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Coontz knows the benefits of marriage, but she’s wary of attempts to stand athwart history crying “Stop!” If marriage now seems especially fragile, she argues, that’s not a function of public policy mistakes subject to easy political correction. It reflects underlying economic, legal, and technological changes that are, in themselves, mostly desirable. While not opposed to attempts to help couples craft stable marriages, she warns that “just as we cannot organize modern political alliances through kinship ties…we can never reinstate marriage as the primary source of commitment and caregiving in the modern world. For better or worse, we must adjust our personal expectations and social support systems to this new reality.”
That conclusion may seem excessively fatalistic, especially given Coontz’s own chronicle of marriage’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances. But it does encapsulate a core piece of Hayekian wisdom. Organic social institutions grow and evolve from the bottom up, as individuals change their behavior in light of the circumstances they perceive on the ground. Attempts to freeze or correct them in accordance with a Grand Plan—a vision of how they ought to function that views change as a dangerous deviation from an ideal—are no more likely to succeed for marriages than for markets.
Where Coontz’s history gives a picture of marriage painted in broad strokes, Promises I Can Keep is a close-up, lapidary study of unmarried low-income mothers in eight of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, culled from interviews with 162 such women over the course of five years. Several of those years were spent living in their communities. Edin and Kefalas’ account makes it clear that the growth of single motherhood among poor urban women can’t be chalked up to anything as simple or straightforward as a “breakdown of family values.”
In a sense, the problem is an excess of family values. Women who dropped out of high school are more than five times as prone as college-educated counterparts to say they think the childless lead empty lives, and also more likely to regard motherhood as one of the most fulfilling roles for women; motherhood is so highly regarded that it becomes difficult to see even a pregnancy that comes in the mid-teens as a catastrophe to be avoided. And far from having lost interest in marriage, the authors write, the women they spoke to “revere it”—so much so that some are hesitant to marry when they become pregnant because single motherhood seems less daunting than the opprobrium they fear they’d face were they to divorce.
In a long meditation on “Marriage and Caste” in the Winter 2006 City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz (who cites Edin and Kefalas) writes that the “marriage gap” between poor and middle-class mothers shows that “educated women still believe in marriage as an institution for raising children.” But as Edin and Kefalas point out, high school dropouts are actually far more likely than their college-educated counterparts to believe it’s important for a child to grow up in a married household and to express disapproval of childbearing outside marriage.
The crucial difference, the authors find, is not in poor women’s attitudes toward marriage but in the way they approach childbearing. Middle-class couples may follow the more traditional trajectory—love, marriage, baby carriage—but they’re doing it significantly later than previous generations typically did, often postponing both marriage and children until their late 20s or early 30s in order to attend college, perhaps obtain a graduate degree, and establish themselves in careers. Half a century ago, the median woman was barely 20 years old when she first married; in 2004 she was almost 26. While the average age at which women have their first child has risen across the board, the trend has been much more pronounced for those with more education. In the late 1970s, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, 15 percent of women without a college diploma were childless at age 30, compared with 40 percent of college graduates. By the early ’90s, the percentages were 16 percent for the least educated and 56 percent for college graduates. Meanwhile, as noted above, the share of women attending college rose sharply. Those trends have helped change marital norms in one important way: Marriage is no longer seen as a necessary rite of passage into adulthood or, as Coontz puts it, “part of the credentialing process that people had to go through to gain adult responsibility and respectability…like completing high school today.”
Postponing marriage has become more acceptable; both poor and middle-class couples expect to marry not in their early 20s as their careers are beginning but only once they’re at least somewhat “settled” economically. Among poor women in particular, there is a fear of economic dependence, both within a marriage and in the event that it should end; marriage is regarded as a step to be taken only when both partners have significant incomes and savings of their own. But for many poor women, later marriage does not mean later childbearing. For those without realistic prospects of attending college or launching high-powered careers, Edin and Kefalas conclude, motherhood provides an alternative means of proving their worth to themselves and their peers, and an alternative identity around which to structure their lives. Many credit a child with giving them new direction and a sense of responsibility—even saving their lives by pushing them to abandon wild lifestyles. The lack of prospects makes the opportunity cost of childbearing relatively low. Poor women understand how to use birth control as well as their more affluent peers do, but they have less motivation to take every precaution against pregnancy, because they lack the high economic and academic aspirations a child might derail.