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Shocking New Findings: Get Married, Stay Married, Live Well

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. Married parents are more likely to be visiting their married children and their grandchildren in their comfortable suburban homes, and those married children will in turn be sending their offspring off to good colleges, superior jobs, and wedding parties. Instead of an opportunity-rich country for all, the Marriage Gap threatens us with a rigid caste society. ~Kay Hymowitz, City Journal

Via Chris Roach.

This should hardly be news, as it confirms what practically every reactionary and conservative has had to say about the social importance of marriage since this natural relationship began to questioned and ridiculed as outmoded, oppressive or what-have-you. Nonetheless, it deserves to be discussed often, and articles like this are a good indication that the misguided nicety of lauding the 'hard-working single mom', as if the burden of her labours and her marital status were unconnected, will soon be just another ugly relic of the 1990s.

Historians and anthropologists in the future will have difficulty making sense of modern American attitudes towards marriage and children. Few societies, if indeed there have been any, have so willfully dedicated themselves simultaneously to removing many social duties from men, treating the abandonment of women through divorce as liberation, largely abandoning public shame, conscripting its women, so to speak, in the labour force as if there were a perpetual war on and systematically designing educational institutions to the marked disadvantage of boys. They will assume, after studying the effects, that Americans and their Western cousins had become at once puerile and horribly misogynistic in some freakish departure from previous norms. If their evidence is limited, they may be completely mystified as to what would cause this sort of social perversion. They will check and re-check their evidence and find, to their surprise, that most of the people they are studying were professing Christians, yet even every dignity that the Faith had bestowed upon women that had been denied them previously was being consciously stripped away.

It is noteworthy that Ms. Hymowitz invokes "caste society," which is a phrase that is supposed to scare Americans, as it has been the conscious embrace of individual choice and the pseudo-freedom it represents that has brought us to this pass. Caste societies maintain clear demarcations between different status groups, but even the shudra and the Dalit marry and are expected to be married for life, because they live in what remains a fairly traditional society in which the family has a very significant role in a person's life.

What Ms. Hymowitz paints for us is a picture of a future America in which the two (at least) castes have entirely different ways of life with entirely different conceptions of time--it will be the rise of the first individualistic caste system, in which individuals actually select themselves and their descendants into the bottom castes until it creates a more permanent social structure. What we may also be seeing is the rise of extremely sharp class divisions as there were in Europe, defined by nothing more complex than 'time-preference' with the ruling class taking a generational view and the lower orders preoccupied with more immediate and self-centered goals. The respective attitudes to marriage would suggest very different time-preferences among the two groups.

Those who have rather naively sought the "opportunity society" by confusing the gaining of opportunities with acting on impulse, reneging on responsibilities and failing to carry out commitments are finding that there is in the end no opportunity, and never has been, for those who cannot honour long-term obligations, of which marriage is one of the most obvious and important. At the very least, there will be no opportunities in the future for their children, for whose future welfare every parent-to-be should already be working today. Part of this wise foresight for women should be marriage, and Ms. Hymowitz's article suggests that the better-educated women have already figured this out, at least relatively speaking:

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.

Is this discrepancy also a function of greater native intelligence? I'll leave that to Mr. Sailer and the experts to determine, but my guess would be yes.

Now to the heart of the divide:

McLanahan observes that, after 1970, women at all income levels began to marry at older ages, and the average age of first marriage moved into the mid-twenties. But where mothers at the top of the income scale also put off having children until they were married, spending their years before marriage getting degrees or working, those at the bottom did neither.

The results radically split the experiences of children. Children in the top quartile now have mothers who not only are likely to be married, but also are older, more mature, better educated, and nearly three times as likely to be employed (whether full- or part-time) as are mothers of children in the bottom quartile. And not only do top-quartile children have what are likely to be more effective mothers; they also get the benefit of more time and money from their live-in fathers.

For children born at the bottom of the income scale, the situation is the reverse. They face a decrease in what McLanahan terms “resources”: their mothers are younger, less stable, less educated, and, of course, have less money. Adding to their woes, those children aren’t getting much (or any) financial support and time from their fathers. Surprisingly, McLanahan finds that in Europe, too—where welfare supports for “lone parents,” as they are known in Britain, are much higher than in the United States—single mothers are still more likely to be poor and less educated. As in the United States, so in Europe and, no doubt, the rest of the world: children in single-parent families are getting less of just about everything that we know helps to lead to successful adulthood.

So welfarism and individualism reinforce each other and generally work to the detriment of those who embrace them, as well as dooming their children to diminished prospects and limited horizons. The eventual political consequences of this are hard to avoid: unless this trend is reversed, there will either be an open and complete transition to oligarchy and the actual, legal disenfranchisement of most of those in the lower "caste," or the democracy of this "lower caste" will fashion a complete redistributionist, socialist system. Obviously marriage needs to be systematically reinforced and supported at all levels, beginning with considerable restriction of divorce. To make marriage suitably desirable for those disinclined to pursue it, all children in future born out of wedlock and their parents will have to suffer social and political stigma. We could profitably take a page out of the book of Athenian social norms here. If children were actively discriminated against socially and politically because of the parents' failure to get married, we would quickly see an end to this phenomenon on a large scale.

Further, the phenomenon of "cohabitation," which more than a few of my classmates over the years have been doing, is directly contributing to this social disaster:

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 only deliverymen or janitors.

Since marriages that follow an extensive period of "cohabitation" (the very word, in all its euphemistic vagueness, makes it sound as if we are observing animals in their natural surroundings) end in divorce at disproportionately high rates, and "cohabitation" is itself an extremely unstable relationship, it is hardly a matter of indifference for the rest of us whether people are engaged in this behaviour en masse. It is not a 'private' choice--they are inflicting costs on the rest of society and on their offspring, whether they want to admit it or not. For what it's worth, the men are going to settle for these arrangements, unstable and prone to failure as they are, because they are not obliged to do more. The men are going to prefer an arrangement such as "cohabitation" in which they get, on the most crass level, most of the benefits of having a wife and none of the obligations. Not surprisingly, the children of such couples also suffer:

But what, then, do we make of cohabiting parents? Two cohabiting parents also provide few of the benefits for kids that married couples do. The Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman has found that even when cohabiters resemble married couples in terms of education, number of children, and income, they experience more material hardship—things like an empty pantry or no phone or an electricity shutoff—and get less help from extended families when they do. And poverty rates of cohabiting-couple parents are double those of married couples. (Lerman’s study controls for education, immigration status, and race.)

Ms. Hymowitz concludes with an answer put less stridently than mine, but the idea is similar:

Marriage may not be a panacea. But it is a sine qua non.

Daniel Larison | January 20, 2006


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