Kay Hymowitz, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, Ivan R. Dee, 2006, 179 pp., $22.50.
Every society in human history has had a ceremony to mark the union of a man and woman and recognize their children. Marriage, which Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute calls “the core cultural institution,” is universal—at least it was until the late 1960s, when it became fashionable in the West to view it as just another “lifestyle.”
This excellent little book explains why marriage is important, and describes what we get when some mothers think they can do without it: “A self-perpetuating single-mother proletariat on the one hand, and a self-perpetuating, comfortable middle class on the other.” Nor does Mrs. Hymowitz ignore race. She recognizes that the “single-mother proletariat” is mostly back and increasingly Hispanic, and even has a go at trying to explain why.
‘Separate and Unequal Families’
Mrs. Hymowitz starts with a history lesson on marriage. She points out that up until the 1960s, it was essentially unheard of for Americans to have children without ever bothering to marry. There have always been class and race differences in this respect, but even among high school dropouts, barely one percent of American women had children without a husband. Divorce was rare: Ninety-five percent of marriages were permanent.
The big change came with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Feminists said marriage was sexist, hippies said it was unnecessary, and even the middle class decided it could be casually junked if Mom and Dad stopped getting along. Marriage became purely a matter of adult romance, and certainly not something to be held together for the sake of children. Broken homes and single mothers were “alternative families,” just as good as the real thing. Sex became pure recreation, with procreation as an afterthought.
All social classes, therefore, embarked together on what Mrs. Hymowitz calls “unmarriage,” but rich and poor soon parted ways. By the 1980s, the divorce rate among college-educated women stopped rising, and it started to decline in the 1990s. Among the poor, the divorce rate stopped climbing in the 1990s, but only because poor people were not marrying, so there were fewer marriages that could fall apart. As illegitimacy rates climbed to 70 percent for blacks and 45 percent for Hispanics, they peaked at just four percent for college-educated women and then headed down.
Mrs. Hymowitz’s point is that although close to 35 percent of American children are illegitimate and 40 to 50 percent of marriages are likely to fail, the norm for middle-class white women is once again children within marriage and “‘til death do us part.” Hollywood stars and sports celebrities still shuck spouses, and the media still treat this as liberated daring, but suburban couples who want their children to get into good schools stay together. Mrs. Hymowitz says informal polls show that about 90 percent of students in elite universities come from intact households.
The damage done by single motherhood and divorce are now well known. Thirty-six percent of female-headed families are poor, while only six percent of married-couple families are poor. Divorce clearly hurts children: Those from broken homes are significantly more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant, or go to jail. In this respect, remarriage or long-term cohabitation are not substitutes for the real thing: “As society’s bulwark social institution, traditional marriage—that is, childbearing within marriage—orders social life in ways that we only dimly understand,” writes Mrs. Hymowitz.
College educated women understand this instinctively. They know that a permanent father is the best guarantee that children will stay in school, go to college, keep out of jail, and climb into the security of the middle class. It’s a bonus if marriage is a life-long love affair, but it has a more important role: “In middle-class families the child’s development—emotional, social, and (these days above all) cognitive—takes center stage. It is the family’s raison d’être, its state religion.” Mrs. Hymowitz continues: “The bourgeois nuclear family is by its very definition a factory for producing competent, self-reliant, and (at its most successful) upwardly mobile children.” Marriage may not guarantee successful children, but for the middle class, it is an absolute precondition for having them.
Mrs. Hymowitz writes that the mentality that leads to marriage means a woman must follow a particular “life script,” and that this mentality is what makes the middle class different from the underclass:
“A marriage orientation . . . 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.”
It is one of Mrs. Hymowitz’s key insights that underclass women are not simply middle-class women who happen to be poor or happen not to know how to use contraceptives. They have a different “life script” or, perhaps more accurately, they do not have one at all. Policy makers keep making the mistake of assuming underclass women have all the same motives and aspirations of the middle class but just don’t have the means. They think that a little more money and a course in “life skills” will end reckless procreation and put poor women on the road to the suburbs. Mrs. Hymowitz bravely explains that this isn’t so, and that for many blacks it is emphatically not so.
