Marriage is a Social Justice Issue

A conversation with Brad Wilcox about the social revolutions that have generated economic inequality.

Appears in Summer 2015 Issue: Inequalities
June 1st, 2015

Concerns about growing inequality, wage stagnation, and the persistence of poverty have led sociologists back to a very traditional focus: the family. As Ruth Graham recently noted in the Boston Globe, we are witnessing something of a scholarly "about-face" on marriage as sociologists and political scientists (who aren't usually described as "traditional") consider how this embattled institution contributes to the common good, and how its dismantling affects society.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is on the vanguard of this research. "Marriage," he summarizes, "is a social justice issue." In a ranging conversation with Comment editor Jamie Smith, Wilcox talks about the dynamics that link marriage, family, economics, and inequality.

Portions of this interview are published in the Summer 2015 Inequalities print issue of Comment. You can buy the issue in print, but if you subscribe today to start with the Fall 2015 issue, you'll immediate receive the Inequalities issue in downloadable PDF.

—The Editors

James K.A. Smith: Your growing body of your work has shown—in ways that are careful, even sensitive—how genuine concern for economic inequality requires us to become attentive to the breakdown of family structure and systems. I am interested in the backstory: What put you onto this line of research? Did you see something from prior research that got you interested in that connection and correlation?

W. Bradford Wilcox: The genesis of my interest in this topic more generally comes from being raised by a single mother, then in college reflecting more about the ways in which the absence of my father in my own life impacted me growing up. Also thinking about the ways in which I came to realize that marriage as an institution connects men to their kids. Of course, there are plenty of dads out there today who are not married to the mother of their children and are doing really well with their kids, but they are the exception. If we're interested in trying to help kids have good relationships with their dads, marriage is an institution that does that. That led me down the path that I've taken, in terms of studying the impact of marriage and fatherhood on kids, and also studying the impact of the retreat from marriage in our society.

In 2010, David Blankenhorn, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Elizabeth Marquardt, and I were talking about this issue of the growing marriage divide in America. David encouraged me to do a report [Why Marriage Matters] through The National Marriage Project/Institute for American Values on this question. I found marked divides in divorce, non-marital childbearing, and family stability by education, treating education as one indicator of class. That vein of research has been an ongoing topic for me ever since 2010.

But no one's focused on the impact of the retreat from marriage on the economy as a whole. So working with Robert Lerman at The Urban Institute this last year, in 2014, we wanted to tackle the other question in play here; that is: How is this growing pattern of economic inequality that we're seeing in the country connected to the decline of marriage in America? Frankly, if you look at the trends over time, a lot of the story really is from 1970 to about the mid-1990s, because that's when the biggest family shifts happened. The inequality that's increased in the last decade and a half is much more about the rich kind of pulling away, and that's regardless of family structure. But there are other economic implications too. For instance, one reason median family income in the United States has remained so stagnant is that there are more and more families headed by one parent, who ordinarily can't bring as much income into the home as two parents could.

Likewise, declines in the percentage of men who are working full-time are also connected to the retreat from marriage in America, which of course is concentrated among Americans without a college degree.

JS: The beginning of the trend in the 1970s seems significant. Isn't it in 1969 that "no fault divorce" first gets introduced?

BW: Right. Ronald Reagan, ironically, was the governor who signed the legislation in California that got this ball rolling. Since then, no fault divorce has swept across the American states and is the new regime. That's part of the story. Also part of the story is the sexual revolution that gets underway in the late '60s, prior to the divorce revolution. Those two revolutions, working in tandem in the '60s and '70s, hit the institution of marriage pretty hard.

JS: In a sense, it's the children of the revolution that bear the brunt of it,, right?

BW: Yes. But now we have to understand the ways in which adult women and men are paying a real price. Robert Lerman and I show in a new report that one reason less-educated men are more disconnected from the workplace is because they don't have the responsibilities attendant to being a married father. That classically motivated a lot of guys to really get out there, find a job, keep a job, maximize their earnings, all in service of their families. This is a story told by George Akerlof, who's a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Berkeley (the husband also of Janet Yellen, our new Fed chair). Akerlof observes that when men get married, they settle down. When men don't get married, they often don't settle down. In this age, it can seem kind of an anachronistic formulation, but it's still true, and it's particularly true for men who are not on this sort of college/elite professional track.

