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Family and the American Dream

The so-called “American Dream” is an ideal rooted deeply in the founding of our nation. According to this ideal, many people can achieve prosperity and success through hard work and perseverance. Dr. Brad Wilcox from the University of Virginia argues, however, that this success can be closely linked to the strength of the American family, and that our nation needs strong families if it is to truly thrive.

Dr. Wilcox is a professor of sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project, and he has recently published an article entitled “First Family, Then Freedom,” discussing this correlation between the American Dream and the American family. Dr. Wilcox joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.

According to Dr. Wilcox’s research, “Young adults who marry before having kids are 60 percent less likely to end up poor compared to their peers who put childbearing before marriage. The idea here is that marriage—because it brings two adults together, because it engenders a sense of stability—tends to lift the economic fortunes in young adults.”

But it isn’t just financial success that can accompany marriage, says Dr. Wilcox. It can also sadly be the difference between life and death in many cases. “Unmarried men are more likely to end up committing suicide directly, or killing themselves by drinking or using drugs to excess. The point here simply is that the growth of non-marriage among working-class Americans has proved fatal for many across the country.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Brad Wilcox expand on how families connect to achieving the American Dream, and how public policies can help families thrive.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Family and the American Dream

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. What image comes to your mind when you think of the “American Dream”? Our guest today contends that the success that most people associate with achieving this dream may most closely connect to the strength of America’s families and that the America we know and love grows fatally weak without strong families.

Dr. Brad Wilcox is a professor of sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. In June, he published an article in the American Mind entitled “First Family, Then Freedom,” and we’re going to explore that concept with him today.

Dr. Brad Wilcox, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

DR. BRAD WILCOX: It’s great to be here with y’all today.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, the most recent data shows record low rates for marriage and fertility in the U.S. in both 2018 and 2019. In your recent article, you said, “The decline of the American family has put the success of the American experiment in question.” Strong words, so why?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: Well, a strong country depends upon strong families. And we know that kids are more likely to flourish, that men and women are more likely to be doing well economically and otherwise when marriage grounds and guides our lives. So, the fact that we have seen these record declines in marriage and fertility in the country in recent years is cause for concern.

TRACI GRIGGS: Dr. Wilcox, you talk about the “success sequence.” What is that, and why has it been found to be so important?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: The “success sequence” is the idea that we should take three steps as we move into adulthood. The first is to complete our education; it could be vocational training or a college degree. The second is to work full-time. The third is to marry and doing these things before we have children. I think particularly, you know, for our audience today, thinking about putting marriage before the baby carriage. Young adults who do that today, even today, are much more likely to avoid poverty and much more likely to realize the American dream, moving into middle-class or higher. In fact, young adults today who followed the sequence have only a three percent risk of being poor by the time they reached their late twenties or their early thirties. So again, it’s sort of education-work-marriage in that order before having children.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, when we talk about reducing poverty in America, why do you believe it’s important that solutions should serve to also strengthen marriage?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: Well, you know, I think a lot of people on the left and the right agree that education and work are crucial for forging a strong economic future here in America today. Where there’s less agreement is sort of how marriage kind of fits into all this, whether marriage per se is important when it comes to economic outcomes for Americans and their kids today. And what I think we should stress here is that the data’s clear. We see in our research for instance that young adults who marry before having kids are about 60 percent less likely to end up poor compared to their peers who put childbearing before marriage. So, the idea here is that marriage, because it brings two adults together, because it engenders a sense of stability, tends to lift the economic fortunes in young adults and especially their kids. We know for instance that basically kids and single-parent families are about four times more likely to be in child poverty compared to married parents. And that’s partly because kids with married parents have access to more income, and they have access to greater financial stability as well, because those two parents can draw not just on their own ability to work, but also on the resources of their own parents and kin more generally.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, you also say in your article, again the name of that is “First Family, Then Freedom,” you say that marriage is strongly associated with the rule of law in communities. What do you mean by that?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: What I mean by that is we know that young men are more likely to avoid trouble with the law if they’re raised in a stable, married family with a father present. We know that neighborhoods that have more married parents or more two-parent families are more likely to be safer and have lower rates of incarceration. There’s just a lot of evidence out there basically that strong families promote the rule of law at the individual, the community, and the state levels.

TRACI GRIGGS: In your research, you also found a connection between employment, depression, and marriage. Talk about that.

DR. BRAD WILCOX: So, yeah, there’s a good deal of research that’s emerging. We’ve been reading about all these depths of despair in America. Unfortunately many Americans, especially many working-class men, are basically committing suicide or using drugs or alcohol to excess and ending up dying because of substance abuse. So again, we’re hearing about all these depths of despair across the United States. And what’s clear in the research is that unmarried men—men who are either never married or men who are divorced—are more likely to end up committing suicide directly, or basically killing themselves by drinking themselves, or using drugs to excess. The point here simply is that the growth of non-marriage among working-class Americans has proved fatal for many Americans across this country.

TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned that these policies that contribute to the decline in strong families are not confined to one political party. Explain that a little bit.

