Public support of same-sex marriage just might signal a truce in the culture wars

But there's an unrelated family crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in what could be a definitive case on the constitutionality of banning same-sex marriage. We won’t know until the ruling comes sometime this summer.

Same-sex marriage as an “Issue” is remarkable and important. It is remarkable because public attitudes have evolved with unprecedented speed. It would be hard to pluck a parallel from American history. It is important, among other reasons, because a very concrete, government-sponsored type of discrimination could be outlawed.

I’d like to briefly bring up two closely related ideas that I think are interesting, especially when all taken together.

Crisis of marriage and family

There is a real crisis of marriage and family in America. But it has nothing to do with gay marriage. It has everything to do with children and their fate.

The critical problem is the steep and probably unstoppable rise in the number of children born without two parents at home. Most children born without two parents at home were unplanned -- and planning turns out to be a key variable in a child’s future.

Traditional marriage is one form of planned, well-structured parenting; it is obviously one of the oldest forms and it had moral, symbolic and legal sanctioning in almost all societies. But other structures can work just work fine but only, as a rule, when they are premeditated and organized. They are becoming more popular, though mostly among the better off: same-sex marriage, committed partnerships, “living together” and even single-parenting when it is planned and there are ample resources.

Isabel Sawhill is the authority on this and has been for decades. Her most recent book is called “Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage.” The key word in the title is actually “drifting.”

In 2012, Sawhill writes, 28 percent of families with children had a single mother and a much smaller percentage had a single father. The major cause is not divorce (the divorce rate is actually declining) but unwed childbearing, which is predominantly unplanned.

“Does it matter if some people drift while others plan?” Sawhill asks. “Yes, Hugely.”

Children raised in single-parent families typically do not do as well as those raised in married families. Generalizations are dangerous; many single parents are doing a terrific job under difficult circumstances. But on average, children from single-parent families do worse in school and in life. These children are four times more likely to be poor than those with married parents. Two parents have not just more income but also more time and other resources.

Sawhill suggests framing the social challenge as trying to foster more “planners” and fewer “drifters,” as opposed to the old way of just encouraging marriage.

Obviously and unfortunately, the distribution of planners and drifters in society is determined mostly by income but also race and education. Two-thirds of black children, according to Sawhill, live in single parent homes. Nearly 60 percent of women without college degrees have children without marriage.

The chasm between drifters and planners is more destructive and long lasting than the gap between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. “Add the divide in family formation patterns to the growing gaps in other arenas and the result is a toxic combination that is likely to reduce social mobility and threatens to produce a more permanently divided society in the United States,” Sawhill writes.

The solutions from people on the left -- Sawhill calls them “village builders” -- try to provide structural social support for drifters and low-income families: better education, more subsidized day-care and more income support for single parents. The “traditionalists” on the right believe the solutions must come from culture and values and that means rebuilding the institution of marriage, somehow; enduring income assistance can come only from free markets, not government. I think most people believe both approaches are required.

Some traditionalists are convinced that a society that sanctions same-sex marriage somehow broadly undermines traditional marriage. That view seems to be evaporating quickly.

In just a few years, we might see the unequal treatment of same-sex marriage as a solved problem and an important step in the slow decline of prejudice stemming from sexual preference.

That isn’t going to happen with the family gap. It’s a problem too big and vexing to even function in our debates as a discrete, single Issue.  (“Issues” with a capital “I” have their own nicknames: abortion, gun control, immigration, Iran, unemployment or Benghazi.)  But it probably is the biggest domestic “Issue” of all. One problem is that the people in trouble have no clout and no money; the people with clout and money worry the solutions could raise their taxes and increase the competition their kids and grandkids might face someday.

Perhaps if the Supreme Court rules in their favor, the architects of this remarkable achievement on same-sex marriage could lend a hand to the problem of no marriage.

Divorce, politics-wise

The shift in American public opinion about same-sex marriage, as I’ve noted, has come at supersonic speed by any historical perspective. Here’s the magic chart from Gallup:

Image caption here

This happened at a time when America, according to what I would call the standard narrative, was fighting a culture war and becoming more politically polarized, uncompromising and partisan.

What tantalizes me is the idea this could be a symptom of something genuinely positive, a looming truce in the culture war. It’s only a hunch, or maybe a hope. I can’t marshal any real evidence. There is plenty of evidence that the media has consistently exaggerated the depth and intensity of the culture war and political polarization. Mostly that’s because we forget that the most politically engaged people are not at all typical, they’re way more extreme and rigid.

I can find evidence that counters my wish-hunch. For example, attitudes on abortion are unchanged over the past 20 years and they are polarized:

Image caption here

Public opinion about gun control has become much more polarized:

Two Years After Newtown, A Shift in Favor of Gun Rights

Gun control is one issue where there is virtually no common ground, where both sides feel threatened and where the emotions never wane. Immigration is similar. Many thought the tragedy of 9/11 would be a uniting event. It wasn’t.

On the other hand, Americans on both ends of the spectrum share deep mistrust of Hollywood, Wall Street and Washington. Resentment about the historically extraordinary concentration of wealth and income in the top 1 percent could, conceivably, be a source of solidarity across ideological inclination, though it never has in America.

Like marriage, the institutions that brought people from different corners of communities together are also in trouble: religious congregations, civic booster groups and, of course, bowling leagues.

Still, the counterintuitive idea that acceptance of gay marriage is more an act of culture peace than culture war is interesting and worth following.

[Podcast featuring Isabel Sawhill: Tackling unwanted pregnancies]

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