The Marriage Gap

Wednesday, January 18, 2006
The Winter 2006 issue of the City Journal includes Marriage and Caste - America’s chief source of inequality? The Marriage Gap by Kay S. Hymowitz. It is a long article which tells us, in softer tones and fewer graphs, yet again some of what Herrnstein and Murray told us a decade ago in Bell Curve : Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.

Hymowitz avoids framing the matter at hand as one of intelligence. That is purely my definition of what it at stake. She (I'm presuming "Kay" is a "she") opens with:

For a while it looked like Hurricane Katrina would accomplish what the NAACP never could: reviving civil rights liberalism as a major force in American politics. There it was for the whole world to see: the United States was two nations, one rich, one poor and largely black, one driving away in the family SUV to sleep in the snug guest rooms of suburban friends and relatives, the other sunk in the fetid misery of the Superdome. Newsweek, echoing Michael Harrington’s 1962 landmark book that ignited the War on Poverty, titled its Katrina coverage “The Other America” and warned the nation not to return to the “old evasions, hypocrisies, and not-so-benign neglect” of the “problems of poverty, race, and class.”

Though that liberalism revival only lasted for about five minutes, the post-Katrina insight was correct. There are millions of poor Americans, living not just in down-on-your-luck hardship but in entrenched, multigenerational poverty. There is growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots. And there are reasons to worry whether the American dream is within the reach of all.

But what two-America talk doesn’t get is just how much these ominous trends are entangled with the collapse of the nuclear family. While Americans have been squabbling about gay marriage, they have managed to miss the real marriage-and-social-justice issue, one that affects far more people and threatens to undermine the American project. We are now a nation of separate and unequal families not only living separate and unequal lives but, more worrisome, destined for separate and unequal futures.

She continues with a look at the conventional wisdoms in play to explain what seems somewhat obvious to many of us but then things begin to get interesting:

That picture turns out to be as equivocal as an Escher lithograph, however. As the massive social upheaval following the 1960s—what Francis Fukuyama has termed “the Great Disruption”—has settled into the new normal, social scientists are finding out that when it comes to the family, America really has become two nations. The old-fashioned married-couple-with-children model is doing quite well among college-educated women. It is primarily among lower-income women with only a high school education that it is in poor health.
Hymowitz goes on to present the data that recent studies are publishing. She takes us from 1960 to today, exploring how increases in children born to, and raised by, single mothers of three different educational levels (college degree and above, HS grad and some college, and HS dropouts) all rose to similar relative degrees until:

But around 1980, the family-forming habits of college grads and uneducated women went their separate ways. For the next decade the proportion of college-educated moms filing for divorce stopped increasing, and by 1990 it actually starting going down. This was not the case for the least educated mothers, who continued on a divorce spree for another ten years. It was only in 1990 that their increase in divorce also started to slow and by 2000 to decline, though it was too late to close the considerable gap between them and their more privileged sisters.

Far more dramatic were the divergent trends in what was still known at the time as illegitimacy. Yes, out-of-wedlock childbearing among women with college diplomas tripled, but because their numbers started at Virtually Nonexistent in 1960 (a fraction of 1 percent), they only moved up to Minuscule in 1980 (a little under 3 percent of mothers in the top third of education distribution) to end up at a Rare 4 percent.

Things were radically different for mothers in the lower two educational levels. They decided that marriage and children were two entirely unconnected life experiences. That decline in their divorce rate after 1990? Well, it turns out the reason for it wasn’t that these women had thought better of putting their children through a parental breakup, as many of their more educated sisters had; it was that they weren’t getting married in the first place. Throughout the 1980s and nineties, the out-of-wedlock birthrate soared to about 15 percent among mothers with less than a high school education and 10 percent of those with a high school diploma or with some college.

She goes on to explore some of the CWs and assumptions that are prevalent regarding the causes for this divergence and explores the numbers. You may not have seen the numbers but you've heard the CWs and assumptions.

Hymowitz then begins to close in on her target:

When Americans began their family revolution four decades ago, they didn’t tend to talk very much about its effect on children. That oversight now haunts the country, as it becomes increasingly clear that the Marriage Gap results in a yawning social divide. If you want to discuss why childhood poverty numbers have remained stubbornly high through the years that the nation was aggressively trying to lower them, begin with the Marriage Gap.
Again we get some stats and CW about marriage, economic wellbeing, and children. But the target is in her crosshairs and she isn't about to let it get away:

All this makes depressing sense, but when you think about it, the Marriage Gap itself presents a puzzle. Why would women working for a pittance at the supermarket cash registers decide to have children without getting married, while women writing briefs at Debevoise & Plimpton, who could easily afford to go it alone, insist on finding husbands before they start families?
More stats, CWs, assumptions... but the sights are steadying, the breathing becoming quiet and controlled, the trigger finger sensitized... Some attention to surrounding details is paid, range safety examined, positions of CWs and assumptions fixed and noted... rules of engagement reviewed...

