To sketch a brief history of welfare, it emerged in the nineteenth century as "Widows and orphans pensions", which were paid by the state to destitute families whose breadwinner had passed away. They were often not available to blacks; they were never available to unwed mothers. Though public services expanded in the first half of the twentieth century, that mentality was very much the same: public services were about supporting unfortunate families, not unwed mothers. Unwed mothers could not, in most cases, obtain welfare; they were not allowed in public housing (which was supposed to be--and was--a way station for young, struggling families on the way to homeownership, not a permanent abode); they were otherwise discriminated against by social services. The help you could expect from society was a home for wayward girls, in which you would give birth and then put the baby up for adoption.
The description of public housing in the fifties is shocking to anyone who's spent any time in modern public housing. Big item on the agenda at the tenant's meeting: housewives, don't shake your dustcloths out of the windows--other wives don't want your dirt in their apartment! Men, if you wear heavy work boots, please don't walk on the lawns until you can change into lighter shoes, as it damages the grass! (Descriptions taken from the invaluable book, The Inheritance, about the transition of the white working class from Democrat to Republican.) Needless to say, if those same housing projects could today find a majority of tenants who reliably dusted, or worked, they would be thrilled.
Public housing was, in short, a place full of functioning families.
Now, in the late fifties, a debate began over whether to extend benefits to the unmarried. It was unfair to stigmatise unwed mothers. Why shouldn't they be able to avail themselves of the benefits available to other citizens? The brutal societal prejudice against illegitimacy was old fashioned, bigoted, irrational.But if you give unmarried mothers money, said the critics, you will get more unmarried mothers.Ridiculous, said the proponents of the change. Being an unmarried mother is a brutal, thankless task. What kind of idiot would have a baby out of wedlock just because the state was willing to give her paltry welfare benefits?People do all sorts of idiotic things, said the critics. If you pay for something, you usually get more of it.C'mon said the activists. That's just silly. I just can't imagine anyone deciding to get pregnant out of wedlock simply because there are welfare benefits available.Oooops.Of course, change didn't happen overnight. But the marginal cases did have children out of wedlock, which made it more acceptable for the next marginal case to do so. Meanwhile, women who wanted to get married essentially found themselves in competition for young men with women who were willing to have sex, and bear children, without forcing the men to take any responsibility. This is a pretty attractive proposition for most young men. So despite the fact that the sixties brought us the biggest advance in birth control ever, illegitimacy exploded. In the early 1960s, a black illegitimacy rate of roughly 25 percent caused Daniel Patrick Moynihan to write a tract warning of a crisis in "the negro family" (a tract for which he was eviscerated by many of those selfsame activists.)By 1990, that rate was over 70 percent. This, despite the fact that the inner city, where the illegitimacy problem was biggest, only accounts for a fraction of the black population.But in that inner city, marriage had been destroyed. It had literally ceased to exist in any meaningful way. Possibly one of the most moving moments in Jason de Parle's absolutely wonderful book, American Dream, which follows three welfare mothers through welfare reform, is when he reveals that none of these three women, all in their late thirties, had ever been to a wedding.Marriage matters. It is better for the kids; it is better for the adults raising those kids; and it is better for the childless people in the communities where those kids and adults live. Marriage reduces poverty, improves kids outcomes in all measurable ways, makes men live longer and both spouses happier. Marriage, it turns out, is an incredibly important institution. It also turns out to be a lot more fragile than we thought back then. It looked, to those extremely smart and well-meaning welfare reformers, practically unshakeable; the idea that it could be undone by something as simple as enabling women to have children without husbands, seemed ludicrous. Its cultural underpinnings were far too firm. Why would a woman choose such a hard road? It seemed self-evident that the only unwed mothers claiming benefits would be the ones pushed there by terrible circumstance.
Divorce, in the nineteenth century, was unbelievably hard to get. It took years, was expensive, and required proving that your spouse had abandonned [sic] you for an extended period with no financial support; was (if male) not merely discreetly dallying but flagrantly carrying on; or was not just belting you one now and again when you got mouthy, but routinely pummeling you within an inch of your life. After you got divorced, you were a pariah in all but the largest cities. If you were a desperately wronged woman you might change your name, taking your maiden name as your first name and continuing to use your husband's last name to indicate that you expected to continue living as if you were married (i.e. chastely) and expect to have some limited intercourse with your neighbours, though of course you would not be invited to events held in a church, or evening affairs. Financially secure women generally (I am not making this up) moved to Europe; Edith Wharton, who moved to Paris when she got divorced, wrote moving stories about the way divorced women were shunned at home. Men, meanwhile (who were usually the respondants [sic]) could expect to see more than half their assets and income settled on their spouse and children.From the above passages, I conclude that society exhibits sensitivity to initial conditions. That is, a minor change can cause more minor changes, and, after a period of time, that series of minor changes adds up to a much more significant change. Given that conclusion, any change to society (through a change in law, for example) has the potential to cause further change. For that reason, change to society should not be engendered unless there is a good reason for it. Society will always change and evolve on its own, but any engendered change may have unpredictable, and undesirable, results.
There were, critics observed, a number of unhappy marriages in which people stuck together. Young people, who shouldn't have gotten married; older people, whose spouses were not physically abusive nor absent, nor flagrantly adulterous, but whose spouse was, for reasons of financial irresponsibility, mental viciousness, or some other major flaw, destroying their life. Why not make divorce easier to get? Rather than requiring people to show that there was an unforgiveable, physically visible, cause that the marriage should be dissolved, why not let people who wanted to get divorced agree to do so?
Because if you make divorce easier, said the critics, you will get much more of it, and divorce is bad for society.
That's ridiculous! said the reformers. (Can we sing it all together now?) People stay married because marriage is a bedrock institution of our society, not because of some law! The only people who get divorced will be people who have terrible problems! A few percentage points at most!
Oops. When the law changed, the institution changed. The marginal divorce made the next one easier. Again, the magnitude of the change swamped the dire predictions of the anti-reformist wing; no one could have imagined, in their wildest dreams, a day when half of all marriages ended in divorce.
There were actually two big changes; the first, when divorce laws were amended in most states to make it easier to get a divorce; and the second, when "no fault" divorce allowed one spouse to unilaterally end the marriage. The second change produced another huge surge in the divorce rate, and a nice decline in the incomes of divorced women; it seems advocates had failed to anticipate that removing the leverage of the financially weaker party to hold out for a good settlement would result in men keeping more of their earnings to themselves.
What's more, easy divorce didn't only change the divorce rate; it made drastic changes to the institution of marriage itself. David Brooks makes an argument I find convincing: that the proliferation of the kind of extravagent [sic] weddings that used to only be the province of high society (rented venue, extravagent [sic] flowers and food, hundreds of guests, a band with dancing, dresses that cost the same as a good used car) is because the event itself doesn't mean nearly as much as it used to, so we have to turn it into a three-ring circus to feel like we're really doing something.
A couple in 1940 (and even more so in 1910) could go to a minister's parlor, or a justice of the peace, and in five minutes totally change their lives. Unless you are a member of certain highly religious subcultures, this is simply no longer true. That is, of course, partly because of the sexual revolution and the emancipation of women; but it is also because you aren't really making a lifetime committment [sic]; you're making a lifetime committment [sic] unless you find something better to do. There is no way, psychologically, to make the latter as big an event as the former, and when you lost that committment [sic], you lose, on the margin, some willingness to make the marriage work.
See also this post in which I talk about traditional gender roles and this post in which I talk about the innocence of children.