December 27, 2005


Too Few Good Men: a review of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas and American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle (Amy L. Wax, Policy Review)

Edin and Kefalas are talented and sedulous ethnographers. [....]

Nonetheless, their book ultimately fails. Despite promising beginnings, the authors fall victim to tired social science dogmas. Their fealty to bad ideas hinders a full excavation of the rich lode of material they have so painstakingly assembled. They miss the message of their own fieldwork and the clear implications of broader social trends. The result is a lost opportunity to discover the true causes of family upheaval and to think constructively about the cures for its decline.

Why do the women in this study so rarely marry and so often end up as single mothers? Most express a strong desire to marry and view extra-marital childbearing as “second best.” Yet almost all remain single. The authors offer this explanation: Expectations for marriage have risen across the board. People now regard marriage as a luxury good rather than as a necessity. They refuse to tie the knot unless they have first achieved economic success. A house, a well-paying job, and enough money for a nice wedding are now needed before considering a trip to the altar. But few of the unskilled can make good on their aspirations because wages at the bottom have stagnated or declined. To their credit, the authors do not exaggerate the extent of these trends. Although they note (correctly) that unskilled men’s earnings have lost ground relative to college graduates’ and that some well-paying jobs have disappeared, they acknowledge that the overall economic prospects of men with a high school education or less are not significantly worse than in past decades when marriage rates were much higher. It’s not that most unskilled men are less able to support a family than they were decades ago; earnings for this group were always modest. Rather, the problem is that women — and men — expect far more.

In contrast, conclude Edin and Kefalas, having children carries no such inflated requirements. Babies need not await the achievement of an elevated position in life, because childbearing is a fundamental hallmark of female adulthood that is central to poor women’s dignity and identity. In the authors’ words, “women rely on their children to bring validation, purpose, companionship, and order to their often chaotic lives — things they find hard to come by in other ways.” In a perverse inversion of old values, these woman have come to regard lone motherhood as the ultimate heroic act, the proving ground of their responsible devotion to others.

At first blush, the authors’ theory about why marriage is unpopular among the less educated appears to explain demographic reality. Rising expectations generate a class divergence in marriage rates for the simple reason that the well-off are better able to fulfill those expectations than the poor and uneducated. Yet despite superficial appeal, the authors’ explanation just doesn’t fly. First and foremost, their conclusions are at odds with what their women subjects actually say. More broadly, the authors’ thesis cannot be reconciled with the full range of facts regarding racial and class differences in family structure. A growing body of social science evidence suggests that group mores and personal behavior, not insufficient resources, are the most important cause of marital decline.

Women's liberation, predictably, liberated men.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2005 10:45 AM

i have a fair bit of first hand knowledge regarding single mothers (not dating them, just observing them) and they are uniformly predatory and appetite driven. their kids are an afterthought at best, and mostly result from the mothers not caring enough to prevent getting pregnant.

anyone who thinks leaving women to the tender mercies of men is a good idea, is ignorant of human nature. it's pretty clear that the leadership of the women's lib movement were lesbian and anti-mother/anti-wife, so it's no surprise their efforts have damaged so many non-munching women.

Posted by: alfred kinsley at December 28, 2005 12:48 PM