Now, let's get straight on marriage

David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, New York Daily News, 3/31/2013

Marriage today is fracturing along class lines. Americans with four-year college degrees continue to wed in large numbers and enjoy stable marriages. But only about a third of American adults hold four-year degrees. For the larger number of Americans without a college degree, marriage is disappearing with alarming speed.

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Subjects: Marriage, Gay marriage

More by: David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch

No one knows which way the Supreme Court will go in the two gay marriage cases now before it. But whatever the court eventually decides, liberals can savor this moment. They have been at the forefront of the struggle for gay marriage and for the values of equality and inclusion. The court's rulings will not be nearly as important as what has already happened in the country.

Few transformations in our history have occurred as quickly. Twenty years ago, gay marriage was a radical idea. Today, it is mainstream. In nine states plus Washington, D.C., same-sex couples have won the legal right to marry. Most Americans – including an overwhelming majority of younger Americans – support the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

Gay marriage is here. It is already part of our social fabric.

But don't savor the moment for too long. There's much more to marriage equality than gay marriage equality.

Marriage today is fracturing along class lines. Americans with four-year college degrees continue to wed in large numbers and enjoy stable marriages. But only about a third of American adults hold four-year degrees. For the larger number of Americans without a college degree, marriage is disappearing with alarming speed.

For example, only about 6% of American women with four-year college degrees today are having children outside of marriage. But for those with high school degree only, the number is 44%. For high-school dropouts, it's 54%.

Since the 1970s, there's been virtually no change in the likelihood that a teenage girl born to well-educated parents will grow up in an intact family. But for girls born to moderately-educated (high school, but no four-year college degree) parents, the chance of living in an intact home has dropped 16%.

Many other numbers bear out this large and growing class-based marriage divide – a divide that cuts across all racial boundaries.

This problem ought to be a core liberal issue, right up there with income stagnation and inequality. Why? One simple reason: To a considerable extent, income stagnation and inequality are the marriage problem.

The growing marriage gap is widening the economic divide in this country. Increasingly, marriage's considerable economic and social advantages are falling to the already advantaged, college-educated minority.

Marriage used to be achievable for people up and down the income scale. But today, it is becoming another form of privilege for the upscale.

For example, the median income of a household with a four-year degree and a marriage license is a whopping $70,000 greater than that of a household without a four-year degree or a marriage license.

And the disparities don't end with income. Married, college-educated parents have more resources of all kinds with which to advantage their children, while the growing proportion of parents with less education and unstable relationships are struggling just to keep their kids safe and in school.

In such a context, even the impending victory of gay marriage becomes bittersweet. If the marriage gap continues to grow, with an upscale minority of us doing marriage well and the rest of us doing it either poorly or not at all, inequality will continue to grow. Adding a comparatively small number of gay and lesbian couples to America's marriage community in the coming years, although very important, will be but an undercurrent in a larger tide toward a new class divide based on family structure.

A minority will have become included, which is great. But a larger number will have become effectively excluded.

It doesn't have to be this way. The liberal values of fairness and inclusion that are winning the day for gay marriage can also help to restore marriage itself as an achievable goal for most Americans. There is some evidence that this is already beginning to happen.

Beginning this month, if you attend a New York City public school, or ride New York City subways or buses, you will see prominent advertisements aimed at persuading young New Yorkers not to become teen parents.

One of the ads says: "If you finish high school, get a job and get married before having children, you have a 98% chance of not being in poverty." Some have criticized this and similar ads as being too judgmental, but the message does have one advantage: It's true.

The success sequence for young people described in the ad – get an education, get a job and get married before you have children – is confirmed by a large and growing body of social science evidence, much of it produced by liberal scholars.

And who is the originator of what appears to be the first government-initiated public service ad campaign in at least a generation explicitly to support marriage? Mayor Bloomberg – a political independent, a philosophical liberal and a strong supporter of gay marriage.

If you heard President Obama's State of the Union Address earlier this year, you heard him call for ending the marriage penalty for low-income Americans. The reform itself is an important goal. Due to unintended consequences of our current tax and welfare system, many low-income couples, simply by virtue of the decision to marry, stand to lose up to one-third of their annual income.

Especially since stable marriages are a key pathway out of welfare dependency and into the middle class, it makes no sense to punish people economically for the decision to marry. More broadly, the reform would send an important message to the entire society. We value marriage. Marriage matters. Supporting marriage is good for society.

And who is the sponsor of this reform? The President, another liberal and a strong supporter of gay marriage.

About the time of the State of the Union, the two of us and about 75 other colleagues released document entitled "A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage." (You can read the document and, if you wish, become a signatory, at americanvalues.org.)

In issuing this call, our goal is to move beyond the gay-marriage culture wars and bring together a broad new pro-marriage coalition.

Today, for the first time, gay couples and straight couples are getting married and raising kids. They share the same interest in strong marriages and stable families. They also share an interest in equality. Reflecting this new commonality, our statement calls for bringing together gays and lesbians who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. Supporters include Americans from across the political spectrum, including some of America's most distinguished liberal intellectuals.

There may be a pattern here. For years, many liberals have been reluctant to speak out in favor of marriage – unless the word "gay" was in front of it – for fear of being seen as narrowly "pro-family values," which some translate as being anti-gay. But now that gay marriage is widely accepted and is an established fact of American life, liberals no longer have to worry that being "pro-marriage" means excluding same-sex couples.

Obama is a good example. In his entire first term, he said almost nothing about marriage. Then last summer, during his re-election bid, he endorsed gay marriage. The Democratic Party soon did the same.

The President won re-election. And then, in his first major address of the new term, he spoke out publicly in favor of marriage – not simply gay marriage, but marriage overall, and in particular as it regards the economic prospects of low-income Americans. The story is roughly the same regarding Mayor Bloomberg's journey on the gay marriage issue and his new pro-marriage campaign in New York City.

With or without gay marriage, many liberals remain reluctant to criticize single parenthood, and single mothers are mainstays of the Democratic base. Talking about the marriage gap won't be uncontroversial on the left. Yet the very fact that President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg are broaching the subject suggests that change is afoot.

When reducing the marriage gap is couched in terms of opportunity and equality, rather than in the language of opprobrium, it can and does fit naturally within liberals' moral vocabulary.

Can liberal values today help to renew American marriage for everyone who seeks it? Can liberal leaders and voters turn their gay marriage campaign into a campaign for marriage itself? We hope so. In fact, we believe so.

We see the makings of a new pro-family coalition: one that builds from the center out, instead of from the right in; one that liberals can wholeheartedly help to lead as part and parcel of their commitment to equality and inclusion; one that changes "family values" from a wedge issue into a common cause.

This article originally appeared here.

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