The “breakdown of marriage in the United States — which began about forty years ago as divorce and out-of-wedlock birthrates started to soar — threatens America’s future. It is turning us into a nation of separate and unequal families.” That’s the premise of Manhattan Institute marriage and family scholar Kay Hymowitz’s new book, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. She recently took some questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez on the book, 2008 politics, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is the state of marriage in America?
Kay Hymowitz: Given our 37 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate and (approximately) 40 percent divorce rate, you might expect the answer to be — simply — dismal. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. The truth is Americans continue to be marriage happy; hence our gazillion-dollar bridal industry, the continuing lure of shows like The Bachelor, our gaping at Tom and Katie’s weird baronial wedding, etc. The Census Bureau predicts that 90 percent of American women will marry; the percentage for men is only slightly lower. In surveys the majority of young people say that marriage and children is very important goal for them.
What ails marriage is not that it don’t get no respect; it’s that Americans no longer understand its meaning. For most people it appears to be a love relationship between two adults having little to do with childbearing or childrearing. (See: Tom and Katie.) Marriage and children are two discreet phenomena in the lives of women. When “Prudence,” Slate’s advice editor suggested that a young woman, pregnant by her boyfriend of two years, might consider marrying the guy, angry readers blasted the columnist: Doesn’t she know how important a decision marriage is in the life of a woman? You don’t marry a guy just because you’re having his baby!
The irony is that most of those Slate readers will go the Prudence, not to mention the prudent, route. About four percent — tops — of college-educated mothers are unmarried when they have their children. Even more surprising: The large majority will avoid divorce and raise their children with their father. The divorce rate among college-educated women plateaued about 1980 and has even gone down since then. It’s less-educated women who are more likely to become single mothers — both through divorce and non-marriage.
To return to your question about the state of marriage then: It’s doing pretty well — though not great — among college-educated Americans. But when it comes to those with less education, marriage is a mess. Hence the subtitle of my book: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-marital Age.
Lopez: I assume you read the New York Times story last week that reported that 51 percent of American women are not married. What irked you most about it?
Hymowitz: The article was a vintage example of how the Times shapes information to appeal to its readers’ class prejudices. The Times discovers that 51 percent of American women are single and concludes that this must mean the feminists were right. Women don’t need to be married to be happy! Marriage is dying! Check out the article’s photos of the smiley single women, the interviews with two typical American women — one an artist and the other a media type — from the Lower East Side, and the requisite snickering allusion to Ozzie and Harriet.
Well, not so fast. For one thing, the story plays fast and loose with statistics, especially by including teenagers between 15 and 19 and so adding millions of girls who still get an allowance from their parents as “single women.” Insofar as there has been an increase in the percentage of women living without husbands, you’ve got a demographic not a feminist story. Women are waiting until they complete their education and settle into careers before they get married, a reasonable, though still problematic, adjustment to a complex and competitive economy. And once they are married, they out-live their husbands. Roberts mentions these trends, but still tries to leave the impression that the increase in single women shows that feminists were right about women and men, fish and bicycles. No, that increase is due to a growing population of grad students, interns, and widows.
Lopez: When was the “unmarriage revolution”? Is it fair to point to the feminists?
Hymowitz: I use the term “the unmarriage revolution” to refer to the radical decoupling of marriage and children that began in the late 1960’s and became entrenched during the 70’s. Feminists were the architects of that revolution. They viewed marriage as an institution of male privilege and a female prison house. To be liberated women had to be independent and free themselves from what Simone de Beauvoir called that “obscene bourgeois institution.”
This critique of marriage had almost nothing to say about children. Kids are resilient, feminists and feminist-inspired researchers (i.e. almost every last researcher) reasoned; as long as women were feeling good, their children would be fine. Fortunately, at least that much has changed. As James Q. Wilson has joked, by now the evidence is now so powerful, even sociologists admit that children growing up with single mothers are at greater risk of just about every problem you can think of — poverty, depression, school failure, delinquency, early pregnancy, and so on.
Still, for all the harm that feminism did to marriage — and to children — it would be foolish to think that unmarried women who have children today or who are leaving their husbands because of they won’t do the laundry are taking orders from NOW. In one respect it’s the opposite: After the revolution, women are still dying to become mothers, even if they can’t find a husband. Feminists weren’t able to undo nature. But their ideas have helped to weaken our most important social institution, or, as they might put it, our most important social construction.
Lopez: What does Katrina have to do with marriage?
Hymowitz: With all those horrific pictures from the Superdome and the ninth ward, Katrina briefly revived national interest in poverty, particularly black poverty. There was a rush of media chatter about what John Edwards calls “the two Americas.” What I try to show in my book is that there is no way to have this discussion honestly without introducing the subject of marriage. Thirty eight percent of single mothers are poor; compare that to fewer than eight percent of married couples in poverty – many of them recently arrived, low skilled immigrants, by they way. The median income for black married couples is just about the same as for white couples. Married couples amass far more wealth than their single counterparts; a study by a Ohio University economist reported that married couples increase their net wealth by about 16 percent per year; after 15 years they have 93 percent more net wealth than single and divorced individuals. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute has found that even the lowest income couples are better off than their single peers, with fewer spells of hardship and more help from extended family. This is not just because marriage brings the benefits of two incomes and two sets of hands. Saving and making money are in the DNA of American marriage, and have been since the first Englishmen arrived.
Lopez: Is single motherhood really a cycle and if so how can it be broken? Seems like it’s existed for a while now.
