On April 24, 2012, President Obama went on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to make his case for student-loan forgiveness and college affordability. After slow-jamming the news, Obama pointed to a surprisingly traditional justification for helping young people reduce their student loan debt: It was causing them to delay marriage.
This moment encapsulates the overlooked underpinning of President Obama’s economic message: his focus on family. It is an approach fit for our times, as families in America face extraordinary pressures, obstacles and burdens. Both parties would be wise to emulate this in the upcoming midterm elections.
It is true that marriage is on the decline, birthrates are down, and divorce rates are high. Some are even suggesting we need to move “beyond marriage.” But people’s aspirations, rather than just their status, suggest family is still important in American life. This was affirmed in a New York Times feature on “the changing American family” last year which observed that “the old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America—but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite.” While this perception may result in part from a set of assumptions that need revision—for instance, the view of marriage as a “capstone,” rather than a “cornerstone”—the decline of marriage is not simply a matter of culture. The strains on families and family formation are real, rational, and profound.