Marriage and Caste in America
Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age
by Kay S. Hymowitz
Ivan R. Dee, 192 pp., $22.50
Kay Hymowitz has brought good news and bad news back from her investigations into the state of matrimony in America. The good news--that most of the country has started to pull away from the un-marriage abyss--cannot take the sting out of the bad--that the near disappearance of marriage among the poorest Americans is producing a self-perpetuating proletariat lacking the culture of self-control, work, and committed relationships that is the lifeline out of poverty. The underclass is hardening into a hereditary caste.
It is the last two of the eight essays collected in this short and readable volume that announce the hopeful developments. "The End of Herstory" offers a refreshingly obvious explanation for the reluctance of most women to identify themselves as feminists: "Most women want husbands and children as much as they want anything in life." This truth is offensive to feminism, a grievance-based outlook "rooted in a utopian politics that longs to transcend both biology and ordinary bourgeois longings," Hymowitz writes. Feminism therefore "cannot address the reality of the lives that it has helped to change." In particular, its tedious dogma of 50-50 parity between men and women in all aspects of child rearing and home chores is simply irrelevant to the experience of normal families juggling their multiple tasks. What's more, today's young women, Hymowitz finds from her extensive interviews, are perfectly comfortable with the observation--anathema to feminists--that men and women are complementary and their differences are rooted in biology. Lawrence Summers's Harvard notwithstanding, apparently our long feminist nightmare is over.
Hymowitz clusters that happy turn of events with an array of positive trends under the heading "It's Morning After in America." The improvements over the last 10-15 years in the incidence of crime, divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, alcohol abuse, early sexual activity, and more are already familiar. Behind them all, Hymowitz sees a "change in cultural beliefs" that is producing "a vital, optimistic, family-centered, entrepreneurial, and, yes, morally thoughtful citizenry."
This cultural shift she traces to four causes: generational backlash, as Gen-Xers and Millennials resolve not to reproduce the divorced, blended, and single-parent families the Baby Boomers made; a resurgence of patriotism and seriousness among the young triggered by 9/11; the example of immigrants, with their strong work ethic and, in the case especially of Asians, high grades and stable families; and the opportunities extended by the information economy to "the hardworking, forward-looking, and pragmatic."
These mutually reinforcing influences have helped Americans recognize the damage done by "their decades-long fling with the sexual revolution and the transvaluation of traditional values." Now, says Hymowitz, "they are earnestly knitting up their unraveled culture." While we are unlikely to return to the status quo ante, this is, she concludes, "a moment of tremendous promise"--for some Americans.
But not for all. Most of the book is devoted to that portion of our cultural fabric that has slipped beyond the reach of self-repair. The saddest news she brings is the near disappearance among poor urban African Americans of the simple "life script" that leads out of poverty, the inherited "how-to" of successful adulthood, namely: Finish school, get a job and stay employed, get married--and then, and only then, have children.
And it's worse than that. Instead of positive guidance and examples leading them in a sound direction, young people in the 'hood are subjected to deeply disturbing influences. Hymo witz describes a "relationship dystopia." Growing up without fathers--sometimes without ever encountering a lifelong married couple--poor urban kids are surrounded instead by de facto polygamy: single or temporarily attached men with children by multiple women, and single or temporarily attached women with children by multiple men. The young are formed in the midst of the resulting "maelstrom of confusion, jealousy, rage, abandonment, and violence."
While this familial chaos correlates to a great degree with poverty, Hymo witz rejects the economic explanation for it--the argument that the lack of reliable breadwinners forces women to settle for children without marriage. She notes that teen birthrates were at their lowest, and illegitimacy rare, during the Depression, when unemployment reached a historic high of 25 percent. By contrast, between 1965 and 1991, while unemployment rose and fell repeatedly within a "normal" range, illegitimacy soared. She points out, too, that rural black populations in Maine, Montana, and Idaho have been largely exempt from inner-city-style family disintegration. Why? Because there, "mainstream norms" have continued to hold sway.
Hymowitz's greatest strength is her appreciation of the role of norms and values, ideas and beliefs, in shaping behavior. She recounts, for example, the dark story--equal parts scandal and tragedy--of black and white elites' ideologically based refusal to heed the warning of the Moynihan Report. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, documented alarming levels of illegitimacy in the "ghetto." But Moynihan's conclusion--"a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure"--was greeted with what Hymowitz calls "forty-plus years of lies."
There was the lie that the only problems were joblessness and discrimination. There was the lie that "the nuclear family was really just a toxic white hang-up anyway." There was the lie that the poverty of single mothers was proof of patriarchal oppression and nothing more. And so Moynihan's call to action produced none--and today, the share of African-American babies born to unwed mothers, already 25 percent when he sounded the alarm, has nearly tripled, to 70 percent. To this day, it is newsworthy when a prominent person breaks through the denial and speaks plainly about the need to recover "Parent Power," as Bill Cosby has done--to large and enthusiastic audiences, Hymowitz notes.
Or take her interesting discussion of the distinctive mission of marriage in the American Republic--namely, to mold free citizens equipped for self-reliance and self-government. Breaking with the arranged marriages and authoritarian fathers of Europe, the theorists of the Founding generation prescribed a different style for the democratic family. By the 1830s, Tocque ville already observed in American homes a "familiar intimacy, which renders authority less absolute" and noted that "a species of equality prevails around the domestic hearth."
But American principles of equality and free choice contained within them the seeds of the divorce revolution. American individualism--progressively unmoored from the moral capital of biblical teaching, with its emphasis on love, fidelity, and self-sacrifice--led to the cult of self-fulfillment, of which recent generations have eagerly grabbed the rewards, and for which they, their children, and the country have paid dearly:
Think of the past several decades of high rates of divorce and illegitimacy as a kind of natural experiment testing the truth of the founders' vision. The results are in: if we forget that marriage is both a voluntary union between two loving partners and an arrangement for rearing the next generation of self-reliant citizens, our capacity for self-government weakens.
Given her interest in beliefs and culture, it is surprising that Hymowitz gives only the most cursory treatment to the decline of religious commitment in hastening the developments she deplores. Similarly, in her discussion of the "Morning After," she makes no mention of the renewal of interest in orthodox belief and morality among the young. (Colleen Carroll Campbell has described this on prestigious college campuses, among both Catholics and Protestants. Among evangelicals, the Joshua Harris phenomenon is worth noting: His I Kissed Dating Goodbye, published in 1997 when he was 21, sold over a million copies, according to his publisher. Like his three subsequent books, it calls for a return to chaste, marriage-oriented courtship.)
So what to do? These fine essays, along with the rest of Kay Hymowitz's intelligent polemics, embody a response rather than proposing one. Long associated with the "marriage movement"--an energetic and constructive alliance of social scientists, theologians and pastors, lawyers and judges, psychologists, counselors, and writers periodically convened by the Institute for American Values in New York--Hymowitz has surely contributed in some small way to creating the present hopeful moment for mainstream America. Whether or not similar efforts have the power to prevent the final entrenchment of a post-marriage under-caste in America, and even to begin the restoration of the black family, Hymowitz and her friends are right and valiant to try.
Claudia Anderson is managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.