DR. BRAD WILCOX: Well, you know, I think people like myself, who’ve been writing about family issues and thinking about them for a long time, have tended to kind of finger cultural developments as the primary cause for our family predicament today. And in that regard, the left bares the lion’s share of the blame for what’s been happening to our family. But I think it’s important for us to understand and acknowledge that economic changes in American life that have undercut working-class jobs also are implicated in the decline of marriage and working-class communities across this country. We know for instance that the Chinese movement into the World Trade Organization in 2001 led to the loss of about 1 million decent paying, great jobs across this country of ours. And that in turn led to more divorce, more non-male childbearing, and more single parenthood. And that support for free trade with China was part and parcel of the Republican agenda, and it has been for many years since then.

So, I think that to recognize that sort of the idea that all we need to do is kind of minimize regulations, bring tax rates down, and talk about freedom and liberty, as many Republicans have in the last 40 years or so, is no longer enough. We have to pursue a new agenda when we’re talking about conservatives or Republicans, and that new agenda would incorporate a much more aggressive and pursuing educational and economic policies that lift up the economic fortunes of working-class families.

The challenge facing Democrats is that more generally they’re focused on redistribution rather than on work and marriage. And I know that there is some openness on the part of Republicans for instance to fixing the marriage penalty that a lot of us see playing out in policies like Medicaid, where there hasn’t been kind of a comparable effort on the part of Democrats to really address things like the marriage penalty and our means-tested programs and policies like Medicaid. I think the Democrats could be more attentive to the ways in which our public policies today tend to penalize marriage and also more attentive to the importance of shifting our focus when it comes to education away from college and towards vocational education. So, I mean, I think both parties have been falling down when it comes to doing more to strengthen and highlight the importance of vocational education for young adults.

TRACI GRIGGS: If you would, I mentioned the marriage penalty to someone the other day, and they looked at me very strangely. Could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: In America, we have means-tested programs for a lot of our programs serving lower income families. So, when it comes to Medicaid for instance, which is actually the biggest means-tested program now in America today. What Medicaid does is it provides free medical care to low-income families, and it has a threshold. But what that means basically is that it’s a lot easier for families where say the mom is earning $15,000 and the dad is earning say $35,000, sort of working-class jobs, and their total income would be around $50,000 for that couple with say two children. And I spoke to a couple like this in Virginia a little while ago; they can access Medicaid if they only apply with the mother and the two kids. But really to marry and come forward with a joint income of $50,000 and two kids they would not be eligible for Medicaid.

So, what’s happening is that a lot of working-class families nowadays are just co-habiting rather than marrying, partly because they have kind of the knowledge—either explicit or implicit—that marrying would disqualify them from accessing things like free medical insurance through Medicaid. This family I was just mentioning here in Virginia, the father did not have access to healthcare through his company, and so the only kind of inexpensive way for them to get medical care was to use Medicaid. And so, they are not married in large part because marrying would force them to get rid of their medical insurance. This is the kind of thing that I think confronts a good number of working-class couples with kids today in America. And it’s a crying shame that we force people to choose between things like marrying and providing medical insurance to their kids.

TRACI GRIGGS: Another thing that you said earlier was, you talked about being stably employed. I’ve done some reading about that and the gig economy, of course, which is people that are maybe more contract workers, lack stability. Why is that such an issue, do you think, in marriage?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: What we see is that for many Americans having particularly the husband stably employed, is a big predictor of getting married in the first place, and staying married in the second place. So, when the man is not stably married, the couple is much more reluctant to lock it in with a wedding. And when he loses a full-time stable job, they’re much more likely to descend into a cycle of conflict, disappointment, and divorce. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. So that’s why I think we should be concerned by a new economy that’s much more unstable for many Americans.

TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned a couple of times also education that is a primary tool for influencing marriage. So what specific education policies, any more that you haven’t spoken about yet?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: To be more precise, what I’ve seen, and I have a large family, got nine kids, and they’re all very different from one another, and what we’ve seen kind of in our community is the kids who are not in that college track just don’t get the same time and attention and consideration in many public schools and many private schools as well, actually. And that’s the tragedy because not everyone has the orientation, the inclination to attend a four-year college or university. We spend a lot more money at the federal level and the state level and the local level, preparing young adults for college than we do on preparing them for a vocational path like doing high team work, advanced manufacturing, you know, plumbing, working in the food service sector, etc. So concretely, there are programs like career academies for instance, rolling out across the United States, and these programs provide high quality vocational training to young adults who are not in that college track. And they give them skills and opportunities and often lead to apprenticeships with real employers that can get them on the track to a good paying middle-income job. And we need to see a greater focus from our local schools, our state education agencies, and the federal U.S. Department of Education to increase our focus and our support for these kinds of vocational educational efforts.

TRACI GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Dr. Wilcox, where can our listeners go to learn more about your research?

DR. BRAD WILCOX: is a great place to go to see more about research that I do and my colleagues. And then you can also follow me on Twitter @WilcoxNMP.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, thank you very much, Dr. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

DR. BRAD WILCOX: Thanks for having me today. It’s been a pleasure.

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