The inequality that matters

“We didn’t have a dramatic increase in unwed childbearing back in the Great Depression,” sociologist Brad Wilcox told me. “That’s in part because we had a very different understanding of family life and sex and marriage back then. That tells us that it’s not just economic. It’s also about culture and law.”

Almost everyone I interviewed, from conservative to liberal, viewed what’s happening to the family at the bottom as a problem. The people in these unstable families lose out on the life-improving benefits of marriage. They drastically increase their financial insecurity, because of course it is more expensive to support two households than one, and the legal battles to get money for the kids are time consuming and may even discourage men facing child support garnishment orders from working. And an unstable family is less able to invest in kids, which harms their chances in life. If you’re a nice upper middle-class writer with loads of social support and cultural capital, this may not matter much. But for folks without college degrees, it can be disastrous. It makes all the other problems harder to fix: It’s hard to get three kids from three different fathers through high school and college if you’re the only adult in the household, and your credit cards are always maxed out.

Almost everyone viewed this disaster as a product of both cultural and economic change that would need both cultural and economic solutions. And not just taxes and transfers, because those don’t fix the problem — Swedish kids from single-parent homes also have higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and so forth, despite a generous welfare state. What’s needed are jobs, and the cultural institutions that sustain strong families and other social relationships. But how does such cultural change take place?