Obama should have talked about marriage
The State of the Union address could have shed light on the divided state of our unions.


Article Highlights

  • Obama was silent when it came to addressing a major obstacle to expanding "opportunity for all": the divided state of our unions in America.

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  • Poor and working-class Americans are much less likely to get and stay married

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  • Democrats and Republicans should forge a bipartisan agenda to bridge the nation's marriage divide

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In his State of the Union Address tonight, President Barack Obama hit a number of high notes - e.g., expanded apprenticeship programs, help for the long-term unemployed - in outlining his plan for renewing the American Dream. But Obama was strangely silent when it came to addressing a major obstacle to his agenda of expanding "opportunity for all": the divided state of our unions in America.

Judging from the president's speech, you would never know that marriage has emerged as a major source of division between college-educated Americans and everyone else.

Today, marriage is in good shape among Americans who are more educated and affluent; for this group, divorce is relatively rare, marital quality is high and most children enjoy the shelter and security of an intact, two-parent home. By contrast, poor and working-class Americans are much less likely to get and stay married, and their kids are more likely to be exposed to family turmoil and single parenthood. For instance, less than 10% of college-educated mothers have their children outside of wedlock, whereas almost 50% of mothers without college degrees do.

This growing marriage divide is one reason lower-income children are much less likely to live the American Dream. Children from single-parent families are about 30% less likely to graduate from college, about twice as likely to run afoul of the police and approximately three times as likely to end up pregnant as teenagers. Thus, partly because they are more likely to be exposed to the disadvantages associated with single parenthood while growing up, children from lower-income families have a much harder time making it in America today.

In fact, a new study from Harvard released last week indicates that strong families even matter at the community level. Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues found, when it comes to mobility for poor kids, that "the strongest and most robust predictor [of mobility] is the fraction of children with single parents." In other words, poor children from both single- and two-parent families are more likely to move up the economic ladder when they are raised in communities with lots of two-parent families to look out for them. The bottom line: communities with high percentages of two-parent families - such as the Salt Lake City metro area - are much more likely to foster the American Dream for poor children than communities with high percentages of single-parent families - such as the Atlanta metro area.

So, as leaders from across the political spectrum, from the president to Senator Marco Rubio, seek to revive the fortunes of the American Dream, they must include family renewal as a major component of their agenda. Here, a few strategies seem particularly promising:

1) Democrats and Republicans should agree that public policy should not penalize marriage among lower-income families and work quickly to eliminate the range of penalties embedded in public policies - such as Medicaid and food stamps - designed to help the poor.

2) Democrats and Republicans should support education and training policies - such as expanded funding for Career Academies - that have a proven track record of boosting the wages and marriage rates of young men from working class and poor backgrounds.

3) Democrats and Republicans should get behind a major public health campaign to promote what Brookings scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have called the "success sequence," namely, the idea that young adults are most likely to realize the American Dream when they sequence education, work, marriage, and parenthood in that order. Skeptics of such campaigns need to recognize the success the nation's campaign to reduce teen pregnancy has achieved in a similar area.

The alternative strategy - throwing up one's hands, and doing nothing to renew marriage in America - means accepting a permanent division between rich and poor when it comes to the state of our unions. For anyone who wants the best for our children and country, this kind of enduring family inequality is an unacceptable alternative. That's why Democrats and Republicans should forge a bipartisan agenda to bridge the nation's marriage divide and thereby help renew the American Dream. 


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