Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ties That Bind and Build

There is a growing divide in America that threatens to strain the fabric of our society and make a mockery of the notion that we are a country that has broken the bounds of pre-determined and permanent class structures. It's a divide between the rich and the poor. Between the haves and the have nots. Between the educated and uneducated. Between those whose future appears boundless and hopeful and between those whose prospects are limited and bleak.

Liberals will tell you that the causes of such a divide are tax cuts for the rich, not "investing" enough in education, and the lingering impacts of racial and gender discrimination. However, in reality it increasingly appears that a significant--perhaps the most significant--contributor to this divide is marriage, in particular whether people choose to have children within its bounds or not.

Kay S. Hymowitz came out with a seminal book on the matter a few years ago called Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. Her well-researched work was an eye-opening look at how attitudes toward marriage and having children influence decisions that have profound economic and societal impacts.

Now, Duncan Currie has more damning data on the consequences of out of wedlock births in the August 24th, 2009 edition of National Review (sub req):

How bad is it? In 2007, nearly 40 percent of all births in the United States were outside marriage, compared with 34 percent in 2002 and 18.4 percent in 1980. That's according to the latest National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data, which were released earlier this year. "All measures of childbearing by unmarried women rose to historic levels in 2007," the NCHS reports. Nonmarital births represented 27.8 percent of non-Hispanic white births, 51.3 percent of Hispanic births, and a staggering 71.6 percent of non-Hispanic black births. Though we can take small comfort from the long-term decline in nonmarital births among teenagers, the nonmarital birthrate among older teens (ages 18-19) has recently ticked upward. Meanwhile, birthrates among unmarried women in their 20s and early 30s have been soaring. Teenagers accounted for 50 percent of all nonmarital births in 1970 but only 23 percent in 2007. By comparison, women in their 20s accounted for 42 percent of all nonmarital births in 1970 and 60 percent in 2007.

It's interesting to consider this trend in relation to the 1973 Roe v Wade decision. Wasn't the availability of abortion supposed to help women avoid being "punished with a baby"? It's almost as if the unlimited abortion license has created worse conditions for women in America vis a vis marriage and child rearing. Imagine that.

In contemporary America, nonmarital births are inextricably tied to broader socioeconomic divisions. "In 2007," write Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill in their new book, Creating an Opportunity Society, "the least educated women were six times as likely as the most educated women to have a baby outside marriage." American Enterprise Institute social scientist Charles Murray has been crunching the numbers to illustrate how nonmarital childbearing among whites varies by income group. His preliminary findings indicate that the proportion of nonmarital births among the white underclass is likely "in the region of 70 percent," while among the white working class it "may be above 40 percent." Among middle-class whites, the ratio "is approaching 20 percent." As for the highest earners, the white overclass, "their ratio is probably about 4 or 5 percent, tops."

You could get into a whole "chicken or egg" debate about which factor is the cause and which is the effect. What is clear is that income/nonmarital childbirth correlation is increasing and over the decades creating a growing cycle of inequality.

Such disparities are fueling a sharp divergence in family environments and exacerbating inequality. University of Chicago economist James Heckman puts it bluntly: "American society is polarizing." The children of more-educated women are growing up in much better family environments than the children of less-educated women, with "the quality of parenting" being "the important scarce resource" in disadvantaged households. Heckman reckons that "about 50 percent of the variance in inequality in lifetime earnings is determined by age 18." Furthermore, "most of the gaps at age 18 that help to explain gaps in adult outcomes are present at age five." This suggests that the family resources and attention devoted to a child during his or her earliest years are crucial--which, in turn, means that children from stable two-parent marriages "appear to be at a major advantage compared to children from other unions."

This helps to explain the phenomena that I believe is common to many middle and upper-middle class families: while their children and the children of many of their friends and relatives appear to learning more at a younger age than they ever did, the overall educational standing of American children continues to decline. If my four-year old knows which country and continent the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located in, then why can't a third of young Americans find the Pacific Ocean on a map?

Unfortunately, as sociologist Paul Amato of Penn State and economist Rebecca Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania have noted, the share of American children living with married parents dropped from 85.2 percent in 1970 to 67.8 percent in 2000. Absent this change, Amato and Maynard calculate that the child-poverty rate in 2000 would have been 26 percent lower (11.6 percent, as opposed to 15.6 percent). In his 2008 Father's Day remarks at Chicago's Apostolic Church of God, Barack Obama observed that "children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison."

Some might point to President Obama as proof that children raised by single parents can succeed and reach the highest pinnacles of power in America. But the reality is that President Obama is an outlier. His remarkable achievements are not the norm for children from his familial background and I give him credit for recognizing that. I only wish that he were more fervent in his efforts to promote marriage and fatherhood, especially considering his unique position to influence the groups that are suffering the most from their absence.

All of this is worth remembering whenever you hear a politician lament the uneven distribution of America's economic pie. In the mid-1990s, Urban Institute economist Robert Lerman published an exhaustive analysis of how changes in family structure between 1971 and 1989 had affected income inequality and child poverty. "On the basis of projections of simulated marriages and marriage-induced earnings effects," he estimated that the decline in marriage rates over that period "accounted for nearly half the increase in income inequality and more than the entire rise in child poverty rates." The impact on African-American kids was especially harsh. As Lerman explained, the portion of black children living below the poverty line grew from 40.5 percent in 1971 to 43.3 percent in 1989; but if black marriage patterns had stayed constant from 1971 onward and spurred the customary growth in family incomes, the black child-poverty rate in 1989 would have been only 29.1 percent. In other words, "one-third of poor black children would have escaped poverty."

When conservatives talk about defending and preserving the institution of marriage, it isn't because we want to perpetuate the dominant patriarchy and keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. It's because it's been conclusively proven over the centuries that marriage works. For societies and for individuals.

The difficulty is that policy options for promoting marriage and decreasing out of wedlock births are limited. To really change the attitudes towards marriage, you need to change the culture. After forty-plus years of withering assaults against marriage, it shouldn't come as a surprise that large segments of our society have little apparent regard for it. The damage that has been done will not be easily corrected and it will take years--maybe even generations--to change that. Until then, we can expect the divide to only grow wider.

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