It Really Was The Culture, Stupid
Jordan Weissman, who covers economics for Slate, says “liberals shouldn’t be afraid to admit” that cultural change destroyed the two-parent family. Excerpt:
There are obvious reasons to be skeptical about affluent pundits who jump to blame society’s ills on moral decadence and decay; namely, it’s a convenient excuse not to spend tax dollars fixing the country’s problems. That said, I think more liberals need to get comfortable acknowledging that, even if it doesn’t explain the whole story, culture probably has played a role in the changes that have rocked domestic life for so much of the country.
Putnam makes this point early in Our Kids: Of the values-versus-economics debate, he says simply that, “The most reasonable view is that both are important.” How come? For one, we can look back to the Great Depression as an historical counterpoint to the trends we’ve witnessed in recent decades. With mass unemployment, the marriage rate tumbled during the 1930s, “showing the perennial importance of economic stability in the marriage calculus.” At the same, however, the birth rate also fell, and unwed childbearing remained rare. “In that era, men and women postponed procreation as well as matrimony,” Putnam writes. “ ‘No marriage license, no kids’ was the cultural norm. Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored.”
Sociologist Andrew Cherlin makes a similar point in Labor’s Love Lost, his recent exploration of “the rise and fall of the working class family in America.” It is virtually impossible to disentangle the many social and economic changes that may have led to the rise of single-motherhood, the Johns Hopkins professor argues. The pill, the sexual revolution, and the advent of no-fault divorce were followed shortly by declining manufacturing employment, and no amount of econometric modeling is going to realistically apportion blame to one cause or the other. But historical comparisons suggest it all played a role. The first Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, was another time of economic upheaval and economic polarization, when old crafts jobs were being displaced by industrialization. And just like today, there was a fairly large gap in marriage rates between working-class and white-collar men. Yet out-of-wedlock childbirth was unusual up and down the class ladder. Likewise, Cherlin notes that the Depression didn’t cause single-parenthood to spike, even as male breadwinners lost their livelihoods and marriage slumped.
The 1970s, and their aftermath, were different. As steady, union-wage jobs along the assembly lines became scarce, traditional family life began to fray among the working class—so that, now, “three-fourths of young mothers who have no bachelor’s degree have had at least one child outside of marriage.” The difference was culture. The country lost its hang-ups about premarital sex, and it slowly became normal to raise a kid outside of marriage. Where accidental pregnancies had once regularly led to shotgun weddings, it became more common for couples to simply move in together (or keep living together, for that matter). Were those relationships as stable as marriages, nobody would be worried about it today. But unfortunately, co-habiting couples with children tend to break up, and the kids suffer for it.
“Had norms not changed, the growth of childbearing outside of marriage that we have recently seen among today’s unmarried low-educated and moderately educated young adults would not have occurred, even given the rise in income inequality,” Cherlin writes. College-educated Americans were able to adapt to changing mores because the economy was kind to them. But a shifting job market and easing taboos combined to tear a hole in the rest of the country’s social fabric.
Weissman says that researchers who actually go out out and talk to single moms who choose to have children outside of wedlock find that they (reasonably enough) don’t want to marry men who can’t or won’t find work, they also don’t want to defer or deny themselves children. And because we live in a culture in which there is no longer much of a taboo against it, they have kids. Who suffer.
But the basic point is this: In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.
So however much money matters, something else is clearly going on.
The post-1960s cultural revolution isn’t the only possible “something else.” But when you have a cultural earthquake that makes society dramatically more permissive and you subsequently get dramatic social fragmentation among vulnerable populations, denying that there is any connection looks a lot like denying the nose in front of your face.
Yesterday I was talking with an old friend from DC who has spent his life active in Democratic politics. He’s a liberal through and through, and though white, has always had a strong interest, both personal and professional, in the lives of poor black people. We were talking about the new Putnam book. My friend is an older man now, and he said that one thing he has learned from having labored all his professional life in this arena is the irreplaceable power of culture — in particular, the culture of marriage and the two-parent family. He said Moynihan was right, and referenced, I think (because he did not name the writer), this George F. Will column saying so. Excerpt:
In the mid-1960s, a social scientist noted something ominous that came to be called “Moynihan’s Scissors”: Two lines on a graph crossed, replicating the blades of a scissors. The descending line charted the decline in the minority male unemployment rate. The ascending line charted the simultaneous rise of new welfare cases.
