Marriage and Bad Economics

Bad MarriageSometimes a headline will tell you everything you need to know about a news story. That was certainly the case with the Metro headline, Husband Locked Wife in Shed for Singing “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” When His Mother Died. There is slightly more to it, but it’s in the weeds. Like the husband’s comment, “She never really got on with my mum or any of my relatives and when my mum died she was horrible and offered me no support—she was extremely unsympathetic.” He also thinks she’s having an affair.

It’s funny, but it is also really, really sad. Many marriages go this way. Clearly the man behaved very badly but it was quite explicitly provoked. And I’m sure that this is not an isolated episode. These two should not be together. Now, I don’t know what the divorce laws are like in the United Kingdom. And it is certainly true that a lot of people stay in bad marriages out of inertia. But it does bring to mind the conservative push to make divorce harder. The assumption is that marriage is a public good. See, for example, ever other Ross Douthat column.

I’m highly skeptical about this. From my own experience, the single most important component of marital bliss is economic stability. Having problems paying your bills infects every part of the marriage and doubtless does all kinds of harm to the kids. Pushing marriage as the answer to our social ills is just avoiding the big issues and focusing on the small. The tragedy of this is that if we instituted policies to make people economically more secure like a living wage, it would strengthen marriage and families. So I really think that when conservatives push marriage as an answer to all our problems, they are doing it as a way to avoid doing anything productive that might, you know, take a little money away from the rich.

Dean Baker brought up this issue this morning regarding George Will’s most recent column, George Will: A Man Impervious to the Evidence In His Own Column. Will, like the good social conservative he is, argued that out of wedlock births are the real cause of poverty. Baker notes that this rate is higher among whites today where the poverty rate for them is 10% than it was for blacks 50 years ago when their poverty rate was 40%. So the numbers seem to indicate that if marriage is an issue, it is a small one.

Baker goes on to explain the primary problem:

The far more important factor is the earnings potential for the children’s parent(s). This is determined by the factors that Will discourages us from considering, such as macroeconomic policy, trade policy, policies toward labor organizing, and other policy choices that will determine the health of the labor market facing parents of young children. Of course their access to health care and quality child care will also be important factors determining the children’s well-being…

And it is easy to show that government policy has made poverty worse on this score. The fall in employment rates following the 2001 recession was associated with a rise in poverty. The much sharper fall in employment rates following the 2008 recession was associated with an even larger rise in poverty. The decision of Congress to run high unemployment budgets (i.e. lower deficits) also will predictably result in a higher poverty rate for children.

The whole “social dysfunction” argument of conservatives strikes me very much like the guy searching for his keys under a street lamp. When a good Samaritan helps and finally asks where the man dropped his keys, the guy says, “Down the street, but the light is much better here.” Conservatives create a kind of ideological darkness over all the policies that they don’t like. So they look only in the bright spots, which turn out to be either minor help or actually harmful.

And this leads us back our poor English couple. There is no doubt that making divorce harder to get will keep some marriages together. But it will at least create some where people stay together and one ends up locking the other in the shed. It’s not at all clear to me that bad marriages prolonged will be offset by the happiness of marriages saved. Regardless, the issue from the government’s perspective should be its overall social value. And the conservative economic argument for it is very weak.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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