Hymowitz: It is for this reason: Single mothers are more likely to have children who will become single parents themselves. One of the single greatest risk factors for divorce, for instance, is having divorced parents.
It’s important to point out, by the way, that single parenthood is especially problematic in a knowledge economy where college is a prerequisite for middle-class status. Children growing up with single mothers are less likely to graduate high school, or if they do graduate, to go to college, or if they do go to college, to get their degree. So the cycle doesn’t just perpetuate single parenthood over generations; it perpetuates poor prospects. That’s why I talk about marriage and caste.
Lopez: Is anyone listening to the likes of Bill Cosby and Juan Williams on the topic of fatherhood?
Hymowitz: There’s a lot of father hunger in the black community. I spoke with any number of young black men who are intensely bitter towards the fathers who abandoned them and are determined to do better by their own kids. And many blacks know something is deeply wrong in their communities. Unfortunately, few of them realize that a lot of what ails them can be attributed to a 70 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate. Low-income young men may want to “step up for their kids,” but they don’t believe that means marrying their kids’ mothers. Cosby scolds parents for raising “knuckleheads”; I’d like to hear him explain how marriage helps them avoid doing that.
Lopez: Does Barack Obama have a unique opportunity and responsibility on some of these issues?
Hymowitz: Absolutely. Obama offers a chance to introduce an entirely new persona and perhaps a new language into politics, a black man who carries no resentment and bitterness, who believes in personal responsibility and initiative, who grew up with a single mother, yet who has become solidly middle class, meaning in addition to earning a decent living, he is married with children. Orlando Patterson has written about the terrible mistrust and anger that exists between black men and women. Obama is — or appears to be — something blacks don’t see all that often — an affectionate and loyal modern husband. The idea of the “role model” tends to be overvalued, but it may be worth something in Obama’s case.
That said, I’m not holding my breath waiting for Obama to proselytize for the revival of black marriage, during primary season at any rate. In the current environment of Democratic politics, there’s not much to be gained, and much to be lost, by bringing up the M-word.
Lopez: How much is the culture to blame for the state of marriage in America?
Hymowitz: A lot. Popular culture is the soundtrack — a really cool soundtrack, by the way — for the unmarriage revolution. With Britney and Katie and Angelina, you can’t get that song out of your head. The soundtrack says the good life is about being cool, looking hot, and seeking pleasure however you want it. Marriage is great when it’s the culmination of a romantic love story, but if the going gets tough, it’s on to the next pleasure. In a more general way popular culture feeds dissatisfaction and heightens expectations, something that is not necessarily helpful to couples who will often need a hefty dose of common sense in their lives.
Lopez: To what degree is same-sex marriage contributing to a weakening of marriage? Is it more a symptom of an institution already decaying?
Hymowitz: I think it’s the latter. The unmarriage revolution of the last 40 years had to occur before gay marriage became a logical possibility, because it was only when marriage had nothing or little to do with children that it made any sense. Pro-gay-marriage conservatives know this. Jonathan Rauch has written in response to the sort of argument I make that “the debate is over about detaching marriage from parenthood — indeed was over years ago;” Andrew Sullivan has said much the same thing. Well, there you have it. Marriage-and-children? That’s so yesterday.
Despite this, Rauch has argued that gay marriage will increase the institution’s standing in American society. But as I’ve already pointed out, the problem is not that Americans don’t value marriage. It’s that they view it as an adult love relationship having little to do with children. That’s precisely the underlying premise for gay marriage.
Lopez: Would marriage be in better shape if more people voted Republican?
Hymowitz: Mary Cheney should dispel that idea. True, Republicans are probably more open to the arguments I’ve laid out in my book than Democrats, but the unmarriage revolution is now embedded in our culture in a way that transcends politics. As liberals are fond of pointing out, divorce rates are highest in red America. (Though so are marriage rates.) Out-of-wedlock birth rates and divorce rates soared during Reagan’s presidency while they stalled during the Clinton years; teen pregnancy rates also declined dramatically during that time. To (almost) quote Moynihan, the great conservative truth is that it is culture not politics that determines the success of marriage.
Lopez: What’s the ideal pro-marriage presidential platform? How can a leader at that level buck up marriage?
Hymowitz: Well, Moynihan also said the great liberal truth is that politics can save culture, but in this case, I am not so sure. There are a few policy incentives we can tinker with to improve the state of marriage among low-income folks — increasing the child tax deduction, expanding the EITC and so forth.
But the most important thing a president can do is to start a serious — and necessarily painful — conversation on a subject about which Americans remain extremely confused and conflicted. Have a summit on black marriage. Convene Hollywood and record company “creatives” to look at their own role in this. Get the poverty advocates and welfare establishment to take a hard look at the data and consider domestic policy in light of its potential impact on marriage. Talk to business leaders about what’s at stake; as I’ve been saying the unmarriage revolution is a business and economic story, as well as a social and cultural one.
This approach might also have the benefit of defusing the gay-marriage discussion. I don’t believe gay marriage is going to be the gift that keeps on giving to conservatives. Americans may oppose gay marriage by considerable margins, but my guess is a lot of them are uncomfortable with the animus they sense in some of the debate and don’t like thinking of themselves as intolerant. Going after the disease — the unmarriage revolution – rather than the symptom — gay marriage — is not only a more accurate strategy, it’s smart politics.
Lopez: Can Britney Spears be saved?
Hymowitz: The better question is: Can we be saved — from Britney!