Marriage is not of course a purely economic enterprise. But it is increasingly recognized that marriage is the best institution for rearing children who have the values and social skills to thrive.

Therefore Ross Douthat’s excellent column yesterday headlined “The Imitation of Marriage” is a must-read for those thinking about what holds back “the struggling working class.” Douthat writes about what Kay Hympwitz called “the marriage gap”—i.e., that affluent people tend to marry and create families, while those lower in the economic scale do this less frequently.

He cites two articles from the Times data-driven The Upshot project—one on the decline of divorce among affluent couples, and the other on the decline of the work ethic among the less educated. This decline is driven by “low wages and weak job growth, the availability of safety-net income, the burden of criminal records, and the fraying of paternal and marital bonds.

Douthat says that these two articles can be taken as the starting point in a discussion about whether affluent habits and values can be imitated by those lower in the economic scale to produce good results. He writes:   

Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.

The core idea here is that working-class men, in particular, need to let go of a particular image of masculinity — the silent, disciplined provider, the churchgoing paterfamilias — that no longer suits the times. Instead, they need to become more comfortable as part-time homemakers, as emotionally available soul mates, and they need to raise their children to be more adaptive and expressive, to prepare them for a knowledge-based, constantly-in-flux economy.

Douthat proposes that the progressives are encouraging the struggling working class to imitate the worst, not the best, aspects of affluent family lives, while remaining in the dark about the more valuable ones:  

But given that this shift has coincided with lost ground for blue-collar men, another interpretation seems possible. We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster.

If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.

While they may be coming to a recognition of the central place of marriage in a flourishing civilization, they still believe that government, not families, are the key to turning out successful individuals.

I urge you to read Kay Hymowitz’s article on families and cultural achievement over at City Journal. It is long but well-worth the effort. Along the way, you’ll pick up some good arguments as to why President Obama’s call for more government-sponsored early childhood education probably won’t accomplish anything for poor kids. The more challenging truth: they need two-parent families capable of instilling values and habits.