Sunday, March 5, 2017

Marriage Material

Anecdotes are a handy way of personalizing a news story - a way of taking what otherwise might be a dry subject and putting a "human face" on it. Such as the following, from a story about how the loss of manufacturing jobs in Middle America is depressing marriage rates there:

After all, women are more independent than they used to be because they have more job opportunities than they once did. They can make the choice not to marry and still have children, and not face as much stigma as they once did.

This group includes Olivia Alfano, a 29-year-old single mother living in Evansville, Indiana, where she works as a waitress at Red Lobster. The money is pretty good, she told me: She drives a BMW and was able to buy a house last year. Alfano now wants to go into management, which she thinks will give her more security in the long run. When I asked her why she hadn’t married, she told me, “I haven’t run into someone I would consider doing that with.”

Of course, Alfano still has obstacles: for instance, finding childcare while she’s at work and getting good health care for her family (she doesn’t work enough hours to qualify for Red Lobster’s plan). But three decades ago, a woman like Alfano would have needed a partner to be able to have children, or else faced social stigma and economic hardship. Today, her potential partners don’t have the opportunity for good, stable employment that they once did. They’re struggling, while Alfano makes a life on her own.
Alana Semuels "When Factory Jobs Vanish, Men Become Less Desirable Partners"
The focus of the story is the impact of the loss of manufacturing work on male “marriageablity” defined in the article as a) not being an alcoholic/addict and b) being employed. (No, really - that's the way the study's authors, David Autor, Gordon Hanson and David Dorn, define it.) And the anecdote above, that serves as a conclusion, is presented as a way of saying that when sisters can do it for themselves, they don't need men to provide for them.

But that anecdote stood out for me. The money at Red Lobster must be really good to allow for that sort of lifestyle on less than full-time. So I did some digging for a few of the details that the story left out. Given that she doesn't qualify for the employee health-care plan Ms. Alfano has to be working a maximum of 30 hours a week. It strikes me as difficult to buy a home and a BMW on that salary, but I live just outside of Seattle, where the cost of living is fairly high. Evansville, Indiana, however, is a completely different story. Looking up median home prices there, checking the local BMW dealer's used case selection and making some semi-educated guesses about the costs of property taxes and homeowner's insurance, I guesstimate that Ms. Alfano needs to make somewhere in the area of $12 to $13 an hour to buy a home just shy of the median price (with a 20% down payment) and drive a decent used BMW - something with enough miles on it that it wouldn't cost her as much as the house did.

With that out of the way, it seemed to me that the story was somewhat misdirected. Which  brings me to an anecdote of my own. I happen to know a single mother here who is doing pretty well for herself. She's a lot older than Ms. Alfano, but she owns a house, has a couple of nice car and raises two children on her salary. She also happens to make about six or so times what Ms. Alfano does, to allow her to live this lifestyle here in the Seattle area. What both of these women have in common is that they're not locked out of jobs that allow them to be self-sufficient in the areas in which they live. The (dire) economic hardship of the past is more or less gone, at least for them.

And given that, to a certain degree, the pressure to be married fades. In The Lobster one of the points that the society in which the movie was set took (sometimes comical) pains to drive home is that being alone was dangerous, whether it was choking on a stray bit of food or being sexually assaulted in the street, being single carried serious risks that having a partner would mitigate or even eliminate. And that leads to another facet of male “marriageablity” that the article didn't really touch on: need.

The model of family that many segments of society have come to see as outmoded, if not necessarily obsolete, can be said to have viewed being a wife as a prerequisite to being a mother, but not openly admitting to that. Instead, being a wife was viewed as just as aspirational as motherhood. But in a society that tended to stand between women and the jobs they needed to be self-sufficient or "breadwinners" for a family, you can see marriage as a stepping stone to motherhood, due to the financial aspects of the arrangement.
When young women become pregnant unintentionally, they have to decide whether to have the baby and whether to marry the father or not, said Autor. That evaluation becomes more fraught when the man doesn’t have a good job. Marriage to such men can be risky: They may not contribute very much income, but they could factor into family decisions. “You don’t want to marry a man who is in all likelihood not economically viable, because it’s not a free lunch,” Autor said.
What this says to me is that, possibly, a lot of these men were never desirable partners - they were simply necessary partners, because the task at hand, having a baby and raising it, was simply too much for many women to manage alone. Because from a purely financial standpoint, a man who makes enough money to support themselves (as an individual) and contribute to the overall finances of the couple is a net positive.

The general gist of the article is that if women like Ms. Alfano could meet someone who had a $25 an hour factory job (like the kind that Rexnord is moving from Indiana to Mexico), she'd happily let that man into her family - and family decision-making process - in exchange for the extra money he'd bring to the table. But outside of the fact that she has challenges with childcare and doesn't work enough hours to qualify for company-sponsored healthcare, she's doing alright for herself, because she managed to find a job that enables her to be reasonably self-sufficient in the place where she lives. Now, that self-sufficiency may be tenuous, but it's lasting well enough. After all, of Ms. Alfano were that hard up for a partner, one would suspect that there's at least one single Red Lobster waiter in the general vicinity who's marriage minded. Sure someone higher on the socioeconomic ladder might be better, but someone making as much as she does would still be an overall boon, especially given the efficiencies that could be realized - after all mortgage payments aren't calculated on the basis of the number of people who reside at the address.

There's a lot to be said for wanting what you need. But in a case like that, when the need goes away, the want goes with it. Maybe it's time to understand that there should be a new, or maybe simply broader, understanding of what it means to be marriagable in a society where men looking for partners have to compete with a status quo that's becoming increasingly livable.

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