Let's Get Married (home page)
are they right?
interview: ronald b. mincy

What is the big demographic shift we've gone through in 50 years?

The big demographic shift is that marriage is no longer a prerequisite for childbearing or child rearing, so we have reductions in age at first marriage. We have increases in the fraction of young women who never marry and young men who never marry, and a big portion, about 40 percent, of all unwed births in the United States, are births to cohabiting couples. So not only do we have more cohabitation, in other words, we have a reduction in marriage rates. ...

This means that we have a fundamental change in our process of family formation. Now it feels like something like dating, relationship, cohabitation and intercourse, childbirth and then marriage, maybe. I think that's the process that's happening among young whites.

When only about 24 percent of African-American children were born to unwed parents, it was a problem in a restricted community that didn't affect Americans generally. Now 30 percent of all children in the United States are born out of wedlock.

Among young African-Americans, the cohabitation is less of a phenomenon. Many more times, you'll have children who are born to unwed parents, but they're not living together, and very few of them transition into marriage.

I think a phenomenon, the unwed birth phenomenon -- that in 1968, Moynihan called sort of a national tragedy, when 25 percent of all African-American children lived in a fatherless home -- now 30 percent of all children in the United States are born out of wedlock. The likelihood that they will live in a fatherless home is very high.

What's happened to this institution of marriage in the last 50 years? What's going on in our society?

I think it's been undermined, in the sense that young people no longer feel, again, that a process of their dating and relationship requires marriage, although marriage is still an ideal -- and that's what's really fascinating.

As an academic, I've been responsible for this survey called the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey. They were interviewing young, unwed parents -- and they're not all that young, between 18 and 43 years old -- but they describe talking about marriage, holding marriage as an ideal, thinking that if everything was right, if they had a house and a car and all of the other accoutrements, they would love to get married. But right now they have children together, they're trying to manage their circumstances as best they can. Marriage is an ideal that they hold out for themselves if they could pass a range of tests that largely have to do with economic resources and commitment.

So in a way, two things are going on. One, again, marriage is not a prerequisite for family anymore, but it is an ideal that young people hold out. The question for people who are thinking about this is how to make marriage now a more fundamental institution and a precursor to childbearing and child rearing; and how to help young people understand that the consequences for their children's well-being of their not being married and their separation are really negative? ...

photo of mincy

Mincy is the Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice at Columbia University and a collaborator on the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. In this interview he describes his research on family formation within different racial and ethnic communities and discusses the government's strategy in promoting marriage as part of welfare reform. He tells FRONTLINE, "We have very different race and ethnic groups in the United States. They form families differently, and that means that a one-size-fits-all strategy for strengthening families is just not going to work." This interview was conducted on Aug. 13, 2002.

So now that we've recognized this shift, what is the significance? What is the wake-up call we're coming to?

... The real issue is that when it was the fact that only about 24 percent of African-American children were born to unwed parents, it was a problem in a restricted community that didn't affect Americans generally. Now 30 percent of all children in the United States are born out of wedlock. ... It's a problem that is affecting many American families. As a consequence, there is, again, our failure to respond as individual parents who are now trying to use this arena of a public debate to now address the problem.

Tell me in very simple terms, when the Moynihan Report came out, what was the reaction among blacks and liberals?

The reaction to the Moynihan Report was really a firestorm of controversy and reaction. I think it's one of the most unfortunate accidents of history that I can think of. Moynihan basically said that we have a national tragedy in the sort of deterioration of the black family, high crime rates, juvenile delinquency, [and] much of this is related to single mothers trying to raise adolescents alone. In turn, much of that is related to the unemployment that black men experience because they experience discrimination in the labor market. And the last portion of that was all but forgotten in the media and in the public debate. ...

People were highly offended in response to the Moynihan Report. They felt this Irish policymaker in the [Johnson] administration was castigating black families. People -- that is, social scientists, black and white and liberals -- rose to the defense of the black family and said, "Not so. There are extended families. Mothers depend upon one another. Sisters depend upon mothers to raise their children and the like."

The important thing is they forgot the linchpin of Moynihan's argument, namely that it was the discrimination and unemployment of black men that was the beginning of this negative set of events, and focused only on his provocative phrase, a "tangle of pathology." I think it really distracted us as a nation from paying attention to what is, and what was at the time, an important problem -- and a problem that has persisted even until today.

Is a consequence of that liberals, to some degree, dropped out of the conversation after that report?

... I think one of the critical aspects of the reaction to the Moynihan Report is that people viewed it as a fundamental attack on the morality of the black family -- that blacks were promiscuous, irresponsible with respect to their children. That was the claim that blacks couldn't tolerate, and a lot of liberals, particularly during the Johnson administration, could not tolerate as well.