Educated, middle-class mothers tend to be dedicated to what I have called The Mission, the careful nurturing of their children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development, which, if all goes according to plan, will lead to the honor roll and a spot on the high school debate team, which will in turn lead to a good college, then perhaps a graduate or professional degree, which will all lead eventually to a fulfilling career, a big house in a posh suburb, and a sense of meaningful accomplishment.
Time is not an issue... the target is not a fast moving one... review... review... rules of engagement... be sure of a righteous kill... no stone unturned...

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.

So what is it about the nuclear family that makes it work so well for children decades after Americans have declared it optional?

Scan the surroundings one more time... Those CWs and assumptions and expert opinions are everywhere...

But this theory finally doesn’t explain all that much. If two parents are what make a difference, then why, when a divorced mother remarries, do her children’s outcomes resemble those of children from single-parent homes more than they do those from intact families? Why do they have, on average, lower school grades, more behavior problems, and lower levels of psychological well-being—even when a stepparent improves their economic standard of living?...

You could posit that children in stepfamilies may well have suffered through their parents’ divorce or have had a difficult spell in a single-parent home...

Others take an alternative approach to the question of why children growing up with their own two married parents do better than children growing up without their fathers. It’s not marriage that makes the difference for kids, they argue; it’s the kind of people who marry...


The problem with this theory is that it merely tiptoes up to the obvious. There is something fundamentally different about low-income single mothers and their educated married sisters. But a key part of that difference is that educated women still believe in marriage as an institution for raising children. What is missing in all the ocean of research related to the Marriage Gap is any recognition that this assumption is itself an invaluable piece of cultural and psychological capital—and not just because it makes it more likely that children will grow up with a dad in the house. As society’s bulwark social institution, traditional marriage—that is, childbearing within marriage—orders social life in ways that we only dimly understand.

All that remains is to dress the kill. Ms. Hymowitz does that for us. Nice shot, Kay.


Buddy Larsen said...

Way to go, Knuck. Top quality post on the bedrock issue.

terrye said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Buddy Larsen said...

Terrye--what I got from it was the disconnect between the meaning of the "no rules" society vs the very young inexperienced age at which the new rules impact our young people.

In so many cases, kids are getting their first taste of freedom, and suddenly theres a baby. What's hard on mom is sure to be hard on babe.

The article to me says, hey, the old traditions may be stifling, but damn they're great insurance for teens and early 20-somethings.

Rick Ballard said...

What? You mean another liberal promise turns out to be a complete lie? Bad decisions actually have far reaching consequences and repercussions that have a negative impact on the children involved?

There oughta be a law against it.

Excellent post, Knuck.

Buddy Larsen said...

Along a parallel line:

(snip from)

"Reader E.J. Boysen emails:
As a 48-year-old never married single man still in decent shape, successful and now retired, and having weathered the "feminist" cultural storm still raging since my teens, I can tell you that even your having read Norah Vincent's book, you STILL have no idea of the anger, the hatred, the vengeance and the pain so many otherwise attractive and available women are afflicted with. It is an epidemic of conflict and self-distortion that begins and ends with an impenetrable sense of entitlement, based on a false sense of victimhood, and for which not just any man but every man must pay forever for the restoration that's never good enough.
The "feminist" demand runs from fathers to brothers to sons and husbands, to their friends and acquaintances and chance encounters; it is endless. "I am woman, hear me roar" has produced a psychological wasteland that would put Sherman's march to shame and into which any man who travels does so at his peril. My assessment certainly does not apply to all women, of course, but the damage done by what I'm calling the "feminist" demand is so severe and pervasive that at my age, it just ain't worth it to go through it all again only to end up with yet another petulant woman-child unwilling or incapable of accepting responsibility for her own happiness and success in life, and who deeply resents the fact I have found my own without her, and so becomes determined to destroy it. I'm too old, I'm too tired, and the scars are too deep and too close to the bone. Stick a fork in me, I'm done. Bought a dog, gone fishin', never happier.

Knucklehead said...


Don't personalize or individualize the article. She is not telling you why you are "low income".

She is talking about the "family revolution" gave us the idea that marriage is optional to childbearing and the effect this has had on upward mobility. She is telling us why so many children who are born into poverty today will grow up to live lives of poverty and produce children doomed to poverty.

