WASHINGTON — Mention the economics of marriage, and young people's thoughts are likely to turn to such questions as whether — given their modest paychecks and tiny savings accounts — they can afford to get married.
Good question, of course. But David Blankenhorn, who heads the Institute for American Values, has a different one: Can you afford not to get married?
Blankenhorn isn't proposing that everybody rush pell-mell into marriage, of course. But he most definitely thinks marriage is vastly underrated these days — and for economic reasons as well as those having to do with the welfare of children. Marriage, he insists, improves economics.
This, he told me in a telephone interview from his Manhattan headquarters last week, is a relatively new discovery for him. "The old thinking was that if a man could get his economics straightened out, he was then in a position for this good thing called marriage to happen. It's still true, of course, that we have to provide jobs and job preparation. But what we're now starting to understand is that, for reasons both obvious and subtle, marriage helps get the economics straight."
The obvious influences include economic cooperation between spouses as well as economies of scale — one apartment, one set of furniture and appliances and so on. But marriage also involves the economic attributes of business partnerships: long-term, trusting and sharing relationships, mutual dependency and the mutual offsetting of weaknesses.
And more yet: Marriage changes attitudes. This is something Charles Ballard, a leader in the responsible fatherhood movement, discovered years ago. When he set out to get young men to claim responsibility for their out-of-wedlock children, he found that the very fact of that responsibility led, first, to a greater likelihood of marriage and, second, to more responsible economic behavior. Young men who were thought to be unqualified for work often found work once they accepted their economic responsibility.
Says Blankenhorn: "Guys who used to hang out all hours, overindulge, waste their paychecks on stupid things and take little care for the future will, when they get married, start thinking about pooling resources, buying homes, getting insurance, working harder and for longer hours, being more responsible on the job — all of which improves their economics."
Interestingly, it is men, not women, who are most likely to change their economic behavior after marriage.
Blankenhorn isn't saying that anybody should get married in order to change his economic behavior. He's saying merely that marriage does change economic behavior — and, as a result, changes the economic prospects of families. Indeed, he makes the prediction that in a few years, the new dividing line between society's haves and have-nots will be marriage. "The privileged majority will consist of those who form stable marriages; the disadvantaged and quite sizable minority will consist of those who do not."
Which raises for him — shades of Pat Moynihan — the specter of a new racial divide. "By age 30, about 80 percent of white women, but only 45 percent of black women, have married. Forget for a moment about child development, social expectations or family values. Just follow where the money is likely to go. A primary gateway to economic success is marriage, and my fear is that, unless something changes, this generation of young African Americans — and I'm talking about college-educated young people — will miss out on probably their most important path into the middle class."
It's worth pointing out that these matters are particularly on Blankenhorn's mind because his Institute for American Values has just teamed with the Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education and the Religion, Culture and Family Project of the University of Chicago to produce a handbook for a fledgling "marriage movement."
Experts from a vast range of fields and ideologies have come together around the twin themes that marriage in America is on the decline and that it is dangerous folly to sit back as though we are helpless to do anything about it.
The new "marriage movement" booklet discusses some possible remedies. But perhaps the most important first step is to start talking about it.
William Raspberry's e-mail address is email@example.com. Washington Post Writers Group