Dr. Amy Wax and Dr. Isabel Sawhill Discuss Marriage and the Family

America is facing a crisis: the decline of marriage and family values. According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of adults were married in 1960. Today, only 51% of adults over eighteen fit that description. The CDC reports that 5% of children were born out of wedlock in 1960. Today, that rate has jumped to 40%.

Last Monday’s conversation with Penn Law Professor Amy Wax and Dr. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution confirmed that these statistics are concerning to scholars on both sides of the aisle. The event was hosted by the Penn chapter of the non-partisan American Enterprise Institute, and was moderated by Dr. Petra Todd, a visiting professor of economics.

Dr. Wax sparked controversy last August when she co-authored an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer lamenting the decline of “bourgeois culture,” which values strong families and committed marriages.

Throughout Monday’s debate, Dr. Wax and Dr. Sawhill found much common ground. “There is a lot of research that the well-being of children is related to marriage. There is a strong consensus that children do better in life when they are raised in two-parent families. These are typically stable, committed relationships that lead to better parenting,” explained Dr. Sawhill.

While the women agreed that marriage creates ideal conditions for childrearing and that the institution is on the decline, they disagreed about how to solve the problems single parenthood creates.

Dr. Sawhill claims that marriage is only one of many ways to raise of child, and that the institution is becoming less necessary as women become more educated, less financially dependent on men, and distance themselves from a feminine identity that is traditionally tied to motherhood. She claims that society must shift attention from marriage to children. Rather than encouraging marriage, society should promote the idea that it is not right to bring children into the world until one is ready to become a parent. She suggests two policy proposals to promote such a shift in cultural thinking: affordable access to the most effective forms of birth control and improvements to career prospects and technical education (such as increased vocational training and a higher minimum wage).

Dr. Sawhill emphasized that she is not against marriage. However, she believes that such a decision should not be made without great thought. She asked the audience to pose as a child behind John Rawls’ classic veil of ignorance. “Would you rather be born to a well-educated, financially stable, single mother in her thirties who planned you, or a married, young couple who has no financial resources and no idea what they’re doing?” she asked.

Dr. Wax sees things differently. She agrees that readiness for parenthood is an important factor in a child’s well-being; however, she believes that such readiness should be embedded in the institutional context of marriage. “The infrastructure of marriage provides broader benefits,” she explained. She discussed how marriage knits families together through networks of in-laws and relatives—connections that can provide financial support and potentially job opportunities when an individual falls on hard times. She explained that due to the decline of marriage, many people find themselves virtually alone. The elderly are attending more medical appointments alone, and a growing population of unattached young men are putting their communities at risk as they are more likely to use drugs and engage in crime.

She acknowledges that economic disparities play a limited role in the decline in marriage, but believes that changes in cultural norms are primarily responsible. “In the 1940s and 50s there were discrepancies in martial rates across the socioeconomic spectrum; however, those discrepancies were much more convergent. We’re seeing a huge divergence today,” she explained.

She continued to emphasize the change in cultural context: “People married at higher rates and had fewer out-of-wedlock births during the Great Depression.” When asked if it is responsible to promote marriage in communities where there are not enough “marriageable” men, Dr. Wax responded, “Marriageability doesn’t fall from the sky. It’s a product of a set of decisions people are socialized to make as mature adults. Get married, be faithful, seek employment, avoid breaking the law, etc. Promoting marriage is telling communities to think about how we can make ourselves more marriageable.”

As the debate concluded, Dr. Sawhill reminded the audience that she and Dr. Wax have a common understanding of the value of marriage: “There is a tendency to assume we don’t agree, but we agree on a lot.” She continued to espouse the importance of social norms, yet acknowledged that she and Dr. Wax differ regarding where society’s focus should be: reviving marriage, or working around its decline.

Dr. Wax concluded by reiterating her belief that concrete supports exist when couples honor the institution of marriage. She added that she becomes frustrated reading articles penned by financially stable, married, feminist law professors demanding the acceptance and celebration of nontraditional families. “It’s selfish and a show of bad faith. They are depriving others of the benefits they themselves enjoy.” As marriage rates continue to fall, family values are in danger of being replaced by policy solutions, a turn of events welcomed by Dr. Sawhill and mourned by Dr. Wax.

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