JS: This line of research and the concerns that motivate it would seem to upset our typical—for lack of a better term—conservative/liberal dichotomy. Because on the one hand, you're very much concerned about poverty, wage stagnation, the flourishing—or lack thereof—of the working class. These are more typically thought of as "liberal" concerns. On the other hand, you are saying that's precisely why we should care about family structure, family dynamics—which are often portrayed as "conservative" issues. Do you find people tend to want to pigeonhole you, or do you delight in actually subverting their neat and tidy categories?

BW: I would say that marriage is a social justice issue, both if you're concerned about the welfare of kids, but also if you're concerned about forging a more equal, more humane, more just society. When families break down and stratify the way they do in the United States today, that is a recipe for not just economic inequality but also social inequality. That's profoundly unfair and unjust. It's also contrary to the spirit of the American experiment, which assumes a thriving middle class that is in the driver's seat culturally, politically, and economically.

JS: When you show the effects that marriage has on men as husbands and fathers, it got me wondering: Is this a sort of sociological "back door" into appreciating the sacramental nature of marriage? One of the reasons I, even as a Protestant, value thinking about marriage as a "sacrament" is because I see the formative effect it has on me. It has literally been a "means of grace" for me. And your research shows why this is the case. Is there something like a "common grace" sacramentality to it—a "natural" sacrament almost? I realize that, technically and theologically, that might not quite make sense.

BW: That's a good question. I think of it in kind of more Aristotelian or Thomistic terms, in the sense that we are "social animals," in Aristotle's terminology. As such, we're more likely to thrive when we're members of a community. Marriage is one of the most intimate communities available to us as men. I see it more in that sense than through a kind of sacramental lens. But the point you're making too about marriage as grace could also be a fruitful line of inquiry.

JS: Sure. This is what you mean when you talk about family structure. It's not like you just score points for having certain traditional configurations in place. What you're saying is, with those configurations come Aristotelian habits—and hopefully virtues—because these family structures come with practices that form us.

BW: And mentalities.

JS: What do you mean by that, by "mentalities?"

BW: I mean, people say, "What does marriage do? It's just a piece of paper, right?" Well, of course if that's all it is to you then it's going to do nothing in your life really. But if you think of marriage as a set of practices, as a set of virtues, but also as a set of beliefs and mentalities, then you have this idea that I'm going to be faithful to my spouse. I'm going to sacrifice for her. I'm also going to also take the long view. I have a sense that we'll be together when we're old, wrinkly, and ugly. That's going to shape how I view the momentary challenges of married life and family life versus thinking about it as just seeking pleasure in the moment.

Also, paradoxically, people are more likely to be happily married and stably married when they don't seek immediate happiness in the moment, but have this longer term vision of marriage, which is consistent with a 'til-death-do-us-part ethic. Another way of saying this is that the individuals who have the deepest commitment to marriage as an institution—as something that's done for life—are more secure, more invested, more available to their spouse.

JS: But how does one come to that place? In other words, do I need to think my way into marriage on that level? Do I have to be able to articulate everything you just said for that to work, or is that our description from a distance of what is actually a more intuitive, tacit understanding.

BW: Right. For a lot of people it is habituated—it's a kind of habitus, to use the word in the way Aquinas or [Pierre] Bourdieu would. But it's one that has to be modeled. You have to have some sort of social model, either in your family or in your community, that allows you to see: This is how marriage works on the ground.

It's important to have some sense of marriage being sacred. I mean that in a Durkheimian kind of way—that this is something that's of ultimate value, that you associate an ethic of compromise, of sacrifice, of forgiveness with marriage in your mind at some level. That then also helps to reinforce a set of virtues and practices that sustain good marriages, long marriages.

JS: This has such reverberating effects, precisely because democracy depends upon a robust civil society where families are the incubators for the citizens who will participate in our public life together.

BW: Right. This is a point that's been made by people as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville and William Galston. People across the spectrum, and across history, recognize that, paradoxically, the American experiment—which prizes a certain sense of liberty and individuality—also must make space for non-liberal institutions which help to form and sustain these individuals who thrive in our liberal society.

You're not born a fully-formed individual. To have a sense of self-control, a sense of agency, the capacity to support yourself—depends on being raised, for most of us, by at least a "good enough" family.

