City Journal

Kay S. Hymowitz
American Caste
Family breakdown is limiting mobility and increasing inequality.
Spring 2012
Single-parent families were nearly unheard-of at the start of the twentieth century. Today, 53 percent of births to women under 30 are out of wedlock.
Corbis/Bettmann
Single-parent families were nearly unheard-of at the start of the twentieth century. Today, 53 percent of births to women under 30 are out of wedlock.

When Charles Murray’s best-selling Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 appeared a few months ago, the book’s fictional working-class neighborhood, Fishtown, became one more battleground in America’s 50-year-old culture war. Fishtown was representative, Murray argued, of a new white underclass in America—one produced by cultural decline, especially the collapse of marriage. Critics objected that the real source of misery in the nation’s Fishtowns 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, David Brooks versus Paul Krugman.

Murray might have done more to acknowledge that 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. In fact, the single-mother revolution, as I’ll call it, takes us a long way toward understanding the socioeconomic problems on everyone’s mind these days: poverty, inequality, and the inability of those at the bottom to move up.

The single-mother revolution shouldn’t need much introduction. 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 for the revolution were many, including 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 first public sign that the single-mother revolution had arrived came in 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his controversial report on the black family. As a young assistant secretary of labor, Moynihan had stumbled across data showing that the percentage of black mothers who were unmarried at the time of their children’s birth was rising, reaching a then-staggering 24 percent, even while black male unemployment was falling. This puzzled Moynihan: Shouldn’t more male paychecks mean fewer single mothers? Moynihan realized that he was uncovering a new cultural phenomenon—voluntary single motherhood—and concluded that it would impede blacks’ economic progress.

After 1965 came the deluge. Other minorities and then whites joined the revolution, and it found plenty of extra recruits among the rapidly increasing number of women made single through divorce. In its broad outlines, the story is familiar by now. When Moynihan was writing, 93 percent of all American births were to women with marriage licenses. Sure, lots of these women might have married just before the baby bump, as had long been the case—but they nevertheless had husbands, with whom they formed a unit responsible for the coming baby. Over the next few decades, however, the percentage of babies with no father around rose steadily. As of 1970, 11 percent of births were to unmarried mothers; by 1990, that number had risen to 28 percent. Today, 41 percent of all births are nonmarital. And for mothers under 30, the number is 53 percent.

Though other Western countries also concluded that it was okay for the unmarried to have kids, what they had in mind as the substitute for marriage was something similar to it: a stable arrangement in which two partners, cohabiting over the long term, would raise their children together. 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.”

Defenders of the single-mother revolution often describe it as empowering for women, who can now free themselves from unhappy unions and live independent lives. That’s one way to look at it. Another is that it has been an economic catastrophe for those women. Poverty remains relatively rare among married couples with children; the U.S. Census puts only 8.8 percent of them in that category, up from 6.7 percent since the start of the Great Recession. But over 40 percent of single-mother families are poor, up from 37 percent before the downturn. In the bottom quintile of earnings, most households are single people, many of them elderly. But of the two-fifths of bottom-quintile households that are families, 83 percent are headed by single mothers. The Brookings Institute’s 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.

Well, comes the response, maybe single mothers are hard up not because they lack husbands but because unskilled, low-earning women are likelier to become single mothers in the first place. 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.” In another study, Sawhill and Adam Thomas ran an experiment simulating marriages between poor single mothers and unattached men with similar characteristics. Even though the men might have incomes lower than the average married father’s, the researchers found, the new “marriages” would mean a 65.4 percent decline in the number of poor children among the families in the study and a 43.2 percent rise in per-capita income.

You might think that cohabiting mothers would have the same economic advantages as married mothers. You’d be wrong. About half of all unmarried mothers in the United States are living with the child’s father at the time of birth, and they do tend to be less poor than lone mothers—at first. But cohabiting relationships here, unlike those in Europe, have short shelf lives. According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which examined couples in large American cities in the 1990s, about half of cohabiting couples split before their child was five—compared with just 18 percent of married couples. Cohabiters were also likelier to import instability and economic stress into new relationships. A full 60 percent of cohabiters—but only 21 percent of low-income married couples—already had children from earlier relationships.

Women and their children weren’t the only ones to suffer the economic consequences of the single-mother revolution; low-earning men have lost ground, too. Knowing that women are now expected to be able to raise children on their own, unskilled men lose much of the incentive to work, especially at the sometimes disagreeable jobs that tend to be the ones they can get. Ever since welfare reform, black women, the majority of whom will be single mothers at some point, have been joining the employment rolls while black men have been leaving them. Murray finds a similar divergence among working-class whites. In fact, scholars consistently find that unmarried men work fewer hours, make less money, and get fewer promotions than married men do.

Experts have come to believe that these are not just selection effects—that is, they don’t just reflect the fact that productive men are likelier to marry. Marriage itself, it seems, encourages male productivity. One study by Donna Ginther and Madeline Zavodny examined men who’d had “shotgun” marriages and thus probably hadn’t been planning to tie the knot. The shotgun husbands nevertheless earned more than their single peers did.