The broken correlation of improvements in unemployment and decreased welfare dependency shattered confidence in social salvation through economic growth and reduced barriers to individual striving. Perhaps the decisive factors in combating poverty and enabling upward mobility were not economic but cultural — the habits, mores and dispositions that equip individuals to take advantage of opportunities.
This was dismaying because governments know how to alter incentives and remove barriers but not how to manipulate culture. The assumption that the condition of the poor must improve as macroeconomic conditions improve was to be refuted by a deepened understanding of the crucial role of the family as the primary transmitter of the social capital essential for self-reliance and betterment. Family structure is the primary predictor of social outcomes, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew in 1965.
My friend said that polling his team had done for a particular state race a few years back showed that African Americans supported the view that fixing broken families was key to solving the problem of persistent poverty even more than white voters did. “It’s going to take African Americans to say that, though,” said my friend. “Whites can’t do it. We don’t have the moral authority.”
I told my friend that whether they admit it or not, middle-class white people know that family structure is hugely important. They live by it. They may not advocate for this view because they don’t want to be denounced as racist or, when out of wedlock childbearing is done by whites, intolerant, insensitive, or mean. But they quietly secede from social circles where it is becoming normalized, or even physically move away from communities where it is becoming normalized. (By “normalized,” I don’t mean an unfortunate occurrence that must be accommodated for the sake of mercy and compassion, but as something that is within the natural order of things, and therefore unremarkable.)
My friend — again, an old-school Great Society liberal — agreed. Point is, don’t pay attention to what middle-class people say; watch what they do.
Noting the Slate writer’s idea that we certainly can’t Turn Back The Clock™, so we ought to make the best of all this wonderful cultural freedom brought to us by the Sexual Revolution, the reader who sent me the item writes that this is an example of the principle behind the Law of Merited Impossibility:
I can’t make this stuff up.
Seriously. Culture will NOT destroy the two-parent traditional family. But when it does, we should celebrate.
I might not agree with you regarding all the details about the state of the culture. But if this article did not exist, you’d have to make it up.
UPDATE: Alan Cross comments:
Maybe none of this makes any real sense without God involved in it or at the center of it and that was kind of the point of what Christians have been saying for a really long time? The Enlightenment took God/Revelation out as a unifying factor and said that human Reason aided/shaped by education would lead us all to the same basic understanding of what human flourishing looks like and then we could pragmatically develop ways and means to achieve successful, liberal, free societies.
We now know that the Enlightenment Project has utterly failed because we cannot possibly agree on what human flourishing looks like, what hinders it, and how we can solve our problems. We become more and more fragmented because the only thing that we really do agree on is that we all need to pursue our best life now, as long is it fits with what “society” deems is acceptable. The problem is that “society” and it values/truth is not rooted in anything objective other than what can be shouted loudest, advertised, manipulated, and forced upon the rest of the people through persuasion and even force. Reason is no longer appealed to. Just persuasion and ridicule if one does not get with the program.
Anyone opposing the Sexual Revolution over the past 40 years has been mocked, jeered, and criticized. But, we see objectively that it is a complete failure in producing any form of human flourishing other than gratifying personal desire, which is nothing to build a society on. The evidence is in. But, we aren’t a society that appeals to or is convinced by evidence any longer. Having thrown out Revelation and then having thrown out Reason, all that we have left is Persuasion and Power, which is why the Cultural Left knows that if they want to run things, they do it through the Arts and Media. And, they have been incredibly successful.
What is being demonstrated in this comment thread is that we are in hopeless disagreement about what the problems actually are, how they are fixed, and what human flourishing actually looks like. If we all followed Ampersand’s way, the human race would die out in a generation, but we would say that it was a good thing because, really, who wants to deal with all of the fuss?