Marriage is an Institution for the Rich

(Pablo Heimplatz, Unsplash)


When people talk about large-scale social crisis in the United States the topic eventually gravitates straight toward marriage. Or more precisely, the current lack of it.

If children are in crisis it is because marriage is in crisis. If loneliness is epidemic it is because marriage is in decline. And if people are poor or struggling it is often because they do not have the alliance of a partner, and that partner’s family, to support them emotionally and, in emergencies, financially.

But a recent New York Times article on “dating bounties,” along with other articles that appear on occasion, hint broadly that while most proponents of marriage frame the problem correctly—as if it was not already obvious that married people are less likely to be lonely—they grab this thorny dilemma by the wrong end of the stick.

To become financially stable and socially content, proponents say, you must first get married to reach both of those goals. Commit to that marriage. Have children. Stay committed and your children will in time also reap the benefits of a stable, two-parent household. This was the working maxim of a program that originated late in the first term of the George W. Bush administration. Launched in 2003, the Healthy Marriage and Relationships Education (HMRE) initiative had all the hallmarks of conservative policy-making, including a Heritage Foundation endorsement and its own “marriage czar,” psychologist Wade Horn, who founded the National Fatherhood Initiative. As per its description, the initiative was a sort of mass marriage therapy program seeking to “help couples who choose to get married gain greater access to marriage education services that will enable them to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage.” It also encouraged single mothers and their unmarried partners to, as they say, “stick together.” The initiative focused with laser-like intensity on the question of why poor people did not marry or did not have lasting marriages.

If all that sounds nebulous it is not because the HMRE did not have its heart in the right place but, predictably, because relationships and marriages are as complicated as the people who enter into them. As the years passed, the results of the initiative themselves appeared to be nominal at best, or as the bureaucrats and auditors who examine them like to say, “nuanced.” Predictably, liberal elites, many of whom were happily married themselves although not as eager to promote their supposed secrets of success, howled in derision. Long-form, elite journalism pronounced its verdict as well, with plenty of exhibits to show for it.

Increasingly, though, the evidence is that money must come first, followed by marriage. People who focus on education first in life, before almost any other endeavor, know this cold. Or at least they believe this dictum enough to practice it. All sorts of humorous aphorisms exist about the follies and struggles of marriage, but one brutal aphorism about money rises above them all when philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin declared that “Money stands ruinously at the center of every vital interest.”

As exhibit A, take the NYT story on marriage bounties. As a project manager for OpenAI, Mati Roy’s income is undoubtedly large enough to attract partners interested in tying the knot, but it is the added incentive of $2,000 paid to anyone who finds his soulmate that increases his odds of finding lasting happiness with someone who can stoke his affections for the long haul. Another subject of the story, also a tech professional eager to expand his polyamory or shed it altogether for the right person, sets his bounty at $100,000. As economists are fond of telling us, “The only thing that matters in economics and life is incentives. Everything else is just commentary.”

Professional matchmakers, and even freelance matchmakers, do not work for free. The future of AI may yet unlock tools for low- and middle-income folk in dating apps that promise to increase a person’s chance of finding a marriage partner with true rapport, lasting attraction, and complementing hobbies and political alliances. But it is extremely doubtful that AI will ever be persuasive enough to make on our behalf the crucial decision of whether or not to marry. Is there anything more personal than the decision to marry? Given the resilient architecture of social connections, neighborhoods, and professions that interlock members of the low-, middle-, and upper-class in almost impenetrable networks, it is highly doubtful AI will crash those gates either.

When marriage proponents ask poor and middle-income people to get married and stay married for the benefit of children and society they are asking them, first and foremost, to aspire and persevere as people who are already poor or middle-class. Secondary is the request that these poor and middle-class people also reside and stay married among their peers. Meanwhile, it is the rich who can bring their wares to the table, ready to strike a deal without the prospect of economic perseverance. The lesson is not so much that money cannot buy people love and relationships. The lesson is that money lets people shop and sort until, at last, they find those things.