January 20, 2006


Marriage and Caste: America’s chief source of inequality? The Marriage Gap. (Kay S. Hymowitz , Winter 2006, City Journal)

While Americans have been squabbling about gay marriage, they have managed to miss the real marriage-and-social-justice issue, one that affects far more people and threatens to undermine the American project. We are now a nation of separate and unequal families not only living separate and unequal lives but, more worrisome, destined for separate and unequal futures.

Two-America Jeremiahs usually nod at the single-parent family as a piece of the inequality story, but quickly change the subject to describe—accurately, as far as it goes—an economy that has implacably squeezed out manufacturing jobs, reduced wages for the low-skilled, and made a wallet-busting college education crucial to a middle-class future. But one can’t disentangle the economic from the family piece. Given that families socialize children for success—or not—and given how marriage orders lives, they are the same problem. Separate and unequal families produce separate and unequal economic fates.

Most people understand what happened to the American family over the last half-century along these lines: the birth control pill begat the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s, which begat the decline of the traditional nuclear family, which in turn introduced the country to a major new demographic: the single mother. Divorce became as ubiquitous as the automobile; half of all marriages, we are often reminded, will end in family court. Growing financial independence and changing mores not only gave women the freedom to divorce in lemming-like numbers; it also allowed them to dispense with marriage altogether and have children, Murphy Brown–style, on their own. (This is leaving aside inner-city teenage mothers, whom just about everyone sees as an entirely different and more troubling category.) Today, we frequently hear, a third of all children are born to unmarried women.
Less Education Means More Illegitimacy....

To put it a little differently, after the 1960s women no longer felt compelled to follow the life course charted in a once-popular childhood rhyme—first comes love, then marriage, then the baby carriage. Sure, some people got married, had kids, and stayed married for life, but the hegemony of Ozzie and his brood was past. Alternative families are just the way things are; for better or for worse, in a free society people get to choose their own “lifestyles”-bringing their children along for the ride-and they are doing so not just in the United States but all over the Western world.

That picture turns out to be as equivocal as an Escher lithograph, however. As the massive social upheaval following the 1960s—what Francis Fukuyama has termed “the Great Disruption”—has settled into the new normal, social scientists are finding out that when it comes to the family, America really has become two nations. The old-fashioned married-couple-with-children model is doing quite well among college-educated women. It is primarily among lower-income women with only a high school education that it is in poor health. This fact may not conform to the view from Hollywood; movies from Kramer vs. Kramer to The Ice Storm to the recent The Squid and the Whale, not to mention unmarried celebrity moms like Goldie Hawn and moms-to-be like Katie Holmes, have helped reinforce the perception that elite women snubbing a conformist patriarchy were the vanguard of a vast social change. Now it’s pretty clear that this is a myth saying more about La-La Land than the reality of American family breakdown.

The most important recent analysis of that reality is “The Uneven Spread of Single-Parent Families,” a 2004 paper by Harvard’s David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks. The Kennedy School profs divide American mothers into three categories by education level: women with a college degree or higher; women with a high school diploma (including those with some college, whose trends look very similar to those with high school alone); and women who never graduated high school. The paper’s findings are worth pondering in some detail.

Forty-five years ago, there was only a small difference in the way American women went about the whole marriage-and-children question; just about everyone, from a Smith grad living in New Canaan, Connecticut, to a high school dropout in Appalachia, first tied the knot and only then delivered the bouncing bundle of joy. As of 1960, the percentage of women with either a college or high school diploma who had children without first getting married was so low that you’d need a magnifying glass to find it on a graph; even the percentage of high school dropouts who were never-married mothers barely hit 1 percent. Moreover, after getting married and having a baby, almost all women stayed married. A little under 5 percent of mothers in the top third of the education distribution and about 6 percent of the middle group were either divorced or separated (though these figures don’t include divorced-and-then-remarried mothers). And while marital breakup was higher among mothers who were high school dropouts, their divorce rate was still only a modest 8 percent or so.

That all changed in the decades following the 1960s, when, as everyone who was alive at the time remembers, the American family seemed on the verge of self-immolation. For women, marriage and children no longer seemed part of the same story line. Instead of staying married for the kids, mothers at every education level joined the national divorce binge. By 1980, the percentage of divorced college-educated mothers more than doubled, to 12 percent—about the same percentage as divorced mothers with a high school diploma or with some college. For high school dropout mothers, the percentage increased to 15 percent. An increasing number of women had children without getting married at all. So far the story conforms to general theory.

But around 1980, the family-forming habits of college grads and uneducated women went their separate ways. For the next decade the proportion of college-educated moms filing for divorce stopped increasing, and by 1990 it actually starting going down. This was not the case for the least educated mothers, who continued on a divorce spree for another ten years. It was only in 1990 that their increase in divorce also started to slow and by 2000 to decline, though it was too late to close the considerable gap between them and their more privileged sisters.

Far more dramatic were the divergent trends in what was still known at the time as illegitimacy. Yes, out-of-wedlock childbearing among women with college diplomas tripled, but because their numbers started at Virtually Nonexistent in 1960 (a fraction of 1 percent), they only moved up to Minuscule in 1980 (a little under 3 percent of mothers in the top third of education distribution) to end up at a Rare 4 percent.