JS: Your research has documented a kind of cultural erosion that has affected families in profound ways and contributed to both economic and social inequality. What got us to this point? In some ways, you've already told part of the story: a sexual revolution takes place in the '60s, that leads to a sort of marital devolution in'70s and '80s. So what did we lose? It's not that we lost some rules or duties; you suggest that we lost certain habits that are conducive to flourishing, productive homes.

BW: Right. Robert Putnam's new book, Our Kids, is a very eloquent description of what's happened in the last four decades. Basically he's arguing, as you know, that we've seen dramatic declines in American family and civic life, and those declines have been really concentrated among lesseducated Americans, or working class Americans. In this book he argues that it's primarily about economic changes. De-industrialization has made it harder for the working class and poor men to find and maintain stable, decent-paying jobs which has a ripple effect on them, the stability of their families, and the vitality of their communities. There's a lot of truth to that. That's the core progressive insight into what's happened over the last four or five decades.

But if you look more particularly at when this shift in religious and family life in America got started, it actually got started in the '60s before these economic shifts came into play. You have to be honest and say, "Look, folks, this thing got started by a non-economic force." That force was a set of cultural revolutions— the feminist revolution, the sexual revolution, the divorce revolution—that undercut a whole host of institutions. This set of cultural changes and the reactions that they spawned have both undercut American family life and American civic life, but in ways that have ended up hurting poor, working class Americans more than other Americans.

The bigger point here is that we have seen the rise of an expressive individualism in America that requires people to be much more self-controlled, much more discerning in how they make choices across a wide array of life choices, whether they are about food, sex, parenthood, marriage. And that new reality is easier for better educated, more affluent Americans to navigate than it is for poor, working class Americans to navigate.

So this wholesale explosion of "choice and freedom" worked out pretty well for those of us who have better educations and more money to spend. For people who don't have as many resources this new pluralism of options, this new marketplace, and how you handle everything, has proved harder to navigate.

JS: The upper classes, for lack of a better term, have a buffer of resources to deal with the burden of choice.

BW: Exactly. Though not just the burden of them, of course. It's in many ways a great time to live for some of us. But a lot of these things have turned out not so well for people farther down the economic ladder.

JS: There ends up being a non-economic, cultural story here that has economic effects.

BW: It interacts. Actually William Julius Wilson at Harvard has been very eloquent talking about how you can't understand what's happened without understanding the shift in expectations about marriage, sex, and parenthood. In his view, that made the economic dimensions of this story much more important. If your attachment to marriage is relatively fragile, you're more likely to look at the guy's bank account when you're making decisions—" Should I marry him? We've got a kid coming." Whereas if your attachment to marriage is richer, in a cultural and civic sense, then those economic concerns become less salient.

JS: Your recent report with [The Urban Institute's Robert] Lerman emphasizes the reasons why policy should be family-friendly. There are good reasons why the state has an interest in encouraging stronger, healthier marriages for the sake of the common good. That sounds exactly right, but I'm guessing that you don't think the primary response on this front is governmental.

What can other sectors of civil society be doing?

And what did we stop doing? If it's actually non-governmental sectors of civil society that are significant here, and we're seeing the problems we are, obviously those sectors have dropped the ball somewhere.

BW: It's important to note that I do think there's a role for government. First, the government needs to stop penalizing marriage. Because of the way our welfare policies are constructed ("means-tested," that is), we end up penalizing people who go from, say, cohabiting or being single to getting married, in terms of what's available to them. That's one issue that needs to be addressed.

Second, public policy can do a better job on the educational front of giving more vocational education or more apprenticeship training to young men who are not on the college track. That's still most men today. It's these guys who are the ones hurting the most, both economically and family-wise.

Third, the government can do a better job in terms of providing more of an economic floor to poor, working class Americans through more generous tax credits to parents with kids, recognizing that the economy has changed. It's a harder arena for working class and poor Americans to navigate, so a more generous child tax credit would go part of the way towards addressing these economic realities.

But yes, at the end of the day, I don't think government is going to be the primary actor in all this. Civic institutions need to do a better job of trying to reach poor and working class Americans with the work that they do, both more generally, but also more particularly when it comes to relationships, courtship, and marriage and family. For instance, on our college campuses we have evangelical groups, we have Catholic groups, we have Mormon groups, and Jewish groups who are doing a lot of good work to bring their young adults into the fold, so to speak. There's no such equivalent effort for young adults in community colleges or those who are not even going to college. Again, these make up a large share of the adult population. Thinking about that is just one example of ways in which we need to reach young adults who are not on the college track with our religious institutions.

