Welcome June Carbone (Univ Minn) [June Carbone is the inaugural holder of the Robina Chair of Law, Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota Law School], Naomi Cahn (George Washington University, Law) (Twitter) and Host Jennifer M. Silva (Harvard Kennedy School) (author, Coming Up Short)
While the word “family” may still conjure up an image of a two married parents living with their 2.5 children in the suburbs, Dad heading off to work every morning while Mom takes care of the kids, this image is more myth than reality, a stubborn ideological resistance to seeing the vast transformations that have rocked American family life in recent decades. As June Carbone and Naomi Cahn demonstrate with exceptional rigor, clarity, and elegance, the white picket fences of this mythical family have been swept away by a series of economic, social, and cultural shifts that have altered the “gender bargain” at the core of the traditional family. In place of Leave it to Beaver, our society today has witnessed the widespread acceptance of sex outside of marriage; the emergence of cohabitation as an alternative to marriage; growing rates of divorce and non-marital childbearing; delayed onset of childbearing; multi-partnered fertility (having children with different fathers), and voluntary fatherhood.
That’s not all. Hidden in the statistics about rising rates of divorce and unwed births is a story of inequality. While family forms across the class spectrum were similar in the postwar years, they have been diverging ever since. Divorce rates have fallen dramatically among highly-educated men and women but remain steady among those with lower education. Today, in our two-tiered family system, the middle-class strategy of marriage and childbearing involves investing in women’s education and career opportunities as well as men’s; postponing marriage until the couple is financially stable and emotionally mature; using contraception and abortion (if necessary) to avoid premarital births; and investing substantial money and time in children. But for the working class, where opportunities for economic stability have dwindled and commitment has become risky, pregnancies are much more haphazard and commitments are more fleeting, such that working-class children are much more likely to be born to young, unmarried parents who approach the institution of marriage with wariness and distrust.
What are we to make of this rapid transformation? Carbone and Cahn are not satisfied with either the Right or the Left’s response. For conservatives, these changes in family life represent a crisis in values; for progressives, liberation from the restrictive gender scripts of decades past. Neither of these approaches, however, fully account for the causes nor the consequences of family transformation. Carbone and Cahn argue that we need to think about changes in American family life through the lens of markets – to understand how mate choice is shaped by the supply and demand of attractive partners in an economy that increasingly rewards college and advanced degrees.
Central to the argument is that markets look really different than they used to, which means the terms of bargaining – who wins and who loses – also look really different. Sixty years ago, an era of full employment, high wages, and broadly shared prosperity, a significant number of fully employed, generally male, blue-collar workers were able to earn enough money to get married, buy a house, and raise a family in relative comfort. These stable wages supported the breadwinner/homemaker model in which men took on the responsibility of earning the family’s livelihood and women devoted themselves to domestic and family concerns. At this historical moment, sexual activity and marriage, and marriage and childbearing, were glued together by external legal, religious, and moral norms that restricted birth control and abortion, dealt with premarital pregnancy with shotgun marriage, and limited access to divorce. As women’s lack of access to higher education and family wage jobs made dependence on men unavoidable, marriage was understood as a safety net for sexual behavior as well as the only secure and legitimate way to bring children into the world.
However, as manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, working-class jobs have become harder to find, pay less, and provide fewer benefits. These very foundational changes in the labor market for the working class have seeped into their intimate lives, as men’s falling wages have made the traditional gender bargain harder to sustain. At the same time, women’s increased economic and social independence (whether the legalization of no-fault divorce, contraception, and abortion; or the promotion of educational equality) means that women can be a lot “choosier” about whom, and whether, they marry. For poor women, marriage is no longer worth the risk; they still get pregnant in early adulthood, but they have foregone the shotgun marriage in favor of autonomy from men who have little to offer.
Changes in women’s status have played out very differently at the top, where high-earning men seek out high-earning women, thus compounding the advantage that gets passed down to their kids. And it’s the kids who make the marriage divergence so worrisome. While America prides itself on being the land of opportunity, we are increasingly seeing a nation where kids born to parents in the top third have far more resources – time, energy, money, knowledge – invested in them than kids from the bottom third.
The authors provide a number of promising solutions – from the top-down approach of re-investing in workers to bottom up approaches such as rebuilding communities that support trust and commitment, creating a dialogue about gender expectations, and collectively caring for children from conception through college. They also argue that our legal system needs to put commitment to children at the forefront of its agenda. This commitment should not be defined on the one-sized fits all gender bargains of the past, but instead tailored to address the inequalities built into our economy and the understanding that parenting is about more than money.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]