American Idle

Work was supposed to be liberating…


Now nonwork is

James Taranto writes:  Annie Lowrey, an economics reporter for the New York Times, has an essay in this coming weekend’s Times magazine rebutting what she calls “the policy solution du jour” to the problem of “how to alleviate poverty”–namely, “marriage promotion.” She makes a good case that the argument she’s rebutting is fallacious, then concludes by committing the same fallacy in reverse.


“Economists have done studies showing that if you snapped your fingers and suddenly all the country’s poor, unmarried partners were hitched . . . the poverty rate would drop,” a catchy if imprecise way of saying that there is a strong correlation between marriage and prosperity. “It’s a rare policy solution that data-crunching geeks and Bible-thumping crusaders can agree on,” she writes. “Unfortunately, there might not be much that Washington can actually do about it.”

Her argument is “that marriage–or a lack thereof–is not the real problem facing poor parents; being poor is.” The poorer you are, the argument goes, the more the risks of marriage outweigh the rewards:

In an economy that offers so little promise to those at the bottom, family planning in the name of upward mobility doesn’t make much sense. . . . Many poor women opt not to marry the poor men in their lives . . . to avoid bringing more economic chaos into their homes. And the poor women who do marry tend to have unstable marriages–often to ill effect.

Thus the conclusion:

From an economist’s perspective, our collective allergy to matrimony might be a macroeconomic issue: In order to save marriage, we’d have to end poverty. Creating good jobs with growing wages at the bottom of the income scale might be the best, if hardest, way to encourage young couples to wed. . . . And then we wouldn’t need policy wonks and politicians peddling marriage as a salve for poverty. How romantic!

There is, to say the least, a tension between the glib simplicity of Lowrey’s formulation “to save marriage, . . . end poverty” and her acknowledgment, in the next sentence, that it may be the “hardest way” of accomplishing that goal. Neither the economic nor the marital prospects of the poor are likely to change on a large scale in response to finger snaps.

Lowrey commits the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or mistaking correlation for causation. If the relationship between poverty and the decline of marriage were a matter of simple cause and effect–one way or the other–then one would expect poverty to have risen dramatically over the past few decades as marriage has declined. But that hasn’t happened.


The decline of marriage among poor and working-class Americans is a result of a variety of social and economic changes. Among them, as Lowrey notes, are “tidal economic forces,” namely “globalization, the decline of labor unions [and] technological change.”

She ignores the tidal social changes that have also contributed, namely the sexual revolution and the expectation that women will spend most of their adult lives in the workforce, which, as we’ve argued, reduced the incentives for both men and women to marry. It is no more feasible to turn the clock back on globalization or automation than on contraception or female labor-force participation. All of these developments represent progress, in that they were solutions to the problems of the past. All of them contribute to the problems of the present…

Read the rest…

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