“It’s Marriage, Stupid!”

Published October 29, 2015

World Congress of Families IX


Plenary Panel on “Marriage, Economics and Poverty”
Ninth World Congress of Families, Salt Lake City, 29 October 2015


(Click on this image and other images on this page to expand)

I’m pleased to moderate this high-powered panel on “Marriage, Economics and Poverty.” Our panelists have degrees in  psychology, social policy, sociology and family studies; I am an economist. Though George J. Stigler of the University of Chicago styled economics “the imperial science,” it began in fact and always will be a colony of moral philosophy.


To lay my own cards on the table, I oppose counsels of despair. Those who fear that marriage is going irretrievably to hell in a handbasket, I would caution against the WYSIATI fallacy: that What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). For example, illegitimacy has risen from less than 4% in 1940 to  more than 40% of all American births. Yet data back to colonial times show that American marriage went to hell in a handbasket several times before: pre- or extramarital conceptions were about one-quarter in 1900 (the same level they reached in 1986), and nearly a third in 1776. I don’t claim that another Great Awakening, like the one  I was blessed to be born in, is inevitable; but I do claim that the handbasket is not.

In the earlier concurrent panel on the costs of family breakdown, I extended the analysis in my book, Redeeming Economics, to argue that legal abortion is the main cause of family breakdown, not only in the United States but in the world, including specifically the rise in rates of divorce, illegitimacy and crime, and entry of most developed nations–now including the United States–into “demographic winter.”[1] As Ronald Reagan once remarked, there are simple solutions, just not always easy solutions.

I also noted Pope Francis’ rejection of what he calls “gender ideology.” What exactly is gender ideology? Well, an ideology is not merely the philosophy of someone we disagree with; ideology, in Hannah Arendt’s lapidary phrase, is a worldview that requires its adherents to create a “fictitious world.”[2] The fictitious world of gender ideology is one in which men and women are not only equal but identical. Gender orthodoxy recognizes that men and women are equal but complementary, not identical.

I was struck by the pervasiveness of gender ideology when researching the work of the late, great Gary S. Becker. Becker’s theory was designed to apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual relationships. As he wrote in an article with Nigel Tomes that Becker incorporated into his book A Treatise on the Family, Becker’s theory “assume[s] that children…are produced without mating, or asexually …. each person, in effect, then mates with his own image.”[3] That’s gender ideology.

Since our panel includes three of the leading scholars in the world on these subjects, I view my role here as merely facilitating their presentations and discussion, and don’t plan to use the full 10 minutes Janice Crouse allotted me.

To economize on our time and my hobbling (MS), I will introduce our panelists at once:

Dr. Pat Fagan is  Director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI), a  Family Research Council project.  Growing up in Ireland, Fagan taught grade school in Cork, was a psychotherapist in Canada and earned his Ph.D. at University College, Dublin. He moved in 1985 from the clinical world into public policy and discourse: first at the Free Congress Foundation under Paul Weyrich; then the staff of Senator Dan Coats of Indiana; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Family and Community Policy at HHS under President George H.W. Bush; followed by 13 years as Senior Fellow in family and culture issues at the Heritage Foundation.  I find MARRI a tremendous resource in generating and disseminating innovative, sound and usable social science on the family.

Dr. Jason S. Carroll is a Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and a Fellow of the Wheatley Institution.  Dr. Carroll is an internationally recognized scholar in the areas of marriage fragmentation, healthy sexuality, and modern threats to marriage – such as pornography, delayed age at marriage, materialism, and non-marital childbirth.  In 2014, Dr. Carroll received the Berscheid-Hatfield Award for Distinguished Mid-Career Achievement, a biennial award given for distinguished scientific achievement by the International Association for Relationship Research.  Recently, he co-authored the highly publicized report entitled “Knot (with a “K”) Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America.”

W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Sociology at UVa, Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. His latest work with Nicholas Wolfinger, Soul Mates (2015), shines a much-needed spotlight on the lives of strong and happy black and Latino couples. He coauthored the earlier pathbreaking works Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (2013), Whither the Child?: Causes and Consequences of Low Fertility (2013), and Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (2004).


To summarize the findings of not only our panel but the whole 9th World Congress of Families: whether at the international, national, or state level, or in key sub-communities like African- or Hispanic-Americans,  rather than Bill Clinton strategist James Carville’s famous 1992 trope, “The Economy, Stupid!” we must conclude that even on the economy, “It’s Marriage, Stupid!”