She tidies up with her final paragraphs:

When Americans announced that marriage before childbearing was optional, low-income women didn’t merely lose a steadfast partner, a second income, or a trusted babysitter, as the strength-in-numbers theory would have it. They lost a traditional arrangement that reinforced precisely the qualities that they-and their men; let’s not forget the men!—needed for upward mobility, qualities all the more important in a tough new knowledge economy. The timing could hardly have been worse. At a time when education was becoming crucial to middle-class status, the disadvantaged lost a reliable life script, a way of organizing their early lives that would prize education and culminate in childbearing only after job training and marriage. They lost one of their few institutional supports for planning ahead and taking control of their lives.

Worst of all, when Americans made marriage optional, low-income women lost a culture that told them the truth about what was best for their children. A number of researchers argue that, in fact, low-income women really do want to marry. They have “white picket dreams,” say Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, and though the men in their lives cannot turn those dreams into reality, they continue to gaze longingly into the distance at marriage as a symbol of middle-class stability and comfort. What they don’t have, however, is a clue about the very fact that orders the lives of their more fortunate peers: marriage and childbearing belong together. The result is separate and unequal families, now and as far as the eye can see.

As family experts find themselves surrendering to their own research and arguing more and more that marriage is central to the overall well-being of children, they often caution that it is not a cure-all. “Is Marriage a Panacea?” is the illustrative title of a 2003 article in the scholarly journal Social Problems, and you know the answer to the question without reading a page. No, shrinking the Marriage Gap may not be a magic potion for ending poverty or inequality or any other social problem. But it’s hard to see how our two Americas can become one without more low-income men and women making their way to the altar.

Marriage may not be a panacea. But it is a sine qua non.

Knucklehead said...

BTW, Terrye, another thing Hymowitz points out, although not entirely explicitly, is that the "family revolution" (marriage as an optional aspect of childbearing) was a creation of the faux intellectual educated class - particularly women. They are the ones who cooked the tripe and sold it through all levels of society. And for the first twenty years - the first generation of that nonsense - they bought into it with as much vigor as less educated women. It is the same more highly educated class of women who has, over the second generation of the "family revolution", rejected it.

Buddy Larsen said...

A good analog is the contemporaneous "tune-in, turn-on, drop-out" that rich entertainment industry moguls--in their rock group era--sold to millions of middle-class kids who promptly blew an unaffordable decade or two (thinking the Stones and the Beatles were also selling lids for peanut butter?) before it dawned on 'em they didn't have any royalties showing up in the mailbox--if they HAD a mailbox.

Buddy Larsen said...

The 50s weren't perfect by any means--leaving civil rights out for a moment, just in the white middle class, the weight of societal approval was heavy on non-conformists--look at the arts, it's all there. So, the 'lighten-up' phase just went too far--it's what Terrye keeps saying, some of these liberal disasters actually contain good instincts, but after the cultural point has been made, nobody knows when to quit.

Buddy Larsen said...

John Edwards and his "Two Americas" speech, was, in reality, if you listened to it, about how to perpetuate the 'two Americas'.

Morgan said...

If the same behaviors are passed down from generation to generation, we call that "culture".

There are two aspects of culture: values and skills.

The value that makes the biggest difference is whether it is important to strive or not.

Skills allow you to turn effort (motivated by values) into results.

Once you accept that striving is not important, you don't pass down the skills. Which leaves your children to find them on their own if they decide striving isn't such a bad idea after all.

And without the skills to turn them into reality, the values tend to die on the vine.

It follows that the only way to beat entrenched poverty is to win on both fronts. Inculcate the values, teach the skills.

But unless the parents share the values, how can you accomplish that?

ex-democrat said...

knuck - nice post: great subject matter and genuine value-added in the telling.
Thomas Sowell writes well on this general subject - but specifically wrt the black community in "Black rednecks & White Liberals."
buddy, around these parts Mr. Boysen's perspective also leads to another phenomenon guaranteed to send his subjects further apoplectic: a preference by those in his demographic for female partners that are younger and/or naturalized.

Buddy Larsen said...

I had that same thought, ex. 'No prizes' finding other no-prizes, perhaps. But I pasted it for the perspective; it is a pov related to--as all these topics are--faulty expectations. TV and it's lotus-conditioning, losing the Invisible Guy in the Sky--and then assuming his former position for one's 'self'.

Buddy Larsen said...

Great post, Morgan--that's a big ball of wax you managed to simplify into a useful way of seeing it.

