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Marriage and Caste in America

Jamie Glazov

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Frontpage Interview's guest today is Kay Hymowitz, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Contributing Editor at City Journal and author of two books on childhood in America. She is the author of the new book "Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age".

Front Page: Kay Hymowitz, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Hymowitz: My pleasure.

Front Page: What inspired you to write this book?

Hymowitz: Over the past few years, I had been following the discussion, mostly taking place in liberal and Democratic circles, about increasing inequality in the United States. I still have enough of the liberal left in me to believe that inequality is a serious social problem, especially when you add indications of declining mobility. It's one thing to have a big gap between rich and poor if the poor have plenty of opportunity to move up; it's another if the poor are stuck in their own 'hoods generation after generation.

Yet the Democratic discussion struck me as predictably inclined to describe the issue as a failure of economic redistribution and to assume unfairness in the system. I was more optimistic that we had a meritocracy that could work and I suspected that there were other reasons low income individuals were not able to take advantage of it.

Front Page: What is the marriage gap? Tell us about it.

Hymowitz: It turns out that the dramatic rise in illegitimacy and divorce during the last forty years - what I call the unmarriage revolution - has been largely limited to less educated men and women. College educated women have never gone in for having babies outside of marriage; Murphy Brown was largely a Hollywood fantasy. Moreover, divorce rates among higher educated women have been going down since 1980. The bottom line is that the large majority of well educated women are raising their children with their children's father.

This is not the case with less educated women. They are much more likely to have a child without getting married first - over half of births to women without a high school diploma are non marital. And when they do marry, they are far more likely to divorce than college educated women.

Given that children who grow up with their married parents do better on a wide variety of measures, that means family structure is playing an important role in the rise of inequality and the decline of immobility. Worse, because the children of single mothers are more likely to become single parents themselves, the marriage gap is self-perpetuating. The children of college educated women will go on to become college educated, to marry, only then have children, as well as to be affluent. The children of less educated women are more likely to graduate high school, or if they do, to drop out of college and to go on to have children when they are not married who will go on to repeat the cycle. Hence, my title: Marriage and Caste in America.

Front Page: So why does marriage matter so much to children?"

Hymowitz: A lot of people assume it's simply that there is strength in numbers. Married couples have two sets of hands, two brains to problem solve, two people to take turns watching the kids, not to mention, two incomes to buy all the things that kids need to get ahead, including a house in a good school district. The problem with this theory is that children who grow up with a step-parent have the economic and practical advantages of two parents, but show less favorable outcomes than those who grow up with their married parents. Same thing for kids who live with cohabiting parents.

I argue that the reason children do better growing up with their married parents is that marriage is greater than the sum of its parts, that it is far more than two people who publicly announce their love and commitment, as so many Americans seem to define it. It is a social institution that has evolved over time to satisfy economic and cultural requirements.

American marriage contains all sorts of messages about how to live, messages with a long history that help you succeed in this society. It provides the young with a life script, an orientation towards the future, and it promotes wealth creation. From its beginnings Anglo-American marriage was tied up with private property; in old England a couple was expected to wait to marry (and to have children, of course) until they had a plot of land that would allow them to be self-sufficient.

The American founders were also very intent on the idea of the self-governing couple raising children to be self-governing citizens. To this day, marriage and wealth are interconnected. Married men make more money than unmarried men, controlling for race, education, and just about every widely measured variable. Seventy percent of American households own their own home; most of them are married couples.

According to a study comparing married couples and divorced and single individuals, the average net wealth of married couples increases 16% a year; after 15 years, their net worth is 93% higher than divorced and singles. That's why I say that marriage - the social institution, rather than the personal relationship - helps us understand disturbing trends in inequality and immobility.

Front Page: Who were the people behind the "family revolution"? What were their goals and visions?

Hymowitz: There's no question that there were a number of impersonal forces at work in upending the family - the pill, which gave women control over reproduction, affluence, which made marriage less essential for mere survival, and of course, the mass movement of women into the labor market, which allowed women greater independence.

