Talking Left, Walking Right

17 Sep 2020

STI author and UVA Sociology Professor Brad Wilcox sheds a light on one of the unfortunate ways that elites perpetuate their advantages in an interview about marriage in America with Jonah Goldberg. Wilcox talks about why marriage matters for kids, why it’s in trouble among working-class and poor Americans, and why it’s getting stronger among more educated and affluent Americans.

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“Marriage matters for kids, for adults and also for communities in very important ways,” says W. Bradford Wilcox. As Director of the National Marriage Project, the UVA sociology professor has done a lot of research over the years that reveals marriage to be a stability maximizer for individuals, for families, and for society. People who follow the so-called “success sequence” -education, job, marriage, children – in that order – are more likely to do well by numerous measures, the most important of which is staying out of poverty.  Among other positive outcomes is a higher likelihood of remaining married, which furthers the virtuous cycle that includes the children of these unions and gives them a leg up to repeat it. 

Much of his recent research draws attention to the class divide in America with regard to family stability and resulting family outcomes. The volume Unequal Family Lives: Causes and Consequences in Europe and the Americas explores how social and economic inequality both affect and are affected by family structure. Wilcox co-edited the volume, which includes chapters by authors from all over the political spectrum. The research can speak for itself, beyond conservative/liberal or right/left positions. 

Some researchers who agree on the facts do not agree on the root cause or the solution.  Wilcox is among those who believe that social and cultural norms play a part in creating inequalities that later tend to repeat themselves, while others stress the importance of economic factors that could be addressed better by economic policy than by cultural reform.  He and co-editor Naomi Cahn debated this “chicken and egg” question at an STI-sponsored event in New York, Money vs. Marriage: What’s Driving Inequality in America. The two scholars come at the same questions from different angles, but their goal is the same – to equip the public and public authorities with information to help them make informed choices in the best interest of individuals and society as a whole. Yet Wilcox is sometimes criticized for asserting these findings, as if they somehow “blame the victim,” treating structural inequalities as matters of choice that could have been avoided. 

Wilcox supports public policy initiatives to reduce this gap, such as strengthening the labor market for working-class Americans and ending the marriage penalty in means-tested social welfare programs, as he recounts in his chat with his American Enterprise Institute colleague, Goldberg.  But he argues that cultural attitudes matter, and that much of American popular culture embraces an attitude towards family that is counterproductive to flourishing.

The irony he takes on in the interview, as expressed by its title, is that many people in positions of privilege themselves practice a “family first” lifestyle, while publicly promoting an “anything goes, family diversity” ethic that may well contribute to holding back the less fortunate.  Effects are felt beyond the individual level, he says. “The share of two-parent families in a neighborhood is a high predictor of rags to riches mobility.”

So why are so many elites reticent to preach what they practice?  Listen to the podcast.