The Magazine

Wedding Bell Blues

James Q. Wilson on the unmarrying of America.

Apr 8, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 29 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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The Marriage Problem
How Our Culture Has Weakened Families
by James Q. Wilson
HarperCollins, 274 pp., $25.95

IN "The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families," the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson sets out to offer an explanation deeper than "the Sixties" for the destabilization of marriage in recent years. The resulting short book is a fine multidisciplinary survey of the history of marriage and the forces conspiring to weaken it.

Marriage is not in trouble everywhere: In much of the world--Wilson points to parts of Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and some parts of Europe--"marriage remains the goal of every couple desiring children." But in the English-speaking world and much of Europe, childbearing out of wedlock has risen, on average, more than sixfold since 1960. In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France, Denmark, and Sweden, a quarter or more of births are to unmarried women; in many Caribbean nations, illegitimacy rates are higher still.

In this country, divorce has been rising since the nineteenth century, but it long was regarded as a tragedy or a disgrace. Today, roughly half of marriages end in divorce, and the old stigma is gone--this despite the fact that the costs for children have become so plain that now, Wilson says, even some sociologists concede them. A wide array of psychological and social ills, from poor performance in school to unwed parenthood, beset children in one-parent families at much higher rates than children living with both parents, and the differences are not explained away by income status.

Although he doesn't develop the international comparisons, Wilson does propose one principal explanation for the distinctiveness of the Anglo-American world, and one aggravating factor at work in the United States and the Caribbean. The first is the influence of the Enlightenment; the second the legacy of slavery.

The Enlightenment, with its confidence in human reason, devalued religion and tradition. In the Anglo-American countries, the ideas of Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith took root in favorable cultural soil, prepared by the citizens' belief in "the rights of Englishmen" and long experience with limited government. Although Enlightenment thinkers took the traditional family for granted, they accelerated an evolution of ideas that over the ensuing two centuries would gradually emancipate women and change marriage from a sacred covenant to an enforceable contract to an optional arrangement hinging only on the two partners' will.

All through the nineteenth century, Wilson shows, science on the one hand, and artists and intellectuals on the other, were helping redefine "the moral impulse from religion to habit," and thus unmooring "habit from any external support save preference and freedom." For a long time, the edifice of tradition stood. Outside avant-garde circles, "the assumption that families were valuable governed almost everyone" well into the twentieth century. But all the while, society was living on the moral capital of its religious past. The shock of World War I left Victorian pieties in ruins.

The Roaring Twenties, Wilson argues, were a "test run" for the Sixties. Only the Great Depression, which forced families to regroup for economic reasons, and the exigencies of World War II postponed the day when the new freedom would be embraced and pushed to its limit. As the first generation born after the war came of age, the dam broke. The changes in the family in the fifteen years beginning in 1965 were "unique in family history," Wilson writes. "They were sharp, immediate, and affected virtually every industrialized nation all at once," although, as we have seen, to varying degrees.

Within American society, the erosion of the family has hit African Americans hardest. In 1960, 20 percent of black children under eighteen already lived in single-mother households; in 1996, more than half did. The famous "Moynihan Report" of 1965, warning of trouble in the black family that was bad and getting worse, cited what was then the prevailing view that slavery had weakened or destroyed families. This was the view enshrined in classics by black writers like W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier. Moynihan triggered a firestorm, and a politically correct revisionist scholarship was born, which insisted that the black family had come through slavery rather well and that only modern racism and unemployment had seriously damaged it.