally outrageous, and we should call it out as such.
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