It has been taboo to discuss the mating habits of blacks ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out that a black illegitimacy rate of (just) 25 percent portended disaster. When he wrote in 1965 that “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure,” he was hooted down for “blaming the victim.” Liberals insisted that the problem was “racism,” not illegitimacy, and that it was “sexist” to think black women needed husbands. The black “family” was touted as a resilient, multi-generational network of extended kin that could give children a better start than the isolated, white two-parent family. Liberals were convinced the government would abolish poverty, and that a new era of happy, well-adjusted “alternative families” was around the corner. Of course, Moynihan was right, and we are now stuck with an entrenched black underclass and a growing Hispanic underclass.
How did it happen? Mrs. Hymowitz tries to answer that question by explaining how the underclass really thinks. She says that what most strikes whites is the passivity of ghetto mothers. For them “sex simply happens. Then babies happen. In fact, life happens.” Mothers then expect babies that “happened” to grow up more or less on their own, while middle-class mothers “are strategizing their children’s growth the way the generals planned D-day.”
Underclass mothers do not plan. The future “happens” like everything else. And yet, as many have noted, 15-year-old black mothers talk casually about becoming doctors or lawyers, as if that too will just “happen.” They have no idea of the effort and dedication it takes to get into the middle class.
That marriage and a husband are an important part of that process is beyond their grasp. In ghetto housing where no one even knows anyone who is married, fathers are “the extra parent,” occasionally useful as a source of cash. “Why do I need to worry about a father?” asks a newly pregnant 15-year-old. “My mother raised me and my sister just fine without one.” She adds: “All my friends have babies. I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me.”
Mrs. Hymowitz points out that for underclass teen-agers, a baby is definitely not an unwelcome interruption to their studies. They want babies. They will probably not see any of the other rites of passage to adulthood—high school graduation, college, first real job, marriage, down payment on a house—so babies are the only thing that distinguishes them from children. There is never a shortage of boys who will knock them up. Mrs. Hymowitz writes of underclass men who tattoo themselves with the names of their illegitimate children the way pilots painted kills on their fighters. She says some may deliberately puncture condoms so they can add to the list.
Nine months later, neighborhood women fawn over the new mother and her baby, who gets paraded around in cute clothes. The parade lasts until about age two, when children begin to talk back and become trouble. Then, says Mrs. Hymowitz , mothers lose interest and dress them like bums.
Many people have noted how different ghetto black mothers are from middle-class whites. In the suburbs, mothers talk constantly to children, encourage them to learn, praise their accomplishments, shower them with affection and attention. Underclass mothers not only talk much less; their speech is harsh, and centered on the word “no.”
By the time black children are in kindergarten, they are “much less likely to show persistence in school tasks, to pay attention in class, or to seem eager to learn new things” compared to whites. Hispanics are somewhere in between. Underclass mothers leave education entirely to the schools.
Sociologists have noticed that children do better if they have parents who talk to them, read to them, and check their homework. Some liberals have been so stupid as to set up programs to pay ghetto mothers to do these things in the hope it will make a difference. As Mrs. Hymowitz points out, middle-class parents are not following a “parenting skills” checklist. Their child-rearing mission comes from the heart, and paying someone to go through the motions is futile.
Head Start was touted in its early years as the way to close the black/white gap, but Mrs. Hymowitz points out that even the most intensive “early intervention” efforts like the Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project got poor results. She notes there is still Head Start here and there, but says it is just a fancy pre-school. No one thinks it is going to change a child’s life.
Mrs. Hymowitz claims that some of the “accidental fathers” in the underclass have a vague sense of responsibility to their children. She says they realize it was a disadvantage to grow up without a father, and want to do better. To the extent this is true, these young men face terrible obstacles. They have never known a man who was part of a long-term child-rearing team, and have no idea how to be fathers. At the same time, they may have children by several women who, in turn, have children by several men. With the best will in the world, this kind of tangle leads, in Mrs. Hymowitz ‘s words, to “confusion, jealousy rage, abandonment, and violence.”
Underclass fathers reportedly pay more attention to sons than to daughters. Mrs. Hymowitz says this is because the only people they could ever count on were “homies.” Women are good for sex but are not friends or allies. A daughter will just be another fickle female but a son might grow up to be a pal.
