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Podcast: Improving Family Stability for the Wellbeing of American Children

At the Joint Economic Committee, we believe knowledge of social capital is vital to achieving our goal of expanding economic opportunity for all Americans. Join us as we invite hearing witnesses to engage in a deeper social capital conversation on The Social Capitalists Podcast: Post-hearing Discussions with the Joint Economic Committee Republicans.

Listen to Episode 6 or read the full transcript:

Sen. Mike Lee: Hi, I’m Senator Mike Lee, Chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, and you’re listening to the Social Capitalists Podcast.

Scott Winship: Hello, I’m Scott Winship, Executive Director of the Joint Economic Committee and Director of the JEC’s Social Capital Project and this is the Social Capitalists Podcast. On the podcast we invite our hearing witnesses to join JEC staff in a post-hearing discussion, so we can get a little more in the weeds and dive more deeply into the issues we’re covering during our hearing. We just finished our hearing "Improving family stability for the well-being of American children." You can read our witnesses' opening statements and watch the full hearing on our website. today on the podcast I'm excited to be joined by Kay Hymowitz, the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project; Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. Thank you both for joining us! 

Brad Wilcox: Thanks, Scott.

Kay Hymowitz: Thank you.

Winship: So Brad and Kay are two of the best experts on the topic, so we were thrilled. Often, you don't get your first picks and we were fortunate this time to do that. What did you all think of the hearing? Interesting conversation. There’s a good chance our listeners didn't tune in.

Wilcox: I thought there was a surprising degree of common ground and there was a recognition that, generally speaking, stable two-parent families are better for kids and that we need to think about both economic considered measures and cultural changes if we're going to try to stabilize families in America. So I think there's differences in emphasis, but I think there's a fair bit of consensus that surprised me.

Hymowitz: You know I think that's fair.

Winship: the policy proposals, we can come back to at the end. Certainly, spanned a wide range of ideas that I thought were more or less directly related to improving family stability, but we can come back to policy at the end. I think the first question that our listeners would be interested in hearing from you both on: one of the things that was discussed among many of the witnesses was what's behind the changes that we've seen--in some ways it's confusing because there are changes in marriage, single parenthood, divorce, so there's a lot happening at once. But, in general, the two main explanations seem to be economic change and cultural change; that's a big simplification. Kay your testimony, in particular, focused on this idea of marriageable men, could you explain to listeners what is the "marriageable men" hypothesis? And your views to which that explains the changes that we've seen in some of these family priorities.  

Hymowitz: So this is a concept that has actually been around for quite a while. I think it was William Julius Wilson who noticed in the "Truly Disadvantaged" that there were an awful lot of men in the black community he was studying who didn’t have jobs and he speculated that these men were not marriageable and that was why the marriage rates were falling so precipitously among blacks at the time. Since then, the theory has held up a little bit--I think. Certainly, the reason I got interested in this is that I started to notice that women still want to marry men who work, they preferably want to marry men who earn more than they do--there's significant research on this now. Despite the fact that women are doing so well in the workplace and in education in particular, they still want that. What we're seeing on the less skilled, the lower educated population, is women who simply, instead of getting married--actually I shouldn't put this all on women's feet, it's men too, but instead of getting married, just have children on their own.  And the men are maybe around a little bit, that varies I'm sure depending on the couple. But these men are not doing well in this post-industrial economy. And in addition--see I think this is kind of a feedback loop--in addition, they don't think they're needed. So, talk about the economic and the cultural piece because after all women are managing just fine and a lot of them would prefer to be single that to marry them.


Winship: Senator Lee, who signs my paycheck, had a really interesting comment in his questions with you around that. So in some ways, there's a little bit of a chicken and egg issue also. In that if we develop a culture where men feel less obligated to be consistent breadwinners to marry the woman if she's pregnant--I think Brad and other have done good work on the.. Marriage has a causal impact on men's earnings on income as well--you can imagine that there is also concurrently this thing happening where because men feel like they're not needed or appreciated, their own economic outcomes suffer as well.

Hymowitz: Right, like you said, chicken and egg. But, for a lot of these men, they don't much like school! They are not necessarily that good at it. It used to be that you didn't have to stay in school. You could just get that job at the local factory. That's not true anywhere near as much as it used to be and those jobs in the factories that do exist are not quite as stable and don't necessarily have benefits and so on and so forth So yeah, i think for some of those men, they kind of go, well hmm, they throw their hands up, they maybe have too high a reservation wage in mind, but you can understand also that what they saw around them growing up, has disappeared. At least some research suggests that they are very happy spending their time playing video games. 

Winship: Yes, the video games have gotten very good i hear. I'm sort of an old Atari 2600 single joystick, single button kind of guy.

Hymowitz: Look what would have happened to you!

