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Black America & The Marriage Gap

As an addendum to the earlier discussion of America & hip-hop, consider this story from The New York Times. It begins with an anecdote about two white women, friends from childhood, who have ended up in very different places economically:

But a friendship that evokes parity by day becomes a study of inequality at night and a testament to the way family structure deepens class divides. Ms. Faulkner is married and living on two paychecks, while Ms. Schairer is raising her children by herself. That gives the Faulkner family a profound advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages.

Ms. Faulkner goes home to a trim subdivision and weekends crowded with children’s events. Ms. Schairer’s rent consumes more than half her income, and she scrapes by on food stamps.

“I see Chris’s kids — they’re in swimming and karate and baseball and Boy Scouts, and it seems like it’s always her or her husband who’s able to make it there,” Ms. Schairer said. “That’s something I wish I could do for my kids. But number one, that stuff costs a lot of money and, two, I just don’t have the time.”

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans like the Faulkners are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women like Ms. Schairer, who left college without finishing her degree, are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.


“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a Washington research group. Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women like Ms. Schairer who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

This is a hugely important story. Read the whole thing.  Both these friends came from modest class backgrounds, but the one who is in so much trouble today got pregnant in college, dropped out, and lived with the baby’s father for several years, and had two more kids by him, before they broke up, never having married. She’s now got three kids to raise, no man in the home, and a low income. As Jason De Parle, the author of the piece, demonstrates, the marriage gap accounts for the class divide to a massive degree. From the piece:

Scott Winship of the Brookings Institution examined the class trajectories of 2,400 Americans now in their mid-20s. Among those raised in the poorest third as teenagers, 58 percent living with two parents moved up to a higher level as adults, compared with just 44 percent of those with an absent parent.

A parallel story played out at the top: just 15 percent of teenagers living with two parents fell to the bottom third, compared with 27 percent of teenagers without both parents.

“You’re more likely to rise out of the bottom if you live with two parents, and you’re less likely to fall out of the top,” Mr. Winship said.

And, note well, this is not a black thing alone, not anymore. It started with black Americans before it hit white working class Americans, though — and the situation with black Americans in this regard suggests that once this dynamic gets started (the cycle of childbearing outside of wedlock and intergenerational poverty), it is very hard to arrest. Today, 72 percent of all black children in America are born to an unwed mother.  For whites, that number is at 29 percent. For means of comparison, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his infamous 1965 report, the number for black Americans was 24 percent; for whites, it was four percent.

Kay S. Hymowitz was all over this story six years ago. Excerpt:

Yet the women who are forgoing husbands are precisely the ones who can least afford to do so.

The conventional answer to the puzzle is this: in an economy marked by manufacturing decline, especially in cities, too many of the 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 only deliverymen or janitors. In a large and highly regarded study, the Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman concluded that married, low-income, low-educated women enjoyed significantly higher living standards than comparable single mothers. Joe Sixpack may not be Mr. Darcy, but financially, at any rate, he’s a lot better than no husband at all.

Still, whatever the arguments against it, the no-marriageable-men theory is entrenched in policy circles and in the academy and is unlikely to go anywhere soon, so let’s try another approach to the Marriage Gap conundrum. 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.

Hymowitz goes on:

As society’s bulwark social institution, traditional marriage—that is, childbearing within marriage—orders social life in ways that we only dimly understand.

For one thing, women who grow up in a marriage-before-children culture organize their lives around a meaningful and beneficial life script. Traditional marriage gives young people a map of life that takes them step by step from childhood to adolescence to college or other work training—which might well include postgraduate education—to the workplace, to marriage, and only then to childbearing. A marriage orientation also requires a young woman to consider the question of what man will become her husband and the father of her children as a major, if not the major, decision of her life. In other words, a marriage orientation demands that a woman keep her eye on the future, that she go through life with deliberation, and that she use self-discipline—especially when it comes to sex: bourgeois women still consider premature pregnancy a disaster. In short, a marriage orientation—not just marriage itself—is part and parcel of her bourgeois ambition.

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 babysitter, 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.

To bring this back to the discussion on the black family, it ought to be obvious from the more recent experience of white single mothers that it’s very hard for children raised in single-parent homes, whatever the race, to thrive. Not “impossible,” but a lot more difficult. The undeniable fact that what happened to blacks is happening to whites should tell us that there’s something more going on here than blaming slavery and Jim Crow for the collapse of the traditional black family. The social catastrophe that enveloped black America from 1960 on is now well established among white America, which never suffered slavery or Jim Crow. Today, it is less a historical legacy than a meme — a virus of culture that, once contracted, is hard to get rid of. No wonder people, white and black alike, who want to keep their children out of poverty and its pathologies want to get away from social environments in which this thought-virus is  well entrenched.

You can’t talk about this around liberals, though, because they always fall back on the “you can’t blame the victim” excuse, plus the materialist argument. For example, our president, says Heather Mac Donald:

In 1994, two particularly savage youth murders drew the usual feckless hand-wringing. An 11-year-old Black Disciples member from Roseland, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer (so called for his sweet tooth, the only thing childlike about him), had unintentionally killed a girl while shooting at (and paralyzing) a rival gang member. Sandifer’s fellow Black Disciples then executed him to prevent him from implicating them in the killing. A month later, after five-year-old Eric Morse refused to steal candy for an 11-year-old and a ten-year-old, the two dropped him from a 14th-story window in a housing complex, killing him. Eric’s eight-year-old brother had grabbed him to keep him from falling, but lost his hold when one of the boys bit him on the arm. None of the perpetrators or victims in either case came from two-parent families.

A year after these widely publicized killings, and on the eve of Obama’s first political campaign, the aspiring state senator gave an interview to theChicago Reader that epitomized the uselessness of Alinskyism in addressing black urban pathology—and that inaugurated the trope of community organizer as visionary politician. Obama attacks the Christian Right and the Republican Congress for “hijack[ing] the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility.” Yeah, sure, family values are fine, he says, but what about “collective action . . . collective institutions and organizations”? Let’s take “these same values that are encouraged within our families,” he urges, “and apply them to a larger society.”

Even if this jump from “family values” to “collective action” were a promising strategy, Obama overlooks a crucial fact: there are almost no traditional families in inner-city neighborhoods. Fathers aren’t “encouraging” values “within our families”; fathers are nowhere in sight. Moving to “collective action” is futile without a core of personal responsibility on which to build. Nevertheless, Obama leapfrogs over concrete individual failure to alleged collective failure: “Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant,” he told the Reader, “not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more.”

If only America hadn’t failed hip-hop!   Or something. Anything but the obvious.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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