Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post writes:
The discouraging March employment report, with a job increase of only 88,000, raises questions well beyond the dreary state of today’s labor market. Prolonged high unemployment may be silently shredding the social fabric in ways that last for decades. Even before the Great Recession, men with a high school diploma or less faced lower wages and a harder time finding work. This made them less attractive as husbands, contributing to the growth of single-parent families. Stubbornly high unemployment almost certainly aggravates these destructive trends.
It’s hard to overstate the breakdown of marriage and the rise of single-parent families. Consider out-of-wedlock births. In 1980, about 18 percent of births were to unmarried women; by 2009, the proportion was 41 percent. Among whites, the increase was from 11 percent to 36 percent; among African Americans, from 56 percent to 72 percent; among Hispanics, from 37 percent (1990) to 53 percent. Or look at the share of children living with two parents. Since 1970, that’s dropped from 82 percent to 63 percent. Among whites, the decline is from 87 percent to 73 percent; among African Americans, from 57 percent to 31 percent; among Hispanics, from 78 percent to 57 percent.
Just what caused these changes remains controversial. In his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute cited shifts in cultural norms. Having a child out of wedlock became more common and acceptable; the sexual revolution enabled men to get sex without marriage. The waning power of religion undermined the importance of family. Feminism and expanding welfare programs made it easier for women to survive — through jobs or aid — on their own. Liberalized divorce led to more breakups.
But there’s also a more strictly economic case. In a paper for Third Way, a liberal think tank, economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology attribute the decline of marriage — which, like Murray, they say is concentrated among the poorly educated — to the eroding economic heft of men compared with women. Women are more independent economically; men are weaker. Marriage has lost much of its pecuniary pull.