Is Marriage the Solution to Poverty?

David Brooks has an op-ed in today’s NY Times about the “opportunity gap.” In it he essentially provides a repackaged cycle-of-poverty argument claiming that “good” parenting and education leads to children with more opportunity who themselves grow up to become better parents, in part because they have more disposable income to spend on their children. He also offers some demographic data to help prop up the cycles argument and later concludes that:

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it.

Wow. Seems a bit paternalistic.

Not to mention we’ve been here before. In 1965 Patrick Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor, released what was informally known as the Moynihan Report. Formally, it was known as “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” The premise was simple. The black community’s deviation from the nuclear family — most notably the high incarceration rate of parent-aged black men — was causing cycles of poverty that were destroying black economic and social prospects. A professor I once had mockingly summed up the report’s theme: “All the blacks need to do is get family right. Get community right. Ger parenting right.” Of course who is deciding what “right” means? David Brooks, of course. Or, more generally, not the blacks living in the ghettos. After all, whites have already gotten family right, all they needed to do now is get blacks to buy into the system. This view of nuclear family has also been critiqued elsewhere; for instance, in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye the author turns the concept of family on its head (see the prologue, for example).

I think the government already provides plenty of incentives to get married — consider, oh, I don’t know, the 1,049 federal statutory provisions contingent on marriage. That is to say nothing of the fact that marriage is an institution that remains closed to large segments of the population — like anyone at all that wants the state to recognize a relationship other than one involving one man and one woman. And an institution that has only about a fifty percent success rate. There is no evidence in Brooks’s article that warrants marriage as a normative prescription to be forced on the poor.


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