Mrs. Hymowitz writes that the current generation of middle-class young people—the Generation Xers—are more conservative about marriage than their baby-boomer parents. She says many suffered through their parents’ divorces, and have vowed to spare their own children. According to pollsters, they are considerably more likely than their parents to say that traditional families are best.
Mrs. Hymowitz says Gen X is more conservative across the board: far more likely than the ‘60s generation to agree that making money is important; less inclined to drink, take drugs, or have sex for sport. They are also finished with feminism. Many think Mom should stay home with the kids. They saw their own mothers drag themselves off to work and come home beat, counting the days until the next vacation. They don’t believe bra-burner propaganda about how careers liberate women. Gen X wives may want their husbands to help around the house, but they want to be “nester-in-chief”—as Mrs. Hymowitz says “they like being boss at home.” She says taking the husband’s name is back in vogue, and cites the occasional female MBA who ditched a high-powered career to stay home and breastfeed.
The new generation of the middle-class-to-be, argues Mrs. Hymowitz , has suffered the consequences of treating marriage lightly and will not repeat their parents’ folly. “The question that confronts us now,” she adds, “is whether the poor and near-poor can do the same.” The short answer to that question is “no,” and the reason is that a whole class of Americans has drifted into a dysgenic dead end.
Genes or Harp Lessons?
As Mrs. Hymowitz herself recognizes, there is a real question here as to what causes what. If, by some miracle, the same teenagers who are having children by accident were to wait five years, get married, and then have children, how much difference would it make? Mrs. Hymowitz toys with the idea that people who cannot graduate from high school or keep a job may simply be defective. Their children will be defective too, because they inherit their parents’ defects, not because Daddy didn’t read them Winnie the Pooh. Mrs. Hymowitz quickly drops this idea, however, no doubt because it leads in disagreeable directions.
Environment surely makes a difference, but genes are a big part of the problem. If the average black IQ is 85, the average IQ in the projects is surely no more than 75. People with IQs of 75 can hold jobs, and sometimes even marry and rear children, but only if they are surrounded by smarter people who set an example and help them lead orderly lives.
Whole neighborhoods are now full of people with 75 IQs, where not a single person lives responsibly, and from which not even a child with an IQ of 100 could probably escape. As Mrs. Hymowitz points out, these people are not like white Gen Xers. They have learned no lessons from the folly of their parents. They drop out of high school to have babies and still think they are going to become lawyers. Each new crop of babies is a generation of double victims—dealt a sorry genetic hand and born into the worst environments in the developed world. Mrs. Hymowitz is right to say “programs” will do nothing unless there is a revolution in the way the underclass thinks, but shows us no signs of revolution.
Economically, the underclass could not have come at a worse time. Even if its members had the gumption to show up on time for blue-collar jobs, those jobs no longer support a family. Not even a college degree guarantees a middle-class salary these days, and many blacks and Hispanics are lucky to get a GED.
Mrs. Hymowitz applauds the 1996 welfare reform that cut off automatic raises for every new welfare baby, and limited the number of years a woman could stay on the dole. Liberals screamed that blacks would be starving in the streets. Instead, the number of black children living with two parents had inched up—to 39 percent. Isn’t the lesson that there should be no welfare at all? If 15-year-olds knew that they would be entirely on their own with that baby—or that they were going to have to go begging to friends and family—there would be a lot fewer underclass babies. The hard truth is that some people should not have children, period.
This is farther than Mrs. Hymowitz cares to go. Publishers like books with happy endings, or at least hold out prospects for one. But Mrs. Hymowitz has gone a great deal farther than most, and hers is one of the most readable, persuasive defenses of marriage in a long time. She even blasts homosexual marriage as another attack on an institution that is supposed to bring forth new citizens, not consecrate copulation.
America got its first underclass because it had a population of blacks that could not hold out against the message of “do it if it feels good” and a welfare system that took the pain out of shiftless baby-making. It is getting a second underclass because Mexican immigrants are pouring into the groove well worn by blacks. Mrs. Hymowitz tells us whites are pulling out of the moral nose-dive of the 1960s; sadly, there are no signs that blacks or Hispanics will do the same.