So the whole subject of the black family was abandoned by liberal scholars. As a consequence, there's really not a knowledge-based, grown up or born by a lot of these sensitive researchers to these sets of issues, leaving what we know about families and sort of the policy recommendations about how to respond to them to conservatives. As a result, liberals are really struggling to find their feet as to how they can enter this debate today. ...

So in a sense, would you say that it was the moral fiber of the black family that was on trial?

It was the moral fiber of the black community that was on trial in the Moynihan Report -- at least, as many people read it. People responded to that in a lot of ways by trying to talk about the strength of the black family in a sort of communal set of terms. I think it really undermined the real focus of the Moynihan Report, which was the employment situation of black men. ...

What are some of the key social forces are that have led to this reduction in marriage rates, or retreat from [marriage as] an institution?

... There are three broad factors that are affecting marriage trends: the increasing independence of women and the deterioration in the economic status of men. Women are increasing in terms of their educational attainment. They're increasing in terms of their occupational status and their earnings.

Men, on the other hand, are reducing their college graduation rates. They're also reducing their earnings. The only men who've experienced increases in their earnings since the 1970s are basically men who have gone to graduate school. So you put together improving economic conditions for women, deteriorating economic conditions for men, and then the removal of this moral imperative for marriage, and I don't think that we should be surprised that marriage rates are falling. ...

Why is the cultural imperative gone?

The cultural imperative is gone because of the event of the 1960s sexual revolution. Also, with that, we as parents no longer have the moral authority over our own children in the way our grandparents did, because we abandoned this notion that marriage was important, and we have had much more freedom in our sexual and reproductive relationships.

Now that we as a generation have a wake-up call, we don't have the ground to insist that our children adopt a form of behavior that we rejected when we were their age. As yet, as a generation of approaching grandparents, we haven't figured out how to regroup on that conversation and say to our children, "Perhaps we've gone too far, and we'd like you to make the mid-course correction on our behalf." ...

People like Robert Richter say, "Marriage is one of the great bulwarks against poverty, perhaps the greatest bulwark against poverty; we can halve child poverty," or whatever terms he uses. What about that?

There is a lot of merit to the argument that marriage prevents poverty. There's a lot of merit to it, and let me describe what the merit is. First of all, married people stay together longer than unmarried people, than cohabiting people. One of the things that we know is important for children is stability. So if you have children who are being raised by unwed cohabiting parents, even if they live together, the prospect that they will live together five years from now is much lower than the prospect that a married couple is. Therefore, married couples are much less likely to be poor, and kids who are born and stay in married couples are less likely to be poor. So that's one thing.

The second thing is that married people invest in one another. That's what the commitment is all about. Part of that commitment is backed up by the legal status. So if a couple gets divorced, the investments that she has made by sacrificing her career to enable him to finish school and work, which so many men in our society benefit from, those investments are protected and vice versa. However, in cohabiting relationships, since the legal status of those investments are not protected, she has less of an incentive to make them. As a consequence, she's going for her career, he's going for his career, and people share less.

The third thing is people make better use of resources. They combine their savings. Married people are much more likely to hold a single checking account, to make investment decisions together, and all of that is building wealth. So for a whole variety of reasons, marriage is a protector against poverty, and it's also a great strategy for creating wealth. These are reasons why our society in general should be interested in marriage.

On the other hand, to say that marriage makes people better off is not to say necessarily -- and this is where it gets a little complicated -- that marriage itself does this. It is not clear that if you take two people who choose not to be married today, getting them married would make them better off. For example, if you have two people who are unemployed, who have very little skills, putting a wedding ring around their fingers is not going to all of a sudden make them magically more productive, able to go to work, able to invest in one another, and able to have healthy and productive children.

So that's where I think the argument sometimes gets a little over-represented. We have to be clear about, when we're making the argument that people who have the capacity would do better if they got married, from the argument that says that, essentially, we need to invest in people to build their capacity, to put them in a position to be married. Again, that's the interesting debate that we're in the middle of right now. ...

What's the government policy toward marriage? Why is it promoting marriage? Is it a one-size-fits-all?

The government's strategy in welfare reform to promote marriage is to provide counseling services for people who are interested in marriage, to move them in the direction of making a commitment toward marriage. I think that strategy is going to work well for some people; that is, for people who are employed, who have a relationship and they're interested in making that relationship better. It makes all the sense in the world to move them from cohabitation to marriage, because they'll be better off.