Winship: Brad, your testimony focused on economic trends and also on cultural ones. What's your take on the balance of the two and explaining the changes that have happened?  


Wilcox: I really think it's important to acknowledge that they really reinforced one another in ways that are unfortunate for working class and poor Americans. So, I think, that we've been having this debate with you and others on Twitter, about how much men's wages have been going up or not--how much have they stagnated. But, I think putting aside that precise issue, it's very clear when you look at spells of unemployment and men's non participation in the labor force overall, that the connection between men and work for men who don't have these college degrees to become more attenuated and that makes them less attractive husbands. So that's part of the story here. It's also, of course the case too, that women are doing comparatively better than they are, and so that kind of relationship between women and men cane become kind of vexed when you've got a guy who’s not stably employed in a relationship with a woman who is and for her, at least her boyfriend or husband would be at least at her level. So that economic piece is certainly part of what's happened in terms of marital stability and more non marital child bearing since the 1960s. But there's also clearly a cultural story here too. Which, I think, our progressive colleagues don't really want to face head-on, you know a lot of economic shifts that they want to point to as the drivers for family change, just don't fit the historical facts. That is that a lot of these changes in single parenthood and non-marital childbearing really got going before we saw big changes in the economy, before mass incarceration hit our society. So, there was something else, and I think that something else was, in large part, the big cultural shift in the 60s and 70s away from appreciates, acknowledging, recognizing how much marriage matters, how much putting your family above your own personal desires and needs matters. So, this cultural shift, I think, made it easier for folks to have kids outside of marriage and get divorced even in low conflict situations and that these kinds of cultural changes--not to mention the decline in religious and civic engagement among less educated Americans created a kind of perfect storm where working class and poor Americans have fewer economic reasons to marry, and fewer cultural norms to guide them in that direction, less community support for marriage and then now we also see that in many cases they're going to lose access to Medicaid or lose access to a childcare subsidy or food stamps or get a lower EITC if they're married. So, there just a lot of forces unfortunately that have combined to make marriage less necessary and less valued. 


Hymowitz: I would add one more cultural factor; and that is we've redefined marriage. There are much higher expectations about companionship and the soulful union of the couple and I think for upper middle class, for educated people, a lot of the changes that have happened--we've gotten rid of a lot of scripts. People had expectation about what the man would do and what the woman would do. Those don't exist anymore in the same way and couples have to thrash out everything. Who's going to do the garbage? Who's going to do the kids on Sunday morning? Who's going to take care of the babysitter? All of that is something that has to be negotiated and the college educated population has some of those skills. I don't know if they learn it in college or they bring it to college, but they do have those skills. And I think for a lot of less educated folks, they don't have that same experience with that kind of communication and it just turns into chronic conflict.


Wilcox: Well the one thing that I've noticed both in the survey data and more qualitative observations of families is that, the other advantage that upper-middle class Americans have today is that they've actually become more realistic since the divorce revolution about what to expect in marriage.

Hymowitz: Yeah I think that's true.

Wilcox: So they're actually not expecting as much of the soul mate romantic stuff that you get in the pop culture. So you know on Wednesday night on my street, it's not like spouses are sitting around the table with candle lights on and music. We're doing homework, we're going to soccer practice, and we’re paying bills and then maybe watch Netflix for half an hour or an hour into bed. The point is that it's not a romantic thing. This is a child-centered, family-centered thing. It's very pragmatic in many ways and I think it's also really good. And I think it's partly driven by their appreciation of the ways in which kind if keeping things together is going to be good for their kids and even for themselves long term, and that same recognition I don't think is quite penetrated as much working class or poor Americans.  

I've always called that the mission--that there's this shared mission that particularly educated individuals have, which is cultivating the child. Men sign on to that, as women do, and I think that whole sense of you have this project that you have to do together and its enormously taxing, but very gratifying too--but there has to be an agreement that that's what it's all about and I'm not sure whether that's shared across the culture.  


WInship: Hmm... Yeah absolutely. I'm struck too by changes, for lack of a better word, the soup that we're in. You know if you live in a world where nobody gets divorced, and it’s not really an option, that changes how you orient yourself to marriage to begin with. Once the culture changes such that there’s always a possibility that there is a better way to optimize out there, then that changes the equation. I have a grad school classmate who has a PhD, very well-educated, daughter very well-educated, Indian immigrants and she had an arranged marriage and I think, you know, Americans are like "how could you ever do that?!" It's like, well no, like this is a tradition, you get into it knowing it's an institution and that you're expected to make it work and she very much considers herself a feminist, but it's just a very different way of thinking about what your option are and that seems to be a big change too. The economic front, I will say, we're working on a report in the Social Capital Project and I'm a believer that: one, male wages are actually slightly higher than they've ever been, but I will say that when you go back and look at the trend--if you were a social scientist in 1994 looking at the trend in men's wages--for men in their late-20s you're looking at a drop of almost a third and it's recovered, but that very much could have been a profound enough change that it was behind the declining changes in families, which then changed the culture.