In describing what’s happened in places like Murray’s Fishtown, the conventional narrative generally doesn’t mention the single-mother revolution. Instead, it goes like this: in the past, men could drop out of high school and still earn enough to support a wife and children. Manufacturing jobs gave those men and their kids a foothold into the middle class. Today, however, low-skill factory jobs have either fled to China and Thailand or are being automated. High school dropouts—and grads, too—find themselves chopping tomatoes at Applebee’s or delivering newspapers. Men suffer, remembering how their grandfathers proudly worked the line; many give up. “The move from blue-collar to service work is brutal, and over time some employees lose the will to stick it out in a hateful job,” The New Yorker’s George Packer writes.

Meantime, women not only have joined the workforce; they have watched their earnings rise. Finding that they can “afford to go it alone,” as economist Nancy Folbre explained in a recent New York Times column, they became choosier about whom to marry, and many decide not to marry at all and to raise children on their own. But those children have been dealt a bad hand by the same forces of globalization and technology that hammered their fathers. These days, the Pew Economic Mobility Project reports, 42 percent of American children whose parents had earnings in the bottom quintile end up there as adults, a significantly higher percentage of immobility than one finds in Canada and much of Europe.

Parts of this story are indisputable. Good manufacturing jobs have indeed declined. The earnings of male high school dropouts and grads have barely budged since 1974. Jobs with health and retirement benefits aren’t so easy to find. Women are earning more and men less.

But the narrative’s omissions undermine its economic logic. For one thing, contra Folbre, many single mothers are barely getting by, as we’ve just seen. 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 her—or rather, their—children. Second, if you live the right way, it’s still possible to move up to the middle class, despite the factory closings of the last few decades. Ron Haskins of the Economic Mobility Project puts it this way: “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 percent chance of making it into the middle class.” Those are pretty impressive odds.

As Haskins’s point suggests, one factor (though far from the only one) in America’s poor showing in the mobility rankings is the rise in single motherhood, which is more pronounced in the U.S. than in most developed countries. After all, the children of single mothers are twice as likely as children growing up with both parents to drop out of high school. Those who do graduate are less likely to go to college, even if you control for household income and the mother’s education. Decades of research show that kids growing up with single mothers (again, even after you allow for the obvious variables) have lower scholastic achievement from kindergarten through high school, as well as higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, behavior problems, and teen pregnancy. All these factors are likely to reduce their eventual incomes.

In sum, 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.

On the other side of the tracks, parents in the upper income quintiles were able to accommodate both their child-rearing and marital habits to the new economic realities. College-educated mothers were never full participants in the single-mother revolution. Though many are reluctant to say it aloud, they still tend to see children and marriage as a package deal. They’re almost always married before they have children, and their divorce rate has been falling since the 1980s. Not only do college-educated mothers themselves make more money than their less educated counterparts; they generally have a joint bank account, too.

Add what social scientists call “assortative mating” to the mix, and you have greater, more intractable inequality. Assortative mating refers to marriages between men and women of similar educational status. In the past, women tended to “marry up”: nurses married doctors and secretaries their bosses. But as women increased their presence on campuses and then began to bring home more money, college-educated men decided that they were better off marrying one of their own. Think of the implications for household earnings. A lawyer was always likely to earn more than a plumber—but today, plenty of upper-income households are headed by two lawyers. That considerably widens the gap between a power couple and a lower-middle-class duo. Sociologist Christine Schwartz has estimated that assortative mating brought about a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in inequality among married-couple families between 1967 and 2005. Between power couples and single-mother families, the gap is far wider.

Assortative mating also affects mobility. Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane found that between 1972 and 2006, well-to-do parents more than doubled their “enrichment expenditure” on their children, paying for activities like music and art classes, books, sports, and tutoring. And money isn’t the whole story. Those children are more likely to have two parents, both actively invested in their well-being, living in the house. Beginning in the 1990s, researchers discovered, parents began spending more time with their kids even while mothers were more likely to be at the office during the day; the increases were especially high among college-educated mothers and fathers. Research by Meredith Phillips of UCLA shows that high-income parents of children up to six years old spent an average of 1,300 more hours taking their children to “novel” places (that is, other than their homes, day-care centers, or schools) than lower-income parents did.

It’s easy to poke fun at “helicopter parents,” but in today’s economy, their investments pay off. In a wittily titled article, “The Rug Rat Race,” psychologists Valerie and Garey Ramey of the University of San Diego speculate that college-educated parents are reacting to the increased competition for college admissions by relentlessly building their kids’ cognitive, social, and emotional skills even in the earliest years. The approach appears to have worked: child rearing of this sort prepares kids for college and turns them into competitive workers in a knowledge-based economy. The news from the lower end of the economic scale, of course, is quite different. Not only do poorer children have fewer “enrichment expenditures”; they also get less parental time and involvement. Their educational outcomes show it, and so do their future earnings.

So the single-mother revolution has left us with the following reality. At the top of the social order is a positive feedback loop, with kids raised in stable, high-investment, and relatively affluent homes going to college, finding similar mates, and raising their own children in stable, high-investment, and relatively affluent homes. 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.

Not only do we have more poverty, inequality, and immobility; we have the makings of a caste society, with an inherited elite and an entrenched proletariat. That’s not an America that anyone finds very attractive.

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