But there is also no doubt that the unmarriage revolution was in large measure a product of dubious ideas. Idealists of the 1960's imagined that if you could free individuals from traditional modes of being and traditional institutions, they could experience life more directly, more "ecstatically" as Hillary Clinton put it in her famous Wellesley graduation speech. Adding to the anti-marriage movement was the belief among feminists that marriage was the source of female inequality. Simone de Beauvoir called it "an obscene bourgeois institution," (a description I agree with, by the way, if you take out the "obscene") and as we all know, Betty Friedan, referred to it as a "comfortable concentration camp." To be a wife was to be confined in a stereotype straightjacket that severely limited women's individual potential, as well as keeping them under male control.

It followed from all of this that divorce could be a positive; the popular media would frequently use the words "change" and "growth" in stories about divorcing celebrities and sometimes they still do. And it also followed that if a woman wanted to have a baby on her own, well, that was okay too. Judges, lawyers, and legislators helped to normalize these assumptions by moving without much discussion to pass no-fault divorce laws and also to erase legal distinctions between married and unmarried parents. In short, marriage, which had been universally understood as a means of assigning the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, was now completely detached from childbearing or childrearing. It was simply one way to find adult fulfillment - or not.

As for children, no one really had much to say about the effect of this radical transformation on them, or if they did, they implied that since the nuclear family was such a hot house of patriarchal dysfunction, the kids might be better off too. It's mind-boggling to read what passed for social science research on the family throughout the 1970's and 1980's. For those decades family researchers either ignored the question of family structure entirely, or concluded from the flimsiest of studies that kids were resilient and whatever unhappiness they experienced when dad moved out to live with his girlfriend would pass quickly. It wasn't till the early 1990's that social scientists designed more serious studies and began to reach a consensus that kids do better on average with married parents. After twenty plus years of reassurances about the children of divorce and nonmarriage, they were Emily Litella-like, "Oh. Never mind."

Front Page: Can you talk a bit about the effect the family upheaval has had on African-Americans?

Hymowitz: Given the legacy of slavery that made marriage impossible for blacks and Jim Crow laws that emasculated men, the unmarriage revolution was bound to hit blacks especially hard. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his controversial report "The Negro Family", he was warning the country about a 25% illegitimacy rate among blacks. In one chapter of my book, I tell the story of how black leaders and black and white academics accused Moynihan of every sin in the p.c. book. He was a racist who could not possibly understand "the strengths of the black family." He was a sexist who failed to appreciate the "strong black woman" and her "extended kinship networks." It became impossible to have an honest conversation about what was happening in the black community for the next twenty years even as black welfare rolls, crime rates, and teen births were soaring.

Well, now the rupture between marriage and black childbearing is just about complete. Seventy percent of black births are to single mothers. Seventy percent. This has had a disastrous effect on men, who have lost their major social roles as provider and father. It is also a tragedy for the country because it makes the goal of full black equality unachievable. Growing up in single parent homes, black kids are destined to stay behind.

Front Page: You refer to the Mission. What is it and why does it matter?

Hymowitz: American marriage has always been uniquely child centered. As I mentioned, the founders understood that raising children to thrive in a republic was a big undertaking, requiring the careful nurturing of children's social, moral, and cognitive development. This goal of developing children for a dynamic and unpredictable future is what I call the Mission. Of course, single parents can also be "Missionaries" and many are. But it is not only much harder to organize family life around your children's development if there is only one parent around, it is less built into the structure of day to day life.

The unfortunate irony is that at the same time as the unmarriage revolution was moving into full swing and single parent homes were on the increase, the United States was turning into a knowledge economy that made a college education essential to achieving middle class status. Yet having not been beneficiaries of The Mission, the children of single parents are far less likely to go to college and if they do to go to college, to attend a selective institution. A few years ago, Jennifer Garner, a Cornell professor, was struck by the fact that only about 10% of her students came from divorced families. She and a colleague got together and looked at other high ranking schools and found the same thing; ninety percent of the students were from in tact families. That 90% is the Mission at work. Likewise, that 90-10 spread is the unhappy consequence of the Marriage Gap.

Front Page: Kay Hymowitz, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Hymowitz: And thank you for giving me this opportunity to discuss Marriage and Caste in America.

Read the entire article on the Front Page Magazine website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 05-Dec-06

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