Isabel Sawhill is a liberal scholar who has spent much of her career defending marriage from cultural developments and government policies that have weakened the institution. She has been pro-marriage not for moral, spiritual , or cultural reasons but because the data is overwhelming that children do better with two parents and that married couples do better economically.
But now she is giving up. She says that marriage is in such a weakened state that we need to come up with alternatives that will have the same economic and child-care benefits. See what she is proposing after the jump. How do you think these would work?
In “Generation Unbound,” a book released this past fall that has opened a new front in the culture wars, Sawhill, who works at the Brookings Institution, argues that it is high time we stopped trying to revive marriage. Instead, she says, we need to figure out what will replace it if we are to stem the rise in single-parenting that has done more in the past few decades to increase child poverty than some of the biggest social programs, such as food stamps, have done to decrease it.
“Maybe some people will be married, or have some kind of commitment to each other, but they’ll live in separate places,” she speculated in an interview. “Or maybe there will be marriages with upfront time limits. Not, ‘We thought we were going to be married forever and decided in the middle to get divorced.’ But marriages where you say to the other person upfront, ‘How about a five-year contract to be committed to each other, and then reassess?’ ”
Sawhill thinks Scandinavian-style long-term cohabiting may be next.
Her new “marriage light” stance is grounded in data: Although marriage in the United States remains strong among the college educated, in the poor and working classes marriage rates have fallen precipitously, and divorce rates are high. Single parenthood is becoming the norm, as are serial relationships and fragile, complex families of stepsiblings and half-siblings. Half of all births to young women are now outside marriage, and 60 percent are unplanned. . . .
So while the institution evolves, Sawhill offers a practical next-best thing. What if, instead of “drifting” into mistimed and unwanted pregnancies outside marriage, people had to consciously “plan” to have children by using long-acting reversible contraceptives, which are 40 times more effective than condoms and 20 times more effective than the pill? What if, in place of traditional marriage, there was at least a new “ethic of responsible parenthood”? Would that at least reduce child poverty?