Long before the Sexual Revolution changed everything in the 1960s, only the overclass and the underclass could flaunt middle class morality without public recriminations. The rich could do whatever the rich wanted to do because they could afford it, and the poor could do whatever they wanted because they had nothing to lose.
In both classes marriage was a casualty. The rich begat bastard sons who inherited huge fortunes. The illegitimate children of the poor were left on church doorsteps, became chimney sweeps or ran away to raise themselves on the streets that Charles Dickens depicts so well in his grim social novels.
Neither population could be reached by sermons or government fiat. Only the bourgeoisie struggled to do the right thing, as much out of a concern for appearances as by the social controls of stigma, shame, the supernatural and the superego. But as Enlightenment ideas filtered down to the public conscience, the do-gooders who let the rich continue to fend for themselves tried to raise the fortunes of the poor to enable them to join the middle class.
In the second half of the 20th century, this do-good policy took shape in America with expanded Welfare payments to single mothers. These payments increased with each illegitimate child until it was discovered that the handouts encouraged Welfare mothers to produce increasing the numbers of illegitimate children.
Five years ago, President Clinton, compelled by a conservative Congress, signed Republican Welfare reform into law, encouraging both work and marriage for the poor. Creating jobs was easier than creating nuptials. If the unintended consequences of the earlier Welfare policy caused women to rely on a Big Daddy government rather than a legally married, genetically related, real daddy for her children, the unintended consequence of Welfare reform was that the working Welfare mother was encouraged to go it alone.
Current "role models" are different, too. Like the career-oriented independent feminist who didn't want to make the compromises that go with marriage, the work-oriented single mom, whose wages have lifted her out of poverty, often found that she would rather rely on herself than on a husband. She was too tired to invest time, energy and money in romance, cosmetics and feminine fashions it takes to attract a man.
Researchers in Connecticut and Iowa found that the heightened work requirements reduced the chances of a wedding for a single mother. Only 7 percent of the mothers randomly assigned jobs through reform requirements in Connecticut found husbands within three years, compared to 15 percent of mothers who received traditional grants without work strings attached.
"If tough-love work policies suppressed marriage at this magnitude nationwide," Bruce Fuller, social science professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the Connecticut study, told The New York Times, "just under a quarter-million women would not be getting married in any one year."
Such findings, according to the Bush administration, merely emphasize the need for greater support for healthy marriage. But exactly what those supports should be aren't clear. Certainly the overclass hasn't found them. The editors of InStyle Weddings, a magazine that covers the glamorous weddings of the rich and famous, have wedding-cake icing all over their faces.
Thanks to the magazine's long lead time, several of the "happy couples" featured in one recent issue had filed for divorce before the stories of the bride and groom appeared on the newsstands. Planning the celebration was clearly more fun than celebrating the marriage. Fortunately for everyone, they only had to fight over custody of their dogs.
Perhaps this sad state of affairs can best be captured in post-modern screwball comic plots. The final episode of the season for the sitcom "Friends," the second most popular episode ever, ended with a marriage proposal. Rachel, a young woman who had just given birth to a baby fathered by Ross, who has been divorced three times (once from Rachel herself), receives a marriage proposal from another man named Joey. The new mom says "yes," even though Joey the suitor hadn't actually meant to ask her.
The audience is left in suspense because we'll have to wait until next season to see what happens. With such a long lead time, anything can. But a script writer can control the consequences. Alas, that's more than a Welfare reformer can do.