The work of the MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues, in particular, indicates that dramatic and sudden increases in global trade with China starting around 2000 affected both men’s earnings and their marriageability. In their words, “Trade shocks to manufacturing industries have particularly negative impacts on the labor market prospects of men and degrade their marriage-market value along multiple dimensions: diminishing their relative earnings—particularly at the lower segment of the distribution—reducing their physical availability in trade-impacted labor markets, and increasing their participation in risky and damaging behaviors.” They add that “adverse shocks to the supply of ‘marriageable’ men reduce the prevalence of marriage … but raise the fraction of children born to young and unwed mothers and living in poor single-parent households.”
These intertwined problems, then, were not the fault of a spontaneous decline in personal virtue. They were the fault of Washington elites who pursued a naive path of normalized trade with China that, in a matter of years, gutted millions of moderately educated workers of their decent-paying jobs, and without support in the way of adjustment assistance or wage insurance. Our elites had too much faith in a laissez-faire ideology that sees labor markets as automatically self-correcting but, in fact, exacted a terrible toll on scores of working-class families across the United States.
Cultural institutions also factor into this story. The primary shapers of our common culture—entertainers, journalists, educators, health-care professionals, politicians, and business executives—tend to challenge, downplay, or ignore the importance of strong and stable marriages in their public roles. Schools, child-care centers, and colleges, for instance, often celebrate atypical family structures or pass over the importance of marriage in classroom settings. In private, however, well-educated elites overwhelmingly value stable marriage for themselves and their kids. Indeed, they have “[reinvented] marriage as a child-rearing machine for a … knowledge economy” for themselves, as Richard Reeves, the co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, has noted, adding that the “glue for these marriages” is largely “a joint commitment to high-investment parenting.”
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