JS: That's a really good insight. How do we reach the people who aren't in that sort of professional track? But what would we be reaching them with? Is part of it captivating them with that sense of the sacred you mentioned, a sense of marriage as sacred? In some sense we have to make them want to be these people, right?

BW: Yes, we have to rehabilitate marriage, but we have to rehabilitate a sense of faith and love more broadly. Consider the work that David Lapp and Amber Lapp have been doing on that score in Ohio. You can get a sense of it at their website, They're writing about these issues, but they're also bringing working class Americans from Ohio into this conversation—inviting them to think more reflectively about their own lives, their romantic lives, and to be more intentional about what they're doing to protect themselves and any kids that they might eventually have or already do have.

Part of what I'm saying is we have to be very realistic about where people are really at today and reach them in that place and not preach at them, but work with them to craft a new narrative, a new set of practices around things like dating and mating that would help to rehabilitate and renew marriage and family life in many working class communities.

JS: Would it feel instrumentalizing if part of that was helping people appreciate the way marriage is a platform for material flourishing, for lack of a better term?

BW: I don't think so. That's certainly part and parcel to what we could do and should do. Just being honest with people.

Middle class people tacitly know, at some level, that their whole way of life—their house, their 401(k), their kids' college plans—are all predicated on them getting married and staying married. There's no reason we shouldn't be able to tell that same story for working class families, adjusted for a different situation. Because the same basic story still holds: Your economic future, your kids' future, is going to be strongly tied to what happens in the family.

JS: How do you respond to the blunt critique that we're sort of blaming the victim? I am sure you hear that kind of argument. Even if that sort of retort is uninformed and flat-footed, it points to fair concerns. For example, where did we fail the working class in terms of forming for marriage? It feels like the church, for example, must have dropped the ball somehow and somewhere.

BW: Yes. The two things that I would say are that, judging from the work that David and Amber Lapp are doing in Ohio, as well as Kathy Edin and Maria Kefalas in their book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, a lot of young adults in poor and working class communities became really disillusioned by marriage because they've seen so much divorce and so much instability in the lives of their parents and peers. A lot of that was unleashed by the divorce revolution, the broader cultural tumult of the '60s and '70s. I wouldn't necessarily blame the church too much for that. I blame both politicians, and lawyers, and our pop culture which celebrated a much more individualistic approach to family life, and life more generally—all of which made marriages and relationships much less stable. Now where the church, broadly defined, is to be blamed is that it wasn't able to confront this revolution in a more forthright and assertive fashion.

JS: Or a resourceful fashion. It strikes me that religious communities more broadly underestimated the effects of these revolutions. Maybe that's what we didn't do: We didn't model a way of life that became more attractive than what pop culture celebrated as our expressive individuality.

BW: Yes, that's right, but what a lot of churches did in the wake of this dramatic shift in American family life was to simply avert their eyes. They didn't know how to talk about it. They didn't know what to say. They were just kind of embarrassed, corporately and individually. Pastors, priests, rabbis were all kind of tongue-tied if you will.

Of course there are exceptions. We all know that's the case, but there was a failure to respond assertively, and a failure to try and craft a new message for that moment in the '70s and '80s. They were rolled over basically, by a tidal wave of change emanating from Madison Avenue, and from Hollywood, and from the academy, and from the courts and the legislature. It was a concerted effort that left them all pretty inert and inept in their response.

JS: Do you see prospects for rolling back the effects of this revolution? Could it be that people will experience the fallout of it in such disempowering ways, or despairing ways, that they just have to look for an alternative? I guess I'm asking: What gives you hope, if you have any?

BW: This is more anecdotal at this point than statistical, but what gives me hope is the fact that we are seeing in congregations that I'm watching and observing more young married couples having kids, more than you would have seen at the very same churches 10 years ago. We're seeing a kind of new appreciation for local and domestic work and community life. People are "going local" in ways that are making them shop locally, buy locally, seek local entertainment. They are also incorporating a more robust economy into their own homes, trying to work out of the home and through the home. That tends to enforce the strength and stability of family life. Homeschooling obviously is one very concrete example of that effort to do more of the work of production, in this case, of education in home.

That's a very clear, growing trend in American life. There are signs of life. It's not enough just to talk about family values. It's important to ask: What is the productive and new economic basis of family life? How do we revive authentic home economics? Recognizing that many of us have professional lives outside of the home, are there ways that we can incorporate our spouses, our kids, in what we do? We need to bring what we do into the home more, but then also make more space for people who are authentically working from the home, recognizing that they can be a means of revitalizing the life of the home from a practical and economic perspective.