But then there a whole other swath of people who have children together, but they have poor skills. They have not completed their education. They may have substance abuse problems. They have serious relationship problems, and it's not clear that slapping a marriage license on them or giving them a wedding ring is going to be the way to help them out of their whole sets of challenges.

For them, we have to invest in their skills first, and then lead them into a conversation about marriage and the consequences of not marrying for their children, before we will be able to see any benefit out of that. Currently, the public policy would not support the latter, but would target these resources exclusively to couples who have an expressed interest in marriage. ...

So what's a government to do?

I think what the government needs to do is to continue on this strengthening family theme, which is not a creation of the Bush administration. It's been something that we have been about for at least a decade, and that is going to mean somewhat different strategies for different Americans.

It's going to mean, first of all, helping to convince young people who are in their childbearing years of the consequences of their sexual and reproductive behavior for their kids, because that's the fundamental problem: People make decisions about sex and people make decisions about cohabiting where their children are not fundamentally in focus. It's "What's in it for me?" as opposed to "What's in it for them?"

If we help young people see that, we will get the changes in behavior that we're looking for, because young people do want to be involved in the lives of their children. Mothers want fathers to be involved. Fathers want mothers to be involved. They don't understand that when they don't marry, the likelihood that fathers will be involved is radically diminished. So we have to get people to understand the consequences of their behavior for their child's well-being. Then we have to get people to develop either the relationship skills they need to move them toward marriages, and successful marriages.

For other people, we have to get them not only the relationship skills but the job skills that they need to move them toward having the ability to sustain a marriage, and then also move them in the direction that marriage is a good thing for them, for their children and for society.

Do they think that marriage doesn't matter in communities like the South and West Side of Chicago?

The reports that we have show that young people think that marriage is important. They think that marriage is important for them. They think that marriage is important for their children. Marriage is an ideal. In fact, that's one of the problems. They hold marriage as sacred. For them, a divorce is no small matter. The worst thing they can do is to marry someone and have that marriage fail. So what they're trying to do is stack up a whole lot of qualifications to make sure that their marriages can be sustained.

So in some sense, we've over-idealized marriage to the extent that people are unwilling to take the baby steps that we all know are required in order to have a marriage be sustained. I think the question is not only to make marriage more popular, but to give people the skills that they need. That includes job skills, and it also includes relationship skills.

Is there a kind of moralistic side to a conservative argument about that though?

There's a definite moral argument in the conservatives' views with relation to marriage. But what's wrong with that? Lots of our public policies are made that have a moral underpinning to them. All of our ideas about restitution, about reciprocity, have a moral underpinning to them.

What I understood when I'd been having this conversation in Europe is that we are still a nation of religious immigrants. That undergirds our thinking -- certainly around family policy. I don't think that there's anything wrong with that. We will find that moral underpinning in many things that we do. The question is to acknowledge the changes that have taken place in our morality. Essentially, again, those of us who are 40 and 50 and having this debate, we've got to connect with people who are 18 to 24 whose behavior we're interested in changing. That's the dialogue that I don't think is occurring. As a consequence, I think these discussions are going to fall flat on their faces. ...

A simple question, very politically incorrect, so forgive me profusely. Some people look at a couple with seven kids, and say, "Have they not heard of contraception?" What do you make of that?

... What I know, and what the research is telling us is that young women, particularly young women in inner-city communities, prize children. They value children. Children validate who they are. As a consequence, the notion of killing a child is deplorable, and something they go to only when real questions of economic survival are at stake. So their thinking is, "It's important for me to have these children." ...

Then the question is, but if she values the child for what the child means to her and who she is as a young woman, how can we turn that around and ask her, "What about the consequences for this child? If I show you clearly that children who grow up without the benefit of two parents don't do as [well], does that make you think any differently about your family formation decisions?" Wade Horn cannot look a young woman in the eye and tell her this; not an inner-city young woman. And nobody who's in the position of promoting this marriage promotion stuff is in the position to do that. That's the problem with the policy.

Tell her what?

Tell her, "When you lay down, what are the consequences for your children when you're doing that? When you dismiss the option of giving the father of your child access to our child, what is the consequence of that decision for your kids?" Nobody who is out there promoting this marriage conversation is willing, or is in a position to go there, with respect to the young women in the South Side of Chicago. That's what the problem is with most of this marriage promotion policy -- that is coming from a direction that has no connection with the people who are making the decisions we're trying to change. And it is going to fall flat on its face.


Why? Because the hearers can't connect to it. The hearers view it as this is something that some white man or a white woman is coming to tell me it's good for me and my people. They're the ones who put us in this position in the first place. How dare they? That's what.

