Monday, 15 April 2013

Culture, Class and the Decline of Marriage

Continuing with my promised series of responses to Kevin Drum on gay marriage, here’s his demographic case that growing public support for same-sex wedlock can’t possibly have any connection to the wider retreat from marriage:
I don’t think the demographic details back up Douthat’s case. Take a look at the demographic groups where marriage has declined: very famously, it’s been among poor and working class women, and especially among poor and working class black women. I’ll concede that I might be off base here, but I think Douthat is assuming that recondite arguments over procreation and gay marriage, which are common in his highly-educated social group, are also common in the groups where marriage has declined. I doubt that very much. What’s more, support for gay marriage is lowest in precisely the groups that have abandoned traditional marriage in the largest numbers. If the procreation argument were really affecting marriage rates, you’d expect to see the biggest impact in the groups where this argument is most commonly advanced, and in the groups that most strongly support gay marriage. Instead we’ve seen the opposite.
It’s true that support for gay marriage has historically been strongest among the most educated Americans, who also tend to postpone childbearing till after wedlock in far greater numbers than do the poor and working class; likewise, it’s been historically strongest among whites and weaker among minorities, and whites tend to enjoy greater family stability as well. (Note that “historically” — I’ll return to this below.) These points are excellent evidence against the apocalyptic proposition that mere support for gay marriage will “destroy” heterosexual marriage, and plausible evidence for the argument that gay marriage either has no impact on people’s attitudes toward the institution, or (as some of its conservative supporters hope) actually serves to buttress marriage’s influence over people’s lives.
But there’s another story you can tell here, about how different models of marriage work out (or don’t) for different communities and socioeconomic groups. Liberal doubts about the past existence of a procreative grounding for marriage notwithstanding, there’s a general understanding that the combination of the sexual revolution, economic change, and shifting gender norms have altered the way Americans conceptualize marriage, what they expect out of the institution, and how it shapes their romantic and reproductive choices. There are different takes on how this change has worked and what it means, celebratory and critical and everywhere in between — from Stephanie Coontz’s line about “how love conquered marriage” to Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson’s description of a new “consumption partnership” model of wedlock to the George-Gergis-Anderson view of a “revisionist” view of marriage displacing a “conjugal” understanding.

Read more at the New York Time.

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