As we learned earlier this morning (according to Bloomberg News), “China ended one of the most ambitious demographic experiments in human history, abandoning the limit of one child for most families to foster the population growth required by the world’s second-biggest economy.”[4]

Of course, this change appears to mean only that the thuggish policy of forced abortions will now begin after the second rather than first child. As I noted in my remarks at the earlier panel I mentioned, China and India are in the process of reversing their places as first- and second-most populous countries in the world because legal abortion has reduced China’s birth rate from about 2.1 to 1.5 children per couple, while abortion has been practiced relatively little in India, where the TFR is 2.4.  (The USA’s third-place relative size is declining rapidly because its birth rate is about 1.8 after but 2.4 before legal abortions. Fourth-largest Indonesia is rising because its birth rate is about 2 after though 3 before abortions. I estimate that the world’s total fertility rate in 2005-10 was 2.3 before but 1.9 after legal abortions.)

Dr. Pat Fagan showed how many profound economic and sociological differences at the U.S. national level — ranging from annual income, to performance in school, to out-of-wedlock pregnancies, to  probability of divorce, to happy marriages, to frequency of sexual relations — are directly related to adherence to or rejection of what might be called the “Fagan Formula”:  “the intact married family that worships God weekly.”[5]

After debunking the Hollywood notion that “marriage doesn’t matter,” Dr. Brad Wilcox (drawing on his study with Joseph Price and Robert Lerman[6]) focused on how and why healthy families determine the wealth of states. To the degree that children are raised by their biological parents, they showed, state median income is higher, state income growth is faster, child poverty is lower, and upward mobility (“The American Dream”) is more attainable. In fact, ‘The “share of parents in a state who are married is … a stronger predictor of economic mobility, child poverty and median family income in the American states than are the educational, racial and age compositions of the states.”‘

Our panelists also warned against  crude deterministic explanations that don’t hold water.

For example, regarding education, Dr. Wilcox and his colleagues showed that “states [like Idaho, South Dakota and Utah] with middling or even low levels of education but a high degree of cultural conservatism are some of the most resistant to the retreat from marriage.” Regarding policy implications, Dr. Wilcox admonished us to focus on the majority who will not get a college degree; to correct the marriage penalty in means-tested benefits; and to focus on the “success sequence”: “finish high school, work, marry and become a parent in that order.”

In outlining the Knot Yet report,[7] Dr. Jason Carroll similarly warned against marriage preparation paradoxes: oversimplistic formulae that, starting from apparently plausible premises, lead to absurd results. He specifically exploded the “cohabitation ‘test drive’ paradox” and the “sowing wild oats to ‘get it out of your system’ paradox” — both of which had purported to strengthen couples’ relationships but in fact have led to higher rates of dissolution. He also showed that the grain of truth in the “older is better” theory is limited, since the advantages of delayed marriage in reducing the probability of divorce dwindle sharply by about age 23, and the latest data show a trend toward rising divorce later in life.

Especially in context of the 2016 presidential election, in which “Inequality” has emerged as perhaps the foremost issue,[8] we must recast James Carville’s 1992 trope, “The Economy Stupid.” Whether at the global, national, state or local community levels, even on the economy, “It’s Marriage, Stupid.”


[1] John D. Mueller, “Social and Economic Costs of Legal Abortion,” Ninth World Congress of Families, Salt Lake City, 27 October 2015: https://eppc.org/publications/social-and-economic-costs-of-legal-abortion/

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Allen & Unwin, London, 1967, 438.

[3]   Gary S. Becker and Nigel Tomes, “An Equilibrium Theory of the Distribution of Income and Intergenerational Mobility,” The Journal of Political Economy 87:6 (December 1979): 1153–89; reprinted in Gary S. Becker, A Treatise on the Family, enlarged edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991 [1981]), 201-37, 203.

[4] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-29/china-abandons-three-decade-old-one-child-policy-to-lift-growth

[5] Pat Fagan, “Marriage and Religious Faithfulness,” Ninth World Congress of Families, Salt Lake City, 29 October 2015.

[6] W. Bradford Wilcox, Joseph Price, and Robert L. Lerman, Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States? AEI/Institute for Family Studies, 2015

[7] Kay Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox and Kelleen Kaye, Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and the RELATE Institute, 2015.

[8] On the causes of economic inequality, see also John D. Mueller, “Money and Inequality,” Jackson Hole Summit, Jackson, MT, 28 August 2015, https://eppc.org/publications/money-and-inequality/

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