This article originally appeared in The Atlantic on January 9, 2019.
The Fox News host Tucker Carlson delivered a monologue on the market and the family last week. It quickly found a large audience, becoming a viral sensation online. It also attracted a host of critics from across the political spectrum. Some of the fiercest criticism came from conservatives, including writers such as Ben Shapiro and David French, who attacked the very argument that we believe Carlson largely got right: Contemporary capitalism, small government conservatism, and elite negligence have all played a role in the fall of the working-class family.
Let’s review the three key points Carlson made regarding the erosion of marriage and family life in America. First, he argued that “increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.” French, a senior writer for National Review, objected to the idea that only the rich can marry, arguing that “affluence is not a prerequisite for marriage.”
But Carlson is onto something. A half century ago, there were not big differences in marriage and family life by class; the vast majority of Americans got and stayed married. Starting in the late ’60s, however, marriage eroded among the poor, and since the ’80s, it has lost considerable ground among the working class. Today, only minorities of poor adults (26 percent) and working-class adults (39 percent) ages 18 to 55 are married; by contrast, a majority (56 percent) of middle- and upper-class Americans age 18 to 55 are married.
In fact, dramatic increases in nonmarital childbearing, divorce, and family instability among the working class mean that only about 55 percent of children with working-class mothers will reach age 14 in a home headed by two biological parents. That compares to about 77 percent of children with college-educated mothers in more middle- and upper-class homes. While affluence may not be a “prerequisite for marriage,” it clearly helps to be educated and affluent if you wish to forge a strong The question is why. Carlson fingers bad public policies, market forces, and cultural developments for eroding the economic, social, and cultural foundations of family life in working-class America. In particular, he thinks federal policies are partly to blame for the decline in manufacturing jobs and in less-educated men’s wages. Because women still seek men who earn a decent wage, these declines in turn have led to a “drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow—more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.”
Carlson’s last key argument is simply that elites are complicit in all of this. They have flourished in today’s postindustrial economy, profited from policies and corporate moves that keep them at the top of the economic order, yet seem to evince little authentic concern that the currents they have ridden to success are undercutting the fortunes of those lower down the ladder. The “very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married,” he said, adding, “This is negligence on a massive scale. Both parties ignore the crisis in marriage.”
Carlson’s conservative critics argue that the TV host is barking up the wrong tree. While acknowledging that “a series of tectonic cultural” and economic changes—from the “mass-scale loss of religious faith” to a shift away from manufacturing—have destabilized American family life, French faults working-class and poor Americans for their own troubles. In the final analysis, “the primary responsibility for creating a life of virtue and purpose rests with families and individuals”—not government programs or elites. Shapiro adds, “If we fail to make virtuous decisions on an individual level, we can’t blame that on tariffs or payday lenders.”
Granted, no matter what obstacles you face in America, you’re more likely to overcome them if you believe that you’re in control of your own life and follow what has been called the “success sequence”—getting at least a high-school degree, working full-time, marrying, and having children, in that order.
Yet it’s possible to recognize the value of personal agency and nevertheless admit the extent to which the stagnation of working-class wages and increases in job instability for less-educated men have stemmed from elite policy choices. Appealing to a lack of virtue on the part of the poor or the working class is at best a category error, and at worst an all-purpose rhetorical device for neutralizing responsibility on the part of elite policy makers.
Declines in working-class marriage—and all the pathologies that have followed in their wake—cannot be divorced from policy and cultural choices that elites have made.
The work of the MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues, in particular, indicates that dramatic and sudden increases in global trade with China starting around 2000 affected both men’s earnings and their marriageability. In their words, “Trade shocks to manufacturing industries have particularly negative impacts on the labor market prospects of men and degrade their marriage-market value along multiple dimensions: diminishing their relative earnings—particularly at the lower segment of the distribution—reducing their physical availability in trade-impacted labor markets, and increasing their participation in risky and damaging behaviors.” They add that “adverse shocks to the supply of ‘marriageable’ men reduce the prevalence of marriage … but raise the fraction of children born to young and unwed mothers and living in poor single-parent households.”
These intertwined problems, then, were not the fault of a spontaneous decline in personal virtue. They were the fault of Washington elites who pursued a naive path of normalized trade with China that, in a matter of years, gutted millions of moderately educated workers of their decent-paying jobs, and without support in the way of adjustment assistance or wage insurance. Our elites had too much faith in a laissez-faire ideology that sees labor markets as automatically self-correcting but, in fact, exacted a terrible toll on scores of working-class families across the United States.
Cultural institutions also factor into this story. The primary shapers of our common culture—entertainers, journalists, educators, health-care professionals, politicians, and business executives—tend to challenge, downplay, or ignore the importance of strong and stable marriages in their public roles. Schools, child-care centers, and colleges, for instance, often celebrate atypical family structures or pass over the importance of marriage in classroom settings. In private, however, well-educated elites overwhelmingly value stable marriage for themselves and their kids. Indeed, they have “[reinvented] marriage as a child-rearing machine for a … knowledge economy” for themselves, as Richard Reeves, the co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, has noted, adding that the “glue for these marriages” is largely “a joint commitment to high-investment parenting.”
Just as Carlson suggested in his monologue, conservatives need to think more seriously about the role that contemporary capitalism, public policy, and culture have played in eroding the strength and stability of working-class family life. Americans share a collective responsibility for solving some of our most pressing social problems—and elites need to come to acknowledge their personal responsibility for bridging the class divide that has emerged on so many fronts.
W. BRADFORD WILCOX, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
SAMUEL HAMMOND is Director of Poverty and Welfare Policy for the Niskanen Center.