Washington Monthly - September/October 2015 - 20

justice system wreaks on many of their potential partners. Many of us may well bemoan the decoupling of marriage and parenthood, but the fact is that it has occurred largely as the result of a broad spate of choices and economic realities facing women. The ability of government to change alleged attitudes about masculinity, to push back on gender independence, or to reconnect the fraying norm that children should be born to married couples is almost surely severely constrained by the limits of public policy. (To be fair, Wilcox and many others who advocate this side of the "grand bargain" believe that it is the work of "civic, religious, and cultural" leaders and institutions, not government.) And even if policy could "put that toothpaste back in the tube," at least one dimension of this norm-our progress on gender equality-is a clear positive. The punchline of all this is, to the extent that children in single-parent families suffer from diminished educational and economic opportunities available to both their mothers and their mothers' potential partners, there is a rich policy agenda that should be brought to bear, and it is here that the new grand bargain exists. W hen it comes to families, the best way forward is to celebrate the diversity of American family structure, including gay families, singleparent families, multigenerational families, stepfamilies, and so on. We must strive for family stability and opportunity for kids in each of these family types, which depends on policies that help their parents as well. That implies far-reaching policy changes, including in the realms of criminal justice and incarceration, health care, full employment, work supports, housing, and educational access. In fact, when gainful job opportunities are robust, and work supports, notably child care, wage subsidies, health coverage, and an ample minimum wage, are in place, single parents' earnings rise and their poverty rate falls. As the figure on page 18 reveals, the last time the U.S. economy was at truly full employment, the employment rates of less-educated single mothers shot up, surpassing those of married moms. Of 20 September/October 2015 course, these were the years of work-based welfare reform, targeted precisely at moving this population into work, but as best we can tell, that's only part of the story, explaining maybe a third of the increase. We also had a minimum wage increase, a significant increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage subsidy for low-wage workers), expanded child care subsidies, and the tightest labor market in decades, before or since. In fact, the figure shows that as the economy tailed off, employment rates for married and single women, including those without kids, all followed the same downward trend (and, of course, welfare reform was still in place in those years, so it can't be the whole story). We can argue culture all we want, but if we really want to help mother-only families, especially in our current era, when antipoverty policy is increasingly oriented around work, we've got to help them, their children's fathers, and their potential future mates find good jobs with ample work supports. Other countries have learned this lesson and have lower child poverty rates among single-parent families than we have among married-parent families in the United States. This suggests an agenda including full employment, earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs, robust wage subsidies, universal health coverage, housing and child care supports, quality pre-K, college affordability, and a fairer, less punitive criminal justice system. With this agenda in place, some single parents might well consider marriage and some women who are considering an unmarried birth might reconsider. We don't have a ton of data on this point, but it is true that the unmarried birth rate flattened somewhat in the full-employment 1990s. And virtually every family sociologist who studies this issue argues that better opportunities for potential marriage partners will make a positive difference in marriage rates, and, ultimately, in kids' well-being in both the short and long term. Either way, with this agenda in place we can be sure that families of all types and their kids would be better off. That should be our primary policy goal, and, at least to me, it sounds like a pretty grand bargain. David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead respond: A s lead authors of the report Marriage Opportunity: The Moment for National Action, recently featured in these pages, we're grateful to Jared Bernstein for his thoughtful response and for his proposals aimed at continuing and deepening the discussion. To most of what Bernstein says, our response is: Amen, and Amen. Bernstein says that gay marriage is a done deal-"That train," he writes, "has left the station." We agree. He says that a large body of research suggests that family structure matters and that stable, married-couple homes offer significant advantages to children. We agree. Regarding the question of what's causing the weakening of family structure in non-affluent America, he argues in some detail that "cultural changes interact with economic outcomes" in ways that "cannot meaningfully be untangled." We agree. He also insists that family structure effects inevitably overlap with- cannot meaningfully be fully separated from-neighborhood effects, incarceration effects, and other environmental influences. We agree. In the best traditions of progressive thought, he makes the case for policies aimed at increasing income and enhancing economic security for less-well-off Americans. He wants tight labor markets, wage subsidies, work supports such as child care, health coverage, an ample minimum wage, earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs, quality preK, college affordability, and a fairer, less punitive criminal justice system aimed at moving us away from a regime of mass incarceration.  On each of these proposals, of course, the devil is likely to be in the details, with conservatives and liberals bringing different perspectives to bear on them.

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Monthly - September/October 2015

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