Hymowitz: And remember, during that period, women's wages were going up.

Winship: That's right, yup. The chart in your report the ratio of men's pay to women's pay has done nothing but decline. Turning to policies, one of the things that we struggle with sitting within a federal congressional committee, very concerned about the decline in marriage and the rise in single parenthood, but when we start thinking about what policies can do, it’s tricky. Especially if you take a hard-headed look at what has worked in the past and what hasn't worked in the past, there's been a lot that hasn't worked. Where do the two of you land in terms of how we might be able to reverse some of these trends, how much do we think we could reverse some of these trends. Brad, do you want to start off?


Wilcox: Sure, but I think it's important to acknowledge that there is no magic wand, there's no panacea that you can just pass some legislation and expect things to go perfectly or in a better direction. But, I think one thing that would be helpful would be to eliminate the marriage penalties in our means-tested programs and couple that with--unintended-- a very clear cultural message from the government. Basically, it tell folks, look if you get married, you're not going to be penalized for that. You can get access to Medicaid, childcare, and food stamps--you're not going to get penalized. Just be very clear that the government is not in the business in discouraging people. So that would help; you have a cultural story as well as a policy change that could be helpful. But beyond that, I think we have to address the fact that, as Kay said, there are a lot of teenage boys and young men who are really floundering. It's partly because the education model in this country doesn't really speak to, work with, help, boys who are not on that more advanced college track. So, if we could do more for both those boys and their female peers who are not on that college track with better CTE, better apprenticeship placements. That would give them more skills, better incomes, but also a sense of identity that--look, I have a place in this world, I'm valuable and just because I'm not going to UVA or Duke I can still have an important place in this economy and this society. So I think that there would be some real advantages to doing more on the CTE and apprenticeships front. And then beyond that, I think, trying to think about ways to expand the child tax credit. Of course there was a debate to expanding it to payroll taxes or making it refundable and thinking about the pluses and minuses for those two approaches. I think it's important for us to think through and talk about and debate. 


And finally--I'm honestly not sure what the federal is here--but to do something like a national campaign around sequencing  education, work, marriage and parenthood just to help people recognize that if you strictly sequence marriage before parenthood, you’re much more likely forge not just a successful life (in purely monetary terms) but a better marriage and more stable family because you're anchoring your step into parenthood with commitment  and legal and cultural and social support for your relationship--that would be really helpful down the road. 


Hymowitz: So, I'll just hammer away at that education piece because I think it's so important. We have a lot of evidence that boys are falling behind in school even as they get there. They arrive and their language skills aren't as strong as girls, their small motor skills; girls are very good students and they sit still and they do their work and the boys, it's just very different for them. I think we really--I'm not going to go so far as to say we need to think about single sex schools, though we probably should. But I would say that there has to be more attention paid to the needs of boys, particularly boys who are not getting, at home, the kind of very verbal very mission-oriented parenting that our kids are getting. So, you need schools that also are going to provide the kind of structure and discipline that a lot of boys are not getting at home. The other thing I've noticed in the really good schools that I've been to; a sense of hope--you can be something. When I did an article a couple of months ago on vocational school, trade school, outside Philadelphia that was a big cause of the success of the kids. They felt like wow i can actually be something that would bring in these guys who started companies. Who were carpenters who started companies and the kids were like "me? I could do that?" That kind of thing really changes your mindset. It makes you have an idea that really, not just that you fit in, but that you can actually do something worthwhile. 

Winship: Absolutely! I think we're running out of time. I did want to mention and encourage our listeners to check out, as well, a study that Brad referenced in his testimony by the famous Raj Chetty who has this really interesting finding about the importance of being in a community where there are a lot of married couples rather than single parent families. It's such a neat finding that, I'm probably going to get this wrong, but he essentially find that if you're an African-American boy living in a neighborhood with more married black fathers, your mobility is better. That's not true if you're an African-American girl or if you're a white boy, so it's this sort of finding that's so specific and it makes such sense in the ways we think; that communities are important for kids, that's a really important point as well. Sadly, my producers are giving me the hook. So we're going to have to close. Thank you Kay and Brad, I know it's exhausting to testify and then come to do a little bit of a wind-down. Hopefully it's the best part of your day. 

Hymowtiz: (Laughter) Absolutely. 

Winship: Thanks for joining us! We'll be back after our next hearing. Until then, you can follow our work at also subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcasts or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. This is Scott Winship, Executive Director of the Joint Economic Committee, thanks for joining us, stay classy!

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