City Journal has a fascinating piece on why the decline in marriage has led to increased social stratification:
It’s common sense, backed up by plenty of research, that you’ll have a better chance of fully “developing” your children—that is, of fulfilling The Mission—if you have a husband around. Children of single mothers have lower grades and educational attainment than kids who grow up with married parents, even after controlling for race, family background, and IQ. Children of divorce are also less likely to graduate and attend college, and when they do go for a B.A., they tend to go to less elite schools. Cornell professor Jennifer Gerner was baffled some years ago when she noticed that only about 10 percent of her students came from divorced families. She and her colleague Dean Lillard examined the records of students at the nation’s top 50 schools and, much to their surprise, found a similar pattern. Children who did not grow up with their two biological parents, they concluded when they published their findings, were only half as likely to go to a selective college. As adults, they also earned less and had lower occupational status.
To repeat the question: Why do educated women marry before they have children? Because, like high-status women since status began, they are preparing their offspring to carry on their way of life. Marriage radically increases their chances of doing that.
This all points to a deeply worrying conclusion: the Marriage Gap—and the inequality to which it is tied—is self-perpetuating. A low-income single mother, unprepared to carry out The Mission, is more likely to raise children who will become low-income single parents, who will pass that legacy on to their children, and so on down the line. Married parents are more likely to be visiting their married children and their grandchildren in their comfortable suburban homes, and those married children will in turn be sending their offspring off to good colleges, superior jobs, and wedding parties. Instead of an opportunity-rich country for all, the Marriage Gap threatens us with a rigid caste society.
The problem with the modern liberal (again, as opposed to classical liberal) view of inequality is that they treat it as an economic problem when it’s more of a social problem. The Marriage Gap is one of the single largest drivers of poverty in the United States today. The problem is that no government program can fix the problem of the degenerated state of marriage in America. You can’t cut someone a government check and make them get married. The typical liberal policy solutions just don’t have much efficacy here.
Which isn’t to say government can do nothing – the 1996 welfare reform project worked brilliantly because it helped push people into patterns of behavior more amendable to staying out of poverty. Efforts to promote and encourage stronger marriages can help reduce the rate of poverty and inequality to a certain degree.
I once heard someone refer to marriage as “conforming to that particular societal norm” – which in some ways isn’t all that inaccurate. The problem is that the societal norm of marriage has been systematically debased since the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. “That particular societal norm” isn’t some arbitrary construct; the concept of the nuclear family exists precisely because that’s the system that leads to the healthiest society. A child who grows up in a stable two-parent family has a much better chance of success throughout life than a child in a single-parent family.
In many ways, despite the image of the rich as being like The O.C. or Paris Hilton, the vast majority of American millionaires live utterly pedestrian lives. They live under a value system in which getting pregnant at 19, not going to college, and being irresponsible in life choices is absolutely unthinkable. There is a direct correlation between traditional family values and social status in American society today.
This is why social programs don’t work. Welfare doesn’t change attitudes. It doesn’t strengthen marriage as an institution. It doesn’t encourage people to have the right attitude about life – an attitude that many in the farthest elite circles of the American intelligentsia would find shockingly retrograde. The idea of actually getting married before having kids and staying married seems altogether too June Cleaver-esque for many.
But at the same time, our societal attitudes towards marriage are leading us to a society in which those who don’t follow the societal norms that kept American society coherent are stuck in the same rut of poverty and poor life choices while those who do excel. Ultimately, what makes the debate about poverty in equality in America so frustrating is that it never touches on the real reasons why those factors exist. If just throwing money at the problem was at all effective, LBJ’s “War on Poverty” would have been a smashing success – instead, poverty won.
So, if we truly wish to reduce inequality in America, we’d encourage young women not to sleep with every schlub they find, and encourage young men that going through life stoned, drunk, and stupid is not a recipe for success. Instead American society constantly encourages values which lead to more poverty – sexual promiscuity, anti-intellectualism, and a massive sense of entitlement. So we teach young women to be stupid, spoiled whores and young men to be vapid, drugged-up, and to treat women like “hos” – and we wonder why we’re creating an impoverished underclass.
Of course, this flies in the face of modern liberal orthodoxy. The idea that – gasp! – traditional values are key to fighting poverty is no doubt a difficult pill for the left to swallow. Yet the evidence indicates that marriage rates and poverty are directly correlated. When people practice “traditional values” negative societal problems like crime decrease. Increasing welfare won’t lift people out of poverty – but fostering a culture that upholds and strengthens marriage will.
While it’s easy to paint social conservatives as a bunch of moralizing busybodies – and some of them are – that doesn’t mean that traditional values are worthless. And while feminists talk about marriage being some tool of patriarchal oppression, it’s women who have been hurt by the inevitable blowback from the sexual revolution as they’re the ones left to pick up the pieces and raise the children. Indeed, psychologists and economists both agree that married people tend to be significantly happier than unmarried people – and happiness strongly correlates with success. Further correlating with that is the fact that despite the claims that sexual liberation leads to greater happiness, an increasingly sexualized culture is devaluing not only marriage, but even sex.
The institution of marriage is instrumental to strong families, and strong families are instrumental to a strong society. So much of the breakdown in American society traces its origins to the breakdown in the family structure. And while it’s politically expedient for many to try to blame poverty on economics and the stilted appeals to “oppression”, “patriarchy”, and “racism” the reality is that those dreaded moral busybodies many know what’s best for society after all.
UPDATE: The New York Post notes that couples who stay married accumulate twice as much wealth as those who do not.