Recently, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ruminated on the possibilities of promoting marriage to young people through social policy and social shaming. The article was mostly geared to low-income and working-class demographics, given that this group is less likely to marry than middle and upper classes. (But such an initiative would effect other demographics as well, of course). Douthat states:

1) the kind of family stability America enjoyed 50 years ago had massive social and personal benefits, 2) that the socioeconomic benefits of family stability have, if anything, increased as marriage has gone into decline, and 3) that policymakers should therefore look for ways to make it easier for stable, two-parent homes to be formed and then endure.

I don’t dispute that marriage does have benefits. However, marriage isn’t just a ceremony and a cake; it is a financial contract. As I would assume Douthat would agree, one should not enter into a financial contract without considering both the benefits and the risks. Sadly, the risks of marriage are dire.

Divorces are disastrous. The divorce industry enriches the courts, law enforcement, and lawyers, while often greatly favoring the female spouse.  Yet, efforts to make alimony more fair are often met with bipartisan opposition, such as in Florida when “Tea Party” Governor Rick Scott vetoed just such a bill.

If there are children in the divorce, the risks become even more dire. Child support enforcement is notorious for placing unfair burdens on one spouse while failing to hold the parent with primary custody responsible for their end of the bargain. Failure to meet child support obligations often result in the noncustodial parent being thrown in debtor’s prison. Last but not least, divorce has dire effects on children and often result in the child being raised in a single parent home, associated with its own risks.

With the advent of no-fault divorce (an innovation in family law that has long enjoyed bipartisan support) spouses can initiate divorce for any reason, or no reason. While it will be nearly impossible to roll back no-fault divorce, spouses should not be incentivized to blow up marriages with the promise of cash and prizes. Reforms are needed in family courts.

Now, let’s look at the other side: the great incentives for young people to stay single: Sexual intercourse is easy to obtain, especially if one is attractive and/or willing to visit a sex worker. A deluge of sexual excitement can be had instantly on the internet. There is a wealth of non-sexual free and low-cost entertainments one can immerse themselves in.

There is little shame in being a single person these days, and being a single parent is not met with as much shaming as it used to. Employed single people are regarded as a valuable resource by many employers. And if one doesn’t have a job, or only has a minimum income, that is supplemented by a large social safety net, which is often enough for people with no life aspirations. Given the colossal risks associated with marriage, and the comparable benefits of singlehood, is it any surprise young people are increasingly choosing the latter?

The proponents of marriage do recognize the incentives of singlehood. In response, they have ramped up attempts to shame young people (especially men) who stay single. And propose social engineering schemes to promote marriage, a la Douthat. Yet they are conspicuous in their silence on the problems with divorce and family law. Their silence may be out of ignorance or apathy, or perhaps they support the family court system as – is.  But until the proponents of marriage turn the corner on this, their efforts should be regarded as halfhearted at best.

P.S.- not all marriage proponents are like that.

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