In the wake of the ruling striking down Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment that would outlaw gay marriage in that state, we have moved a step closer to the possibility of gay marriage becoming a reality in America. But if gay marriage ever indeed becomes law of the land, will it doom the American family? The answer lies in whether enforcing private moral views will affect the realities and forces that are straining the institution of the American family.
The American family certainly faces numerous pressures and dangers but most of these are economic in nature. The Great Recession is only the most visible aspect of the slow economic decline of many American families. Over the last 30 years, for example, incomes for most Americans have remained stagnant, with the middle class lifestyle slipping out of the grasp of many. The current economic downturn has placed millions of American families in poverty and threatens to destroy millions more. And during the last expansion, or bubble, as some might call it, from 2002 to 2007, median household incomes actually dropped for most American families by $2,000. Decline in income mobility has contributed to growing social stress, which, in turn, has put pressure on the stability of the family. It is harder than it has ever been in the history of this nation to keep the American family together and most reasons have to do with economics.
Yet those who argue for the defense of family rarely talk about the economic threats to the family in their narratives. Rather, they focus on cultural issues, such as gay marriage, arguing that something terrible will happen should children be taught that marriage is the same for gay and heterosexual couples.
This focus on the cultural phenomenon of gay relationships as the locus of threat to the American family is not surprising. In the last two decades we have witnessed a shift in the American culture, one that gives prominence to the notions of the cultural at the expense of the social. We never talk about social problems anymore, for example. We talk instead about symbols and images and signs but rarely of substance. This is so because it is easier to talk about the threat posed by gay marriage than it is to have a serious conversation about the future of the American middle class and the economic realities that are creating severe financial pressures on the family. Indeed, entrenched special interest groups do not want the American public to have a serious conversation about the direction of this country or its economic realities.
While cultural symbols and issues do matter because they ultimately have an effect on concrete economic and political realities, in the case of gay marriage, the discourse has no such effect on the economic fundamentals that are putting the American family under strain and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Whether gay men or lesbians marry will not impact the American family as much as the economic realities that are working against the institution will. And it is hard to see how enforcing private moral views will change the economic realities that many struggling American families face.
In his ruling, Judge Walker summarizes the essence of the argument against gay marriage: it threatens the interest of the state in “stable marriages because sexual activity may lead to pregnancy and children, and the state has an interest in encouraging parents to raise children in stable households.” But this is precisely why economic realities are so important. Without jobs that do not require multiple diplomas, most Americans who cannot graduate from college will be left permanently out of luck in the increasingly competitive and desperate workplace, one in which increasingly even those with college educations are having problems competing. The recent economic downturn is increasingly seen as a structural problem, too, meaning that of those who have lost jobs in this recession, fewer than ever before will find work again because the American economy is simply dying, shrinking. For the first time in recent memory Americans are convinced that their children will be worse off than they are.
It is not the redefinition of gender roles that will doom the American family but economic policies that destroy the middle class. And enshrining in law private moral views will do little to change those economic realities.