Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of the conservative City Journal and author of Marriage and Caste in America. Her latest article contains a wealth of valuable information:
When Charles Murray’s best-selling Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 appeared a few months ago. . . Critics objected that the real source of misery in the [white working class] wasn’t a lack of marriages; it was the extinction of manufacturing jobs. The disagreement was familiar to culture-war veterans: conservatives versus liberals, family breakdown versus dearth of good jobs, culture versus economics.
[Yes,] globalization, technology, and the knowledge economy have wrenchingly changed the working-class world. Still, Coming Apart is correct: you can’t grasp what’s happening at the lower end of the income scale without talking about family breakdown. . . the single-mother revolution.
[It] started in the 1960s, when the nation began to sever the historical connection between marriage and childbearing and to turn single motherhood and the fatherless family into a viable, even welcome, arrangement for children and for society. The reasons [included] the sexual revolution, a powerful strain of anti-marriage feminism, and a superbug of American individualism that hit the country in the 1960s and ’70s.
The embrace of “lone motherhood”—women bringing up kids with no dad around—has been an American specialty. “By age thirty, one-third of American women had spent time as lone mothers,” observed family scholar Andrew Cherlin in his 2009 book The Marriage-Go-Round. “In European countries such as France, Sweden, and the western part of Germany, the comparable percentages were half as large or even less.” . . cohabiting relationships here, unlike those in Europe, have short shelf lives. According to [a study that] examined couples in large American cities in the 1990s, about half of cohabiting couples split before their child was five—compared with just 18% of married couples.
the single-mother revolution . . . has been an economic catastrophe. [A]mong married couples with children[,] only 8.8% [are poor], up from 6.7% since the start of the Great Recession. But over 40% of single-mother families are poor, up from 37% before the downturn . . . of the two-fifths of bottom-quintile households that are families, 83% are headed by single mothers. The Brookings Institute’s [sic] Isabel Sawhill calculates that virtually all the increase in child poverty in the United States since the 1970s would vanish if parents still married at 1970 rates.Hymowitz takes on the liberal argument that unskilled, low-earning women are hard up not because they lack husbands, but because the unskilled are more likely to become single mothers:
The Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman tried to address that objection by studying low-income women who had entered “shotgun” unions—that is, getting married after getting pregnant—on the theory that they represented a population roughly similar to those who got pregnant but didn’t marry. The married women, he found, had a significantly higher standard of living than the unmarried ones. “Even among the mothers with the least qualifications and highest risks of poverty,” Lerman concluded, “marriage effects are consistently large and statistically significant.”How did we so fail to understand the simple truth that two incomes are better than one? And two adults at the dinner table?! “It takes two committed adults—a marriage—to raise a child.” Hymowitz continues:
many single mothers are barely getting by. . . A father’s contribution to the family income, even if it was just $15,000, would dramatically improve the mother’s lot, not to mention that of [the] children. [And if you are married], it’s still possible to move up to the middle class, despite the factory closings . . . Ron Haskins of the Economic Mobility Project [found that] “If young people do three things—graduate from high school, get a job, and get married and wait until they’re 21 before having a baby—they have an almost 75% chance of making it into the middle class.”
the single-mother revolution encouraged lower-income men and women to think that mothers could manage on their own—at the very historical moment that their children needed more education, more training, and more planning. The rise in single motherhood was ill adapted for the economic shifts of the late twentieth century.Meanwhile, Hymowitz, like Murray, has found how profoundly different it is at upper economic levels, where parents have accommodated both their child-rearing and marital habits to the new economic reality. College-educated mothers see children and marriage as a package deal; they marry before having children, with divorce rates falling since the 1980s. Partners practice “assortative mating,” marrying those of similar educational status, in contrast to past “marrying up” of, say, nurses to doctors and secretaries to bosses.
The household income implications are obvious. Hymowitz notes “a lawyer was always likely to earn more than a plumber—but today, plenty of upper-income households are headed by two lawyers.” One study found that assortative mating brought about a 25% to 30% increase in inequality among married-couple families between 1967 and 200, with far wider gap between power couples and single-mother families.
Additionally, assortative mating pays for music and art classes, books, sports, and tutoring. Two parents actively invested in children’s well-being, living in the house, means spending more time with their kids even though mothers are more likely to be at the office during the day, with the increases especially high among college-educated parents. High-income parents of children up to six years old spent an average of 1,300 more hours than lower-income parents taking their children beyond home, day-care, or school.
Hymowitz writes that college-educated parents, unsurprisingly, are responding to college admissions competition by “building their kids’ cognitive, social, and emotional skills even in the earliest years.” This approach turns children into competitive workers in a knowledge-based economy, while below, not only do poorer children have fewer “enrichment expenditures,” they also get less mother time and involvement, reflected in educational outcomes and so future earnings.
To me, it’s so overwhelmingly cultural. Our upper class—Asian, Hebrew, Protestant ethic—“tiger parents” raising self-reliant children. Our lower class—dependent, “entitled” (it begins with welfare)—products of the gigantic and failed “Great Society” anti-poverty social experiment, a welfare state keeping them in dependency.
Hymowitz concludes, “At the bottom is a negative feedback loop, with kids raised by single mothers in unstable, low-investment homes finding themselves unable to adapt to today’s economy and going on to create more unstable, single-mother homes. . . the makings of a caste society, with an inherited elite and an entrenched proletariat.”