Watson panel extols virtues of marriage

Professor of Economics Glenn Loury and Professor W. Brad Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, engaged in a discussion titled “Perspectives on Family Structure, Marriage, and Inequality” last night. The two professors examined how marriage can affect social and economic trends, and Wilcox ultimately offered a defense of the institution of marriage.

Wilcox began by contextualizing the state of marriage in the United States: “Since the 1960s, we have seen a retreat from marriage that has impacted less educated, less affluent and minority Americans much more than it has affected upper-middle-class and college-educated Americans.”

He cited data indicating that 77 percent of teens in college-educated homes live with both parents, compared to only about half of teens from less educated homes. This decline in marriage poses a great risk to the economic and social well-being of future generations, Wilcox said. With links to higher income, greater economic stability and social benefits, raising a child in a two-parent household is the “gold standard” of relationships, he said. “What marriage signals is a higher threshold of commitment, which engenders a sense of trust and emotional security and responsibility.”

Wilcox also pointed to evidence showing the benefits that marriage affords to adults, children and the community. In research on male twins, those who married were likely to earn more money, he said. Additionally, children from two-parent families are more likely to “steer clear of drug and alcohol abuse.” Children raised in neighborhoods with more two-parent families are also more likely to experience “upper mobility and less incarceration,” Wilcox said.

To counteract the decline of marriage in the United States, Wilcox suggested both a “cultural agenda and a policy and economic agenda” to make marriage more attainable for young Americans.

Wilcox said that this must begin with reforms to Medicaid, food stamps, childcare and Pell Grants to “stop penalizing marriage” for working-class Americans. “Lower-income couples often will stand to lose access (to these programs) if they combine their income, get married and report that joint income,” he said.

Wilcox and Loury also discussed the racial disparity in marriage rates, noting the lower rate among black Americans in particular. Wilcox attributed this difference in rate to the lasting effects of practices that often separated families including “slavery (and) Jim Crow,” on top of discriminatory policies in the 1960s and 1970s.

While discussing race is important, Loury emphasized that marriage should also be “taken into the context of the incredible social upheaval around sexuality, … gender identity and self-expression.”

In the case of same-sex relationships, Wilcox predicted that those who do marry would benefit economically. Wilcox said children of same sex couples may do “less well,” given current data on children raised in non-biological adoptive families.

At a question-and-answer session following the event, one audience member agreed with the basic tenets of the discussion. But they raised concerns about Wilcox’s framework, which could minimize the validity of same-sex marriages and a woman’s agency to leave an abusive marriage.

Micah Bruning ’22 attended the event and appreciated the dialogue between Loury and Wilcox, given their differing areas of expertise. “It was interesting how Professor Loury reframed a lot of points into an economics perspective, whereas (Wilcox) offered a lot more empirical evidence in support of traditional marriage,” Bruning said. Still, he acknowledged that some students at Brown might find it hard to reconcile liberal or feminist views with Wilcox’s more traditional view of marriage. “The typical Brown student would ask if this idea of traditional marriage goes against the narrative of single woman empowerment.”

Daniel Newman ’21 enjoyed the discussion on the interplay between marriage and the government, but he felt that the benefits of marriage were overstated. “I don’t really think marriage is necessarily better than remaining unmarried,” he said. “Cohabitation and dating aren’t so different from marriage.”

The event, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute at Brown in conjunction with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, was moderated by Ethan Shire ’19, chairman of the AEI at Brown Executive Council.

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