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Dallas Morning News


The Marriage Gap

March 12, 2006

By Kay S. Hymowitz

For a while it looked as if Hurricane Katrina would accomplish what the NAACP never could: revive civil rights liberalism as a major force in American politics.

There it was for the whole world to see. The United States was two nations—one rich, one poor and largely black; one driving away in the family SUV to sleep in the snug guest rooms of suburban friends and relatives, the other sunk in the fetid misery of the Superdome.

Newsweek, echoing Michael Harrington's 1962 landmark book that ignited the War on Poverty, titled its Katrina coverage "The Other America" and warned the nation not to return to the "old evasions, hypocrisies and not-so-benign neglect" of the "problems of poverty, race and class."

Though that liberalism revival lasted for about five minutes, the post-Katrina insight was correct. There are millions of poor Americans living not just in down-on-your-luck hardship but also in entrenched, multigenerational poverty. There is growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots. And there are reasons to worry whether the American dream is within the reach of all.

But what "two America" talk doesn't get is just how much these ominous trends are entangled with the collapse of the nuclear family. 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 also, and 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 they 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 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.

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 M.C. Escher lithograph, however. As the massive social upheaval after the 1960s 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.

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 College grad living in New Canaan, Conn., 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 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 after 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 started going down. This was not the case for the least-educated mothers, who continued on a divorce spree for 10 more years. It was only in 1990 that their increase in divorce also started to slow and by 2000 to decline.

In fact, statistics show that lower-income women 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.

Tune out the static from teen pregnancy, race and Murphy Brown, 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 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. One-third of children are born to single mothers, and the vast majority of those children are going home from the maternity wards to low-rent apartments. And, yes, experts predict that about 40 percent to 50 percent of marriages will break up. But most of those divorces will involve women who have always shopped at Wal-Mart.

Why would women working for a pittance at the supermarket cash registers decide to have children without getting married, while women writing briefs at Debevoise & Plimpton, who could easily afford to go it alone, insist on finding husbands before they start families? The conventional answer to the puzzle is this: In an economy marked by manufacturing decline, especially in cities, too many potential husbands for low-income women are either flipping burgers, unemployed or in jail—in other words, poor marriage material. But three facts raise doubts about this theory.

One, it's not just unemployed men or McDonald's cooks who have become marriage-avoidant; working-class men with decent jobs are also shying from the altar. Two, cohabitation among low-income couples has been increasing; about 40 percent of all out-of-wedlock babies today are born to cohabiting parents. Why would there be a dearth of marriageable men, when there appear to be plenty of cohabitable fathers?

And three, marriage improves the economic situation of low-income women, even if their husbands are deliverymen or janitors. Joe Sixpack may not be Mr. Darcy, but financially, at any rate, he's a lot better than no husband at all.

Let's approach the Marriage Gap conundrum another way. Instead of asking why poor and near-poor women have stopped marrying before having children, let's think instead about why educated women continue to do so—even though, in order to be accepted in polite company or to put food on the table, they don't need to.

One possible answer is especially pertinent to the Marriage Gap. Educated women know that they'd better marry if they want their children to succeed academically, which increasingly is critical to succeeding in the labor market. The new economy may have made single motherhood a workable arrangement for high-earning mothers in purely economic terms, but it made a husband a must-have in terms of child rearing. No one understands better than an Amherst or Stanford B.A. that her children will have to go to college one day if they are to keep their middle-class status. These women also understand how to get their kids college-bound.

Educated, middle-class mothers tend to be dedicated to what I have called The Mission—the careful nurturing of their children's cognitive, emotional and social development, which, if all goes according to plan, will lead to the honor roll and a spot on the high school debate team, which will lead to a good college, then perhaps a graduate or professional degree, which will all lead to a fulfilling career, a big house in a posh suburb and a sense of meaningful accomplishment.

It's common sense, backed up by plenty of research, that you'll have a better chance of fully "developing" your children—that is, of fulfilling The Mission—if you have a husband around. Why do educated women marry before they have children? Because, like high-status women since status began, they are preparing their offspring to carry on their way of life. Marriage radically increases their chances of doing that.

This all points to a deeply worrying conclusion: The Marriage Gap—and the inequality to which it is tied—is self-perpetuating. A low-income single mother, unprepared to carry out The Mission, is more likely to raise children who will become low-income single parents, who will pass that legacy on to their children, and so on down the line. Instead of an opportunity-rich country for all, the Marriage Gap threatens us with a rigid caste society.When Americans announced that marriage before childbearing was optional, low-income women didn't merely lose a steadfast partner, a second income or a trusted baby sitter, as the strength-in-numbers theory would have it.

They lost a traditional arrangement that reinforced precisely the qualities that they—and their men; let's not forget the men!—needed for upward mobility, qualities all the more important in a tough new knowledge economy. The timing could hardly have been worse. At a time when education was becoming crucial to middle-class status, the disadvantaged lost a reliable life script, a way of organizing their early lives that would prize education and culminate in childbearing only after job training and marriage. They lost one of their few institutional supports for planning ahead and taking control of their lives.

Worst of all, when Americans made marriage optional, low-income women lost a culture that told them the truth about what was best for their children. A number of researchers argue that, in fact, low-income women really do want to marry.

They have "white-picket dreams," say Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, and though the men in their lives cannot turn those dreams into reality, they continue to gaze longingly into the distance at marriage as a symbol of middle-class stability and comfort.

What they don't have, however, is a clue about the very fact that orders the lives of their more fortunate peers: Marriage and childbearing belong together. The result is separate and unequal families, now and as far as the eye can see. Shrinking the Marriage Gap may not be a magic potion for ending poverty or inequality or any other social problem.

But it's hard to see how our two Americas can become one without more low-income men and women making their way to the altar.

Original Source:



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