Marriage and Caste in America:
Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age
by Kay Hymowitz
Ivan R. Dee. 179 pp. $22.50.
The U.S. government recently announced that 36.8 percent of the children born in America in 2005 were born out of wedlock. In other words, almost 4 of every 10 American newborns were placed into the arms of unmarried mothers with no real claims on the men who impregnated them. Very few of these parents will end up marrying each other, and very few of the fathers will be permanent presences in the lives of their children. The children themselves will have meaner and more marginal lives than their peers in two-parent families.
The number is staggering, and at least as much of a threat to our way of life as anything Osama bin Laden has cooked up. Yet it is met with a collective shrug. Indeed, we are now so inured to such statistics that we regard them as a fact of nature, about which little can be done. Because child-bearing outside of marriage is a subject wrapped up with the highly fraught issues of sex, race, and personal mores, politicians tend to avoid it. Academics often try to quantify it, but in ways that miss the human element of the problem.
What distinguishes the writings of Kay S. Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute (and a distinguished contributor to COMMENTARY), is her bracingly clear description of the causes and effects of the breakdown of marriage as the central institution of American society. As she demonstrates in her illuminating new book, Marriage and Caste in America, the country has yet to recover from the loss of a norm that, until the 1960’s, was shared by every class and race.
For most of American history, Hymowitz writes, marriage was thought to be the best way to raise children who would have the independence and responsibility needed to be free citizens of a republic. In the 1960’s, this traditional idea gave way to a much less child-centered notion of the institution. Marriage was reconceived strictly as a contract between consenting adults, denoting private love; and divorce was made easier. Around the same time, court decisions gutted the millennia-old distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy as a legal status.
The heart of Hymowitz’s account is a disturbing portrait of the two distinct cultures that have emerged in the U.S. in response to this radical change. The American middle class has largely kept its bearings, remaining tightly focused on personal and material achievement. The real victims of the shift have been members of the American underclass, white and especially black. Hymowitz’s thesis is that a de-facto caste system has emerged in the U.S., with generation after generation inheriting chaotic family lives and bleak prospects.
Many analysts would agree that marriage is important. But Hymowitz argues forcefully that whether people marry before having children is the definitive factor in deciding their offspring’s long-term social and material success. As she sees it, marriage itself—not its associated benefits, like two incomes or “two pairs of hands”—is the central issue. Children born to cohabiting couples, she reports, enjoy many fewer positive outcomes in terms of school and employment, and so do children raised by, say, a remarried mother and a stepfather.
Hymowitz illustrates her thesis in chapters with titles like “The Black Family: Forty-Plus Years of Lies,” “Dads in the ’Hood,” and “The Teen Mommy Track.” Here she attempts to explain why inner-city teenagers continue to behave in ways almost guaranteed to keep them mired in poverty and struggle. The problem, she suggests, is not perverse economic incentives, a failure to understand contraception, a lack of good jobs that would make men more marriageable, or even low self-esteem. Rather, it is that, unlike their middle-class peers, these young people have not internalized the “life script” of education, work, marriage, and child-bearing—in that order.
As Hymowitz writes, “discipline, foresight, and bourgeois willingness to delay gratification are . . . traits developed over time through adults’ prodding and example.” Children raised in communities where almost no one is married are hard-pressed to teach themselves how to move, one step at a time, through the normal middle-class trajectory. Nor can classes on contraception or work skills outweigh a lifetime of ambient culture. Hymowitz introduces us to young men who yearn to be better fathers than the ones who sired them and then disappeared, but they simply do not know how, having never seen it done. Nor are they likely to learn, given that their own children are the products of casual liaisons. And the children? It is hard to see how they will do better. This is precisely how a caste solidifies.
What about all of the unwed mothers who are professionals or have personal wealth? As Hymowitz notes, the educated, highly paid women who can best afford to have children alone are the least likely to do so. Most successful women have deeply absorbed the bourgeois blueprint, and are intent on ensuring that a desirable marriage precedes child-bearing. Indeed, after a generation of broken marriages and the visible damage they have done to children, the divorce rate among college-educated couples has dropped significantly, even as it has remained high for the less educated.
Kay Hymowitz has the gift of being able to convey complicated ideas, theories, and history in language that is lucid and—most precious of all in discussions of marriage and family—witty. It is a pleasure to read her essays. In her portraits of hapless teen parents, she is generous without being gullible, showing the disparity between their hopes and the realities of their behavior.
At the same time, she is able to expose the flabby thinking of influential policy analysts like Harvard’s David Ellwood, who oversaw welfare reform for the Clinton administration but cannot grasp that when it comes to child-bearing, underclass teens will not follow his Ivy League notions of rationality. On the other side of the divide, particularly delightful is her chapter on “The Mission,” as she memorably calls the single-minded, half-mad devotion of married, educated, middle-class mothers to the task of rearing children ready to compete for the goodies available in our rich, highly complex society.
But is Hymowitz right? Can the variables that determine success and failure be reduced to whether or not children live with their married parents? If we stipulate (as Hymowitz does) that there are many exceptions to the rule, and that getting and staying married indicates other useful behaviors that lead to success—like the ability to plan, to exercise self-discipline, and to navigate interpersonal relationships—then the answer is probably yes.
The chief shortcoming of Marriage and Caste in America is that it was written not as a book but as a series of essays, most of them previously published in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. The majority of these pieces make an intelligent, compelling case. But taken as a whole they leave too many questions unanswered. Some of Hymowitz’s more contentious claims—especially about the harmful effects of divorce and single-motherhood on the educational attainment of children—cry out for documentation, unfortunately not supplied or cited. Similarly, the book lacks a bibliography.
More substantively, Hymowitz’s emphasis on the primacy of culture is an important corrective to liberal orthodoxy, but it leads her to scant the considerable economic literature on family disintegration. Though she refers to recent economic theories about the disappearance of marriage in the underclass, and demonstrates what is wrong with explanations that focus only on unemployment or “postindustrial” dislocation, there is more to be said about economic and welfare policy—especially if the ultimate goal is to restore the culture of marriage in the inner city.
After all, the disintegration of the marriage culture among black families was preceded by the passage of generous welfare policies that facilitated out-of-wedlock motherhood. Nor, on the middle-class side of the tracks, is it an accident that divorce became prevalent as the U.S. grew much richer in the late 1960’s. What if wealth permanently undermines the discipline necessary for sustained marriages?
Such questions have no ready answers, and Hymowitz has few prescriptions for what should be done about our family mores. Her signature idea of a “life script” is a brilliant metaphor that deserves wide circulation, but (as she recognizes) exhortation by the government does not carry much credibility. The real attraction of Kay Hymowitz’s book is that she has thought her way through some of the most tangled webs of human behavior, arriving at clear and forceful conclusions about what is missing from the impoverished lives that she describes so well.