Things were radically different for mothers in the lower two educational levels. They decided that marriage and children were two entirely unconnected life experiences. That decline in their divorce rate after 1990? Well, it turns out the reason for it wasn’t that these women had thought better of putting their children through a parental breakup, as many of their more educated sisters had; it was that they weren’t getting married in the first place. Throughout the 1980s and nineties, the out-of-wedlock birthrate soared to about 15 percent among mothers with less than a high school education and 10 percent of those with a high school diploma or with some college.

Many people assume that these low-income never-married mothers are teen mothers, but teens are only a subset of unmarried mothers, and a rather small one in recent years. Yes, the U.S. continues to be the teen-mommy capital of the Western world, with 4 percent of teen girls having babies, a rate considerably higher than Europe’s. But that rate is almost one-third lower than it was in 1991, and according to up-to-the-minute figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, teens account for only about a quarter of unwed births—compared with half in 1970. Today 55 percent of unmarried births are to women between 20 and 24; another 28 percent are to 25- to 29-year-olds. These days, it is largely low-income twentysomethings who are having a baby without a wedding ring. The good news is that single mothers are not as likely to be 15; the bad news is that there is now considerable evidence to suggest that, while their prospects may be a little better than their teenage sisters’ would be, they are not dramatically so.

Race has also added to misperceptions about single mothers. It’s easy to see why, with close to 70 percent of black children born to single mothers today—including educated mothers—compared with 25 percent of non-black kids. But blacks make up only 12 percent of the country’s population, and black children account for only one-third of the nation’s out-of-wedlock kids.

Tune out the static from teen pregnancy, race, and Murphy Brown, then, and the big news comes into focus: starting in 1980, Americans began to experience a widening Marriage Gap that has reached dangerous proportions. As of 2000, only about 10 percent of mothers with 16 or more years of education—that is, with a college degree or higher—were living without husbands. Compare that with 36 percent of mothers who have between nine and 14 years of education. All the statistics about marriage so often rehashed in magazine and newspaper articles hide a startling truth. Yes, 33 percent of children are born to single mothers; in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, that amounted to 1.5 million children, the highest number ever. But the vast majority of those children are going home from the maternity wards to low-rent apartments. Yes, experts predict that about 40 to 50 percent of marriages will break up. But most of those divorces will involve women who have always shopped at Wal-Mart. “[T]he rise in single-parent families is concentrated among blacks and among the less educated,” summarize Ellwood and Jencks. “It hardly occurred at all among women with a college degree.”

It isn't necessarily all conscious, but you can't help noticing that all of the "reforms" and "revolutions" pushed by liberals serve to atomize society and force stranded individuals into a position where their only relationship is to the State and is a dependent one, which has the circular effect of getting them to support increased statism. It's really quite a brilliant system, it just doesn't work out too well for the atoms.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 20, 2006 9:00 AM

It's articles like this that remind me of the old quote in PJ O'Rourke's "All the Trouble in the World:" "Are we worried about the breakup of the family? No one who's ever met my family is."

And no one who's met my college-degree holding brother, who has 4 kids from two separate marriages, is either. Talk about not learning your lesson.

This single bachelor-schlub has learned a lifelong lesson from this: Never underestimate the resourcefulness of a single parent.

Posted by: Brad S at January 20, 2006 9:34 AM

One gloss on what OJ said. A large part of the left only wants to atomize everyone else (ie the proles), not themselves. This leaves them in control, because they are the only ones not atomized. I'm a lawyer in Manhattan, and I'm surrounded by politically liberal upper class women who always champion "individual expression" and suchlike. But the great majority of them would never dream of having a child out of wedlock -- bagging a (prestigious) husband is a major focus of energy around here, and strategies for getting guys to the altar/huppah or complaints about the unwillingness of men to commit are talked about more than the actual law. These women, who purport to believe in all the liberal shibboleths, care about nothing more than manuevering a guy into proposing. Unwed motherhood is fine for the great unwashed, but for the Ivy League ladies, nothing less than an investment banker, a big ring and a center hall colonial in Larchmont will do.

Posted by: Lisa at January 20, 2006 11:01 AM

Caitlin Flanagan is doing admirable work in The Atlantic demonstrating the catastrophic effects modern "feminism" has had on women & children. Coming from someone who certainly can't be dismissed as a right-wing crazy, one would hope she'd get more attention...

Posted by: b at January 20, 2006 11:25 AM

The Atlantic isn't on-line anymore--people still read it?

Posted by: oj at January 20, 2006 12:41 PM

this is just a filler story. it would be interesting if the article had bothered to find out why the women who chose to be single moms thought it was a good idea. why do college women get married and high school women don't (or at least don't stay married). a lot of the single moms i have seen alternate between wanting freedom to party, and the security of a relationship, hence their cycle of marriage and divorce. couldn't say why this is a class issue.

Posted by: toe at January 20, 2006 2:48 PM

oj: Free copies are easy to find. Go to the library, or get a friend or relative to get you a subscription (or borrow theirs...).

Posted by: b at January 20, 2006 3:02 PM

12% of the population and 30% of the kids.

"only" is not a word I would have chosen. That's really high.

Posted by: Sandy P at January 20, 2006 8:48 PM