Syl said...

This was an excellent post, and dramatically written.

And I'm sure there are tons of statistics to 'back it up', though I suspect a bit of cherry picking.

I certainly agree that 'marriage is optional' has had unintended consequences for certain levels of society. However, I don't see any acknowledgment that the 'marriage is optional' arose from different needs/desires in different societal levels in the first place. It wasn't all the same.

Though economic factors play into it more strongly than I suspect the author is acnowledging. A basic question would be 'Can I afford to be a single parent'. If the answer to that is 'yes' then that acnowledgment of the economic requirement will be passed to the children.

If the answer is 'no' or 'I didn't have a choice' then the consequences are different.

In other words, I see no value in conflating 'marriage is optional' across all levels of society into one 'rejection of family as an institution' then demanding we go back to the old ways.

In the fifties a family did quite well on only one income. Then the women's movement came along and America absorbed millions and millions of women into the workforce. Think of all the jobs that were created just to do that! But economically the reality became that more often than not it now required TWO incomes to live 'as well' as a single income gave a family in the past.

So we end up with two opposing forces: women who now have an opportunity to 'make it on their own' and have some independence, and the dependence on income of two-parents to raise a family if upward mobility is the goal.

But it is possible for a single woman to raise a child today. Not easy, for most, but possible. And those govt. checks helped a lot.

I think women today are choosier, and reject the idea of getting married just to have a husband.

Quite frankly I believe economic education is more important (saving, investing, how to start a business) than attempts to roll back all the changes in society in the last few decades. Because it would not be enough to roll back the new notion of what marriage means or does not mean, it also means rolling back to a time when women were totally dependent on men.

Yes, societal changes have consequences not foreseen. But solutions to new problems should be sought rather than simply decrying the changes and wishing for some utopian idea of the good old days.

And, yes, the solutions offered will themselves have unintended consequences. That's the way it goes.

Morgan said...


I think we're very much on the same page on this one. The issue isn't "married" versus "not married", it's what values and skills are being passed on to children.

Having children outside of marriage enters in as a correlate - associated both with a dearth of traditionally successful values and an inability to look ahead to the consequences of ones actions (a skill), but not necessarily implying either. Some perfectly rational, highly successful women choose to become single mothers, and I'll bet their children do just fine.

But they don't do fine just because mom is rational and successful, they do fine because they absorbed mom's values and learned how to make it in the world.

Marriage itself probably is better for the future economic success of children than single parenthood (all else being equal), if for no other reason than that there are two parents around to inculcate values and teach skills. And more parent-hours in which to do it. And a greater likelihood that the kid will grow up to marry and live in a two income home.

I agree that economic education is one vital set of skills. I'm sure we could make a list of them a mile long.

terrye said...


I removed my comment after reading your post again. I simply missed the central message. I am sorry about that.

I agree with Syl here, very much.

But I think sometimes we have to be careful when conflating class and income.

Hollywood is full of rich white pregnant singe women right now...and young girls see that too. If someone like Paris Hilton wants to get pregnant she will and she comes from a very affluent and respectable and married family. She will just never be left standing on an overpass with a screaming child. Daddy will send a helicopter for her.

I grew up in Oklahoma in a time when there were still tar paper shacks and kids with no decent shoes or winter coats [thank you Wal Mart]...and most of them had married parents, they were just poor. I don't think the promises of the liberals panned out, but then again I don't think they invented poverty either.

terrye said...

So when are we going to see a post on why men father children they have no intention of raising?

Takes two as they say.

When I was a kid a measure of a man was not only his ability to take care of him family, but his desire to do so.

It seems to me that there are a lot of young men out there who do not resent those feminists at all, but are grateful for the oppurtunity to abandon their children.

I work with a lot of single moms at my company...and not one of them made a choice to be alone. They just made the bad choice in the men they had children with.

ex-democrat said...

terrye - two points: (1) thogh harsh, it could be said that the single mothers you work with chose to be alone by making a bad choice in the men they had children with; and (2) the most vehement advocacy of 'a woman's right to choose' that i have heard came from a male. why's that do you think?

Knucklehead said...

There have been some interesting points here and I'd really like to go through, in particular, what Morgan, Syl, and Terrye have put forward relative to the points Hymowitz is making. Time does not allow that at the moment but I'd like to grab just a couple.

It is a long article but by know means an exhaustive one. It is not a comprehensive look at a huge range of social stats such as Herrnstein and Murray gave us. This means, of course, that there was some "cherry picking" going on. That is the nature of articles rather than books or studies.

