President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of Janet Yellen for his Secretary of the Treasury marks not one, but two, historic firsts. Not only will she be the first woman to serve in the role, but she would also be the first to have explicitly criticized certain lightning rod social policies for the economic devastation they have caused for women and the family. Might a Yellen Treasury signal an opening on the left to reconsider the interconnectivity of radical social policies, the family, and the economy?
Undoubtedly there are plenty of Democrats who wish they could “disappear” an article that Yellen co-authored with her husband George Akerlof for The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1996. An adaptation of the article, entitled, “New mothers, not married: Technology shock, the demise of shotgun marriage, and the increase in out-of-wedlock births,” was featured by the Brookings Institution and is a relic of a day when, despite increasingly liberal social policy, honest discussion of its impacts was not censored, labelled with trigger warnings, or a cause for “cancellation.”
It’s almost unthinkable today that a progressive would criticize the impact of abortion, contraception, and the concurrent rise in single motherhood on family stability, and consequently, the economy. And yet that is exactly what Yellen and her husband did, and their warnings have proven devastatingly accurate.
Yellen and Akerlof argued that explanations on both the left and right for the sudden rise in out-of-wedlock births that began in the 1960s were relevant but insufficient to explain the magnitude of the shift. “Changes in attitudes towards sexual behavior” wrought by the sexual revolution were the primary cause, they argue. The “sudden increase in the availability of both abortion and contraception” created what they termed a “reproductive technology shock,” and that, coupled with a decrease in the stigma on single motherhood, completely changed the game.
But here is where Yellen and her husband get stunningly blunt. Prior to the sexual revolution, they argue, a “promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy” was the only thing that made women take on the risks involved in premarital sexual activity. After, they posited:
Women who were willing to get an abortion or who reliably used contraception no longer found it necessary to condition sexual relations on a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy. But women who wanted children, who objected to abortion for moral or religious reasons, or who were unreliable in their use of contraception found themselves pressured to participate in premarital sexual relations without being able to exact a promise of marriage in case of pregnancy.
“Sexual activity without commitment,” they continued, “was increasingly expected in premarital relationships” (emphasis added). And the clincher: “By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.”
Yellen and Ankerlof go on to argue that the result has been “the feminization of poverty” emanating from the resulting explosion in families led by single mothers.
Social policies designed to “giv[e] poor families the tools to control the number and the timing of their children” have utterly failed to lift those families out of poverty, they contest. “Not only have U.S. poverty rates stayed stubbornly constant over the intervening 25 years,” they wrote, “but also poor families have seen their lot worsen as huge increases in single-parent families more and more headed by unmarried mothers have led to the feminization of poverty in America.”
“The dream of eliminating poverty,” they argue, “has remained unfulfilled.” These words are as true today as they were in 1996, especially in the face of nearly two more decades of evidence linking family stability and intactness to economic outcomes, much of it gathered and analyzed by scholars on this site.
If confirmed, Janet Yellen will be the most powerful woman at the global economic helm, arguably ever. It is encouraging to know that she is someone who is both an independent thinker and conscious of the very real connection between the family and the economy.
“If we have learned any policy lesson well over the past 25 years,” she and Ankerlof wrote in another Brookings article in 1996, “it is that for children living in single-parent homes, the odds of living in poverty are great. The policy implications of the increase in out-of-wedlock births are staggering.”
Yellen and Akerlof’s policy conclusions were surprisingly tepid in contrast with the boldness of their assertions, ranging from a call for a more “child-oriented welfare” to more stringent financial requirements for fathers and calling any reduction in access to contraception or abortion “counterproductive.” And it’s possible that her handlers will encourage her to entirely “evolve” on her positions, as did former President Barack Obama on other family-related policy issues when his views went out of vogue. But candidly and factually challenging the sexual revolution and its costs has never been in vogue, at times, in either party. A Secretary Yellen would be a rare example of someone who doesn’t seem to mind. “The dream of eliminating poverty” is one that would be laid at her feet. She has already shown us where to begin.