Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Why Has the Low Income Nuclear Family Disapeared?

By Robert H.

David Putnam wrote a book about how the nuclear family no longer exists among low-income Americans.  Why has this happened?

It's about shifting norms and the breakdown of morals.  Or no, it is a socio-economic thing.  Or no, maybe it is a norms thing since the poor were always with us and were always poor, so why would their marriage patterns diverge unless social norms diverged?  Etc. etc.

This is really bad analysis, and I've been seeing a lot of it on the internet.  We're really asking two questions here, and both have superficially easy legal answers. Question 1, Why did poor people stop getting married as much, starting around the 60's?  Superficially easy answer: women got other ways to make a living, at least in part because of they made employment discrimination illegal and expanded welfare, so they stopped prioritizing marriage.  Further, since the 60's it has become easier and easier to have a child out of wedlock and still get the father to be forced to support it, as states have signed onto UIFSA , increased resources to the attorneys general, increased enforcement sanctions, etc., so that's another reason to not prefer marriage.  Question 2, Why did the poor start splitting up more?  Superficially easy answer: they made no fault divorce legal

Again, those answers are superficial and would not hold up under in depth analysis.  But they are still important.  They would be a factor.  We are, after all, talking about enormous changes in American family structure coterminous with or preceded by enormous changes in American family law.  Make the connection! 

But how can legal changes lead to big changes in low-income family structures but not high income family structures?  Doesn't the law affect everyone?  Well, use your imagination!  You could argue, for example, that lower income people, unlike higher income people, always had a preference for more diffuse family groups, then legal changes starting the 60's finally let them express it.  Norms and economic pressures didn't change so much as they were revealed.   Alternately, perhaps some of these legal changes affected poor people more than affluent people.  For example, no-property divorces can be orders of magnitude cheaper and easier than divorces between people with significant assets.  Perhaps the shift to no-fault divorce made divorce a cheap and readily available option to poor people, but for the rich divorce is still often a long, grinding, economically damaging prospect, so the advent of no-fault divorce had much less of an effect.  Perhaps the creation of streamlined processes for adjudicating support lowered the cost of having an out-of-wedlock baby for low income people, but not high income people who still prefer the old, more expensive, arguably-worth-it rout of going to district court.  Etc. Etc.

Again, I'm not wedded to the argument that legal changes changed society.  The arrows normally run both ways there.  But arguing about this stuff without even addressing the massive legal changes is crazy!

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