Do Conservatives Think Women Should Be Allowed to Work?

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a piece at The New Republic about the amusing ways in which certain conservative discussions about marriage mirror discussions you see among pick-up artists. In particular, both camps subscribe to the idea that providing welfare benefits to women will reduce marriage by making women less financially dependent on men. W. Bradford Wilcox especially has been pushing this line pretty hard of late when rebutting pro-family arguments for expanding welfare benefits for families with children.

Aren't All Economic Opportunities for Women Bad for Marriage?

The most interesting thing, to me, about this line of argumentation is that it leads straight to certain logical conclusions that its conservative advocates never seem to reach (but that, as ESB points out, the pick-up artists do). Specifically, the view that says providing women more economic resources harms marriage by making them less financially dependent on men should make both transfer and market income enemies of marriage.

A woman who receives a $5,000 increase in public benefits is no different than a woman who receives a $5,000 raise at work, at least as far as dependency on men goes. It matters not where the money comes from. So long as it is coming from a place other than a man, it is making the woman less financially dependent on men, and is thus, according to Wilcox's argument, inimical to marriage.

In some cases, certain benefits that Wilcox-like conservatives bash on these grounds are literally provided by employers already. For instance, I've seen maternity leave proposals attacked because they make men less necessary in the crucial infancy stage of parenting. Yet, many employers already provide maternity leave benefits, some of which are even more generous than the proposed public benefits would be. A consistent stance against dependency-killing maternity benefits would oppose them regardless of whether they came from governments or employers. But, mysteriously, conservatives don't do this.

Less Dependency On Men = More Marriage

The contradiction in conservative advocacy here is not just a passing amusement either. If you actually apply their dependency-killing argument to all personal income (as you logically must), then you'd expect women with more total income to have lower marriage rates. A woman with a $60,000 salary is far less dependent on men than a woman who receives $10,000 in wages and $3,000 in transfer income, after all. Yet, as we know, the less dependent woman (that is the salaried woman) is far more likely to be married.

The dependency argument is therefore directly at odds with the overall marriage trends. The less dependent a woman is on men (measured by economic resources she receives personally), the more likely she is to be married.

So not only are women fully-formed equal human beings who should not be intentionally impoverished in some half-baked effort to squeeze out more marriages, but the poverty-fueled dependency mechanism for achieving more marriage clearly does not work.

The obvious nonsense of this argument naturally prompts this question: what's really going on here? Wilcox is certainly not a dumb man and therefore must see how silly this is, so what is he doing?

I suspect one of two things is going on.

The first is that Wilcox actually does hold those old-school beliefs that women shouldn't even have jobs outside the home, that these kinds of economic opportunities are themselves bad for the domesticated culture that fosters marriage. But, he doesn't come out and say this because he'd lose his mainstream status pushing that kind of stuff in 2015.

The second is that Wilcox is really just fundamentally opposed to a robust family benefit system on the same ideological grounds that most conservatives are (redistribution is bad or whatever). But he is the family guy, and so coming out with the "poor people are moochers who get too much as it is" Romney/Ryan line would disrupt his whole gimmick.

Ultimately, we can't know what's really going on in the mind of Wilcox. All we can know for sure is that his newest argument against family benefits is incoherent.