Another quick thing I'd like to point out is that City Journal is, quite openly, targetted for an "urbanite" audience. Precisely how that matters in the persepective and presentation is beyond my skills to describe, or even undertand to any depth, but I have no doubt it matters. If nothing else it will frequently yield articles with a tone and a focus on "large numbers" that can easily be irksome to non-urbanites. My observations suggest to me that urbanites have a propensity to describe the world around them in big, sweeping generalities and non-urbanites are more inclined to describe it in closer, more individually oriented ways.

Regardless of that, however, keep in mind that this is an article about general social trends and large samples over several decades; this represents two, probably three, "generations". It is not an examination of case studies but statistical studies of women with children divided into three categories by educational level. Educational level correlates fairly strongly with both economic and social status, particularly in cities. That is in no way, shape, or form the same thing as saying that there are not plenty of examples of high school dropouts achieving high degrees of both social and economic status or penniless, friendless PhDs.

Hymowitz, as far as I detected, is not calling for some imposed return to some long gone social tradition of stigmatising and ostracizing "bastards" and "bad girls". She has pointed to studies/data which suggests that (in my words) that the VERY interesting "Americanism" of social and economic mobility (we tend to talk about it in terms of "upward mobility" but it has always been, in fact, both upward and downward) which severely limited the developement of hard and fast class/caste systems. Any mother's son could potentially become, if not POTUS or Carnegie, at least well employed and comfortable.

This seems to be changing; we seem to be developing something that approximates a permanent underclass. Hymowitz does not deny or denegrate the various theories and explanations for contributing factors to this. In fact she acknowledges what seems to be the favorite among this group of commenters but finds that it fails to explain some of what the newer studies seem to be turning up.

What she does do is point to a factor which seems to be coming evident, albeit far from understood, that was previously ignored as traditionalist, conservative hogwash.

If forced to distill her lengthy article to 100 or so words, here's what I'd arrive at:

While Americans have been squabbling about gay marriage, they have managed to miss the real marriage-and-social-justice issue, one that affects far more people and threatens to undermine the American project.

We are now a nation of separate and unequal families not only living separate and unequal lives but, more worrisome, destined for separate and unequal futures.

A key part of that difference is that educated women still believe [I would suggest this should be "are returning to a belief] in marriage as an institution for raising children. What is missing in all the ocean of research related to the Marriage Gap is any recognition that this assumption is itself an invaluable piece of cultural and psychological capital—and not just because it makes it more likely that children will grow up with a dad in the house. As society’s bulwark social institution, traditional marriage—that is, childbearing within marriage—orders social life in ways that we only dimly understand.

flenser said...


I grew up in Oklahoma in a time when there were still tar paper shacks and kids with no decent shoes or winter coats.

There exist many different kinds of povetry. A great many people may be economically poor, but well off otherwise. You, for example. And there exist large numbers of people, like Paris Hilton, who are well off economically but are nonetheless intellectually, morally, and spiritually impoverished.

Syl said...


Thanks for the further explanation and summary. It may be a self-correcting phenomenon. If so I think it's a healthy sign.

Syl said...


chose to be alone by making a bad choice in the men they had children with

I dislike the choice of the word 'bad'. There are no 'good' or 'bad' choices, only choices that have different outcomes. Then you deal with the outcomes. It's not as if we can really see into the future.

Rick Ballard said...

How very true. As long as those making a free choice know and understand that multigenerational immiseration is the probable outcome absolutely no one should complain.

Knucklehead said...


Thanks for the further explanation and summary.


1. Serving to dismiss.
2. Showing indifference or disregard: a dismissive shrug.

(Just funnin'!)

It may be a self-correcting phenomenon.

How so? Please elaborate.

terrye said...

I guess my problem is that it seems to me that men want control.... when it works for them.

In other words, a lot of men think they should have veto power when it comes to abortion, I understand this.

But that means they have an inherent responsibility too.

When some people saw those women in New Orleans with the kids and no men they thought "What were they thinking having so many children?" I thought that too, but I also thought "Where are the men?"

Women are responsible for their choices, but should not have to be responsible for the guy's too.

terrye said...


You are absolutely right about that.

terrye said...


I think that underclass has always been there.

offworld said...

I dislike the choice of the word 'bad'. There are no 'good' or 'bad' choices, only choices that have different outcomes. Then you deal with the outcomes. It's not as if we can really see into the future.

You are joking right? We see into the future all the time. Leadership and wisdom involve anticipating consequences of choices and counseling others on these choices.

Buddy Larsen said...

My scorched, smoking hulk of a former self can attest that matters of the heart are not easily forecast.