Home Economics

I can't believe Yglesias beat me to excerpting this snippet from George Packer's much-praised essay on the working class:

"These days, you have to struggle," she said. "As a kid, I used to be able to go to the movies or to the zoo. Now you can't take your children to the zoo or go to the movies, because you've got to think how you're going to put food on the table." Snodgrass's parents had raised four children on two modest incomes, without the ceaseless stress that she was enduring. But the two-parent family was now available only to the "very privileged." She said that she had ten good friends; eight of them were childless or, like her, unmarried with kids. "That's who's middle-class now," she said. "Two parents, two kids? That's over. People looked out for me. These kids nowadays don't have nobody to look out for them. You're one week away from (a) losing your job, or (b) not having a paycheck."

Matt goes on to reference Grand New Party's focus on precisely this issue, and then writes:

Of course the problem is that once you recognize the truth of this line of analysis, you're still left wondering what, exactly, you're supposed to do about it. Stopping committed gay and lesbian couples from getting married won't, in the real world, help people build the sort of stable family structures that are an important part of emotional and economic support and security for those who have it. Nor does it really seem plausible to me that any government safety net, no matter how generous, could realistically fully make up the gap. And it's hard for me to imagine a government "marriage promotion" initiative that's heavy-handed enough to be effective, but not so heavy-handed as to be frighteningly authoritarian. But as a pure matter of electoral politics, I think it would probably be easy enough for an enterprising politician to talk a little bit more explicitly about this kind of thing and that would probably help candidates connect with people who, not wrongly, see linkage in their lives between "cultural issues" about family life and the economic challenges facing their family.

I definitely agree with the last point, and I also agree about the limits of straightforward "marriage promotion" programs. But while there's clearly no domestic-policy silver bullet for the problem of high divorce rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates, I think there are things the government can do to sharpen the incentives - a favorite phrase of Reihan's - and have an impact on the margins. Some of the ideas we kick around in Grand New Party - a more family-friendly tax code; more support, through tax credits and subsidies, for parents who want to work part time or not at all while their kids are young; etc. - fall into this category: They're proposals that have the potential to ease the financial burden on working parents, a burden that's quite often at the root of family breakdown, and create a virtuous cycle in which parents are more likely to stay together, and their kids, down the road, are more likely to become responsible parents as well - since the children of stable families are more likely to form stable families themselves. The goal would be a short-run decrease in working-class divorce rates, and perhaps a long-term decrease in out-of-wedlock births as the benefits of greater familial stability are passed on to the next generation. Again, I'm under no illusions that tax policy and/or subsidization can have a massive impact here, but I think a family-friendly politics could offer at least a nudge, if you will, in the right direction.

The other half of the equation, in our view, would be reforms targeted at low-skilled males. One of the biggest reasons poor women have children out of wedlock is that the men in their demographic aren't really marriageable - they don't earn enough, they aren't working in the formal labor market, they're in and out of prison, etc. And it might be possible to improve their prospects (again, on the margins) - by reducing unskilled immigration, by reforming prisons while putting more cops on the beat, or even by developing a program of straightforward wage subsidies. (Though the last of these is a non-starter in the current fiscal climate: Of the big ideas we floated in GNP, it's the most expensive and the hardest to imagine the contemporary GOP - or the Dems, for that matter, though they'd probably be marginally more receptive - actually adopting.)