I know this from talking to family practitioners who work in inner-city communities and who have a hard time getting the young people they're talking to, to connect with the messages that they're trying to put out there about childbearing, child rearing and so forth. ... You have to have an entry road into this conversation. You have to be able to engage young people who are making the decisions that we're talking about, and you have to engage them on their terms. That's just not happening now.

Tell me about how families are formed differently [within different racial and ethnic communities]. ...

We're understanding that black families and white families -- and Puerto Rican families, for that matter -- take different processes to forming families. I think living together is sort of the best way to understand where these paths diverge. You have high levels of cohabitation all across the society, but they mean different things to different race and ethnic groups.

When a young white couple is living together and gets pregnant, that moves them to marriage much faster. It's suggesting to me that they're thinking about forming a family in a very traditional way, implicitly, and marriage. The pregnancy sort of is the trigger event that says, "OK, let's stop fooling around and do what we're supposed to do." That means to me that our traditional ideas about family formation have greater currency among young whites.

Young blacks, first of all, are much less likely to cohabit in the first place, and when they cohabit, they're much less likely to have children when they're living together. So they have sexual relationships outside of cohabitation, and that may have to do with a lot of things. It may have to do with lower levels of income, which means that they're less able to maintain independent housing in the first place. It may mean that they're more likely again to be living with their parents -- either he is or she is -- and the parents won't allow cohabitation to occur under there. "Not as long as you're living under my roof," that sort of thing.

So they're much less likely to be living together, and when they have children, they're not already on this road to forming the traditional family. Moreover, since 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. We know how to raise children without a father. We just have 50 years more experience on how to raise a child without a father in the home. I think we've learned that lesson to our fault.

I think Puerto Rican families, then, behave differently still. They are much more likely to be cohabiting than either blacks or whites. I think not enough of this conversation is about what's happening with a Puerto Rican and a Latino population in general, which is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. Puerto Rican families, when they tend to have children, it doesn't move them toward marriage. But they tend to remain in cohabiting relationships.

My main message is that we have very different race and ethnic groups in the United States. They form families differently, and that means that a one-size-fits-all strategy for strengthening families is just not going to work. Different communities are not going to embrace a one-size-fits-all strategy. They're not going to embrace one that they don't own in some way, that hasn't been born out of their own wrestling with what the set of issues are, and that they have invested some energy in creating. I think that's what's wrong with the current policy. ...

[I've read that] the idea that marriage is the way to go has a lot less traction in the African-American communities, so programs studying about marriage may not be what's needed to get a couple married. ...

In the black community, there are 100 years of experience at having families without fathers in the home. We have not only developed an acceptance of a single-mother family and that it is socially acceptable; it's appropriate, and women can do it quite that there's not a social sanction against having a single-parent household. We've embraced single-parent households, as a community. ...

We are right in the middle of this conversation today. We are right in the middle in communities all around the country where black people are recognizing that our children are doing not as well as they could be. Our grandchildren are doing not as well as they could be, if our children were making better decisions about fertility and family formation.

So what are the terms on which grandparents and parents can begin to have this conversation? How can we find the set of words that are not so explosive as to send us all running from the room, so that we can ask ourselves what is going to happen to our children, and what right do we have to impinge upon one another's behavior? ...

So to that traditional liberal who looks at this administration and Wade Horn and says, "Boy, are they wacky." What do you say? Are they wacky? Is Wade Horn wacky? Is this administration of some marriage wacky?

I tell audiences all over the country, "Wade Horn is not crazy." And I mean that. We have lower rates of marriage. Instability is not good for children, and marriage promotes stable relationships. If for that reason alone, Wade Horn is not crazy. Then the question is, how can we take Wade Horn's long-term objective and help him find a way to make that objective, the objective of the children, the young parents whose behavior we're trying to affect?


I think we can do that by helping those young parents focus on their children. We're not only concerned about people who haven't had children yet. But some of those parents are the 30 percent of American children who are born out of wedlock. We can get them to focus on what they already care about, which is their children's well-being, and they want, the parents want, both the father and the mother to be involved in producing that well-being.

So it's a very clear strategy. We can ask the parents, "Do you want both of you to be around to raise this child over the next 10 years? If your answer to that is yes" -- and right now 90 percent of the parents are saying yes-- "What are you going to have to do in terms of getting a job, in terms of relating to the mother of your child or the father of your child better, in order to ensure that that occurs?" Then we can ask some of them Wade Horn's question in the middle. "Have the two of you ever thought about getting married? If not, why not? If you have, what has prevented you from doing so?"