JS: It seems like Putnam and some others are suggesting that actually the working class and poor are also increasingly disconnected from religious communities as well. Does that sound right?

BW: Completely right. In Putnam's earlier book, Bowling Alone, you see just one big line going downward. He broke nothing down by class in that book. But if you break that line out by class, most of the declines in civic engagement since 1960s are really about declines among people that don't have college degrees. This is true even for the church. Yes, there's a way in which our civic institutions, including our religious ones, have really failed to engage and incorporate working class and poor Americans and they need to get back on the horse and figure out how to do that in 2015.

JS: Which then makes me wonder: Are there some other institutions that have better reach into working class and poor environments? It might partly explain why so much is loaded onto the expectations of public schools today, which seems completely disproportionate to what you could actually expect from them.

BW: That's a great question. Sure, of course. Although you look at these charter schools, The KIPP Public Charter Schools, they're engaged in this process of re-socializing these kids in ways that Catholic schools did in New York ghettos in the 19th century. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about this.

But I don't really know, and this is a problem. With the exception of some of these local endeavors, places like Harlem Children's Zone, I haven't really seen particularly any successful models, at least en masse, when it comes to engaging working class Americans.

JS: Which then at least says that churches shouldn't be discouraged, because they have as much opportunity as anyone to reconnect and re-empower those communities.

BW: Right. But they also have to be very careful and understand that this is going to be partly a gendered undertaking. By that I mean we have to be honest here: The people who are most disconnected from American institutions are working class and poor men. They need activities, they need a rhetoric, they need an approach that recognizes that they're men, one that's not afraid to bring in athletic metaphors and language. There's got to be an effort to figure out how we reach the men in all of this.

JS: Are you hopeful? Which is different than being optimistic.

BW: Hopeful? It's a good question. Short term, we're going to continue to see modest declines in marriage in the United States. So, I'm not very hopeful if things continue as they are.

But if you look at history, what you see is that history tends to be more episodic rather than linear. The question is, what happens in the next episode?

JS: Your work as a scholar is trying to have some influence on what that next episode would be.

BW: Correct. The thought here is that the work we're doing, that many of us are doing on families, is going to make more sense in a different cultural moment than today. That's the long-term view.

What does make me hopeful is that—I don't want to be "scientistic" about this— there's a kind of elective affinity between what we're seeing in the social sciences and many classic insights about the human condition and the human family. Yes, marriage looks different now than it did 100 years ago. And it will look different 100 years from today. But there is, for instance, growing evidence that people— especially kids—are more likely, on average, to flourish in intact married families compared to the alternative.This is true in many different contexts. There are variations on the theme depending on how much cultures expect men to do their fair share around the home. If men are not engaged then what I said is less true.

As long as you have a culture where men are expected to engage practically and emotionally and financially in the life of the family, then we see that people—men, women, and kids—are more likely to flourish in that intact, biological married family. That's just a reality.

At some point, the societies that really understand and appreciate that, and cultivate that norm, are going to be more likely to flourish than those that don't face the facts about the power of the intact, biological, married family.

JS: Do you mean that in a way we live in an era where we're getting almost social scientific confirmation of some pretty ancient historic intuitions about human nature?

BW: Yeah, this goes back to Aristotle. It's not even a "religious" thing, it's just a human thing. That gives me hope because—and this is the point that other people have made as well—our current approach to family life is not sustainable: culturally, economically, politically. At some point, that's going to become all too apparent.

JS: Nature itself will push back on our attempts to pretend it's otherwise.

BW: Exactly.

JS: That's brilliant. Thanks so much, Brad. I really appreciate it. We're grateful for your work.

Portions of this interview are available in the Summer 2015 Inequalities print issue of Comment. You can buy the issue in print, but if you subscribe today to start with the Fall 2015 issue, you'll immediate receive the Inequalities issue in downloadable PDF.


W. Bradford Wilcox, Associate Professor of Sociology of the University of Virginia, is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. As an undergraduate, Wilcox was a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia ('92) and later earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He has held research fellowships at Princeton University, Yale University, and the Brookings Institution.


James K.A. Smith is editor-in-chief of Comment and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His latest book is, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos).


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