I think it's a very sort of natural road, from what they care about instead of what Wade Horn cares about, to get to the long-run objective for children.

What's wrong with the conversation the administration and Wade Horn is trying to have? What's the point they're missing?

The point that the administration is missing is that it has aborted a whole plethora of activities under the previous administration where this conversation was well underway. The conversation in terms of relating, not only to fathers, but to mothers, to working on their employment skills and on their relationship skills and on marriage. Much of this discussion was already underway before they moved into office. I think for the sake of their own political needs, they've ratcheted up the marriage conversation. They have dismissed the fatherhood conversation. As a consequence, a whole infrastructure of services and practitioners and people who were being served is dying on the vine. That's what's wrong with the current administration's policies. ...

Is this the next stone being thrown in the culture wars?

Oh, yes, in a way. First of all, there's another conversation on the side taking place, unfortunately, which people of color get thrown in the middle of, and it's a conversation about gender. It's a conversation that talks about the economic empowerment of women, [a conversation] that worries about the re-establishment of patriarchy.

I'm not saying this has nothing to do with people of color. But what I am saying is that the marriage promotion agenda is one that is largely carried by men. Its staunchest opponents are women in the women's movement. In the middle of this, you have people of color, who were finding ways to work around the gender wars and to worry about their children and their grandchildren. They are silenced while white men and white women worry about sort of who's in command. It's a very unfortunate turn of events.

What I watched during the 1990s was a way in which men and women found a way to have a conversation about sex, about gender, about domestic violence, about children, and to find a way to negotiate around the gender issues that were implicit in that. One of the biggest tragedies of the current version is now the gender war is sort of front and center, and all these issues have been kicked to the curb, in some sense.

Why now? Why this sense of urgency about marriage now?

First of all, the bully pulpit is a very strong tool in American public policy. You have someone who is heading welfare reform whose passion is marriage, whose passion was marriage prior to coming into office, and whose passion is marriage. I think he has exercised the leadership to make this issue nationally prominent. It's probably the most controversial issue in social policy today. That's the only reason -- a personal leadership.

Of Wade Horn?

Of Wade Horn. And to the extent that it brings the American public to a place where it acknowledges the importance of marriage for children, and we find a solution which is not necessarily his solution, but a better solution than the inattention that we're giving to the issue now, it's a good thing.

Again, I applaud him for the leadership that he's exercised on this issue. I'm smart enough and experienced enough to know that, in some sense, you stake a public policy issue in the ground, and it gets negotiated. In the end, it doesn't end up at either extreme; it ends up in some place in the middle. But the people who stake the issue in the ground, to the extent that it serves the public, they have exercised their public leadership well. ...

The gulf between liberals and conservatives on family issues is closing. What we agree on is that there is a problem. I think we agree on it in the following way: Our children are not doing family in ways that are going to promote the well-being of our grandchildren. That's the agreement. What's not clear is what are we going to do about it.

I think conservatives say, "We're going to promote marriage, and in the end, we're going to get more of our children to marry before they bear children, and this will clean itself up." I think liberals and progressives are saying, "That's not going to work for everybody." Therefore, their position is, "We're going to have flexibility. At the end of flexibility is going to be child well-being, and then we will try to move our children into a place where they'll put child well-being first. But ultimately, even our children are results, and we'll have to let them decide."

I would say that those are the poles, but those are poles that are not as far apart as they were even ten years ago. Ten years ago it was, "Marriage is important." We've let marriage go in our public policy. That was the conservative position. The liberal position was, "Marriage isn't relevant, we have no business in this area," and the like. So I think, again, the gap is closing, and I think it's a good thing. ...

Do you have another thought on this question about -- I don't know how to put it nicely -- a doctor [we talked to] said, "I see a lot of women lately. They just don't have a lot of good guys to marry them out there."

Right. The men who she could marry, lots of them are incarcerated. Many of them have not graduated from high school. Many of them have substance abuse problems. Many of them have mental health problems. This is documented. So it's not clear how good her options are if the administration wants her to marry. That's a primary reason why very few of these couples end up marrying after they have children together. ...

If, when talking about Moynihan all those years ago, we were talking about the moral fiber of the black family being under attack, is what the administration now doing going to be seen as an attack, in some sense, on the moral fiber of the American family? How will people respond to this?

I think people are responding to the implicit moral charge that is under marriage promotion, in provocative ways. That is what is behind "Government has no business in this domain." In other words, if our reduction in marriage rates are a charge that there is something lacking in the moral fiber of the American society, I think many people are uncomfortable having that conversation. And what worries me is that I think it's fundamentally selfish. It is not worrying about what are the consequences for our children. ...

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