The Widening Marriage Gap: America's New Class Divide


National Journal, May 19, 2001

In the debate over the reauthorization of the landmark 1996 welfare law, conservatives are talking about marriage. And talking, and talking. "The conservatives are on an absolute tear about that," says Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist and poverty scholar at the Brookings Institution. "They just never stop talking about it." In March, Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee's Human Resources Subcommittee, told this magazine: "During the first phase of welfare reform, we made sure we were putting people to work. I believe that now is the time to stress the importance of marriage."

Liberals and many moderates are reacting to the Right's marriage offensive with understandable wariness. Feminists toward the left end of the spectrum think the government's job is to help single mothers support themselves independently. Mainstream liberals believe that marriage is a good thing and are all for encouraging it, but they doubt that conservatives know how. They worry, reasonably enough, that every federal dollar spent on gestural "pro-marriage" initiatives is one less federal dollar for other anti-poverty and pro-family measures that are more likely to work, such as efforts to prevent teenage pregnancy. Besides, isn't the government getting a bit pushy when it begins pressing people to get hitched?

The mainstream liberals have a point. If federal marriage policy works as well as federal agricultural policy, we'll all have a problem. Nonetheless, if the unfolding welfare debate shines a spotlight on marriage, that will be a good thing. The reason is that marriage is displacing both income and race as the great class divide of the new century.

This week's release of fresh data from the 2000 census brought the news that now, for the first time, fewer than a quarter of American households consist of married couples with children, and that, as The New York Times reported, the number of single-mother families with children "grew nearly five times faster in the 1990s than the number of married couples with children."

To understand the class implications of that news, begin with a number: 33. That is the percentage of all American children born out of wedlock in 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available. Now another number: 69. That is the percentage of black children born out of wedlock in 1999. The good news is that the illegitimacy ratio for blacks stopped rising in the 1990s; the bad news is that it stabilized at more than triple the illegitimacy ratio of 1960. Today, about two-thirds of all black families are headed by a single parent (usually the mother), and a majority of all black children live in fatherless households.

Ah, you say, yawning: This is just one more manifestation of America's enduring race problem. But is it? Until the 1950s, blacks were more, rather than less, likely than whites to be married. If race is the problem, why did marriage collapse in so much of black America even as Jim Crow and segregation were dismantled and as blacks began entering the economic and social mainstream? And why is the trend similar among whites?

Granted, in white America, marriage and two-parent households are more the rule than the exception. Still, the numbers are sobering. In 1960, about 2 percent of white children were born out of wedlock; in 1999, the comparable figure was 27 percent–and the figure for whites, unlike the one for blacks, continues to grow.

The result is that, by some estimates, 60 percent of all American children born in the 1990s will spend some significant portion of their childhood in a fatherless home. Moreover, the great engine of single-parenthood is no longer divorce, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s; it is the rising share of births to people who never marry to begin with.

Some–many–unwed mothers and their children do fine. But the odds are stacked against them. Nearly three-fourths of children in single-parent families will experience poverty by age 11, as against only about a fifth of children in two-parent families. Cohabitation appears to be less stable than marriage, even after other factors are accounted for. Research by the ton finds that children raised in single-parent homes are at greater risk of poverty, school dropout, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and adult joblessness.

All those problems disproportionately affect blacks, but before you decide that race, rather than marriage, is the active ingredient in the witch's brew, consider a few other points. First, poverty correlates more strongly with a family's marital status than with its race. According to Census Bureau data, a two-parent black household is more likely to be poor than is a two-parent white household, but both are far less likely to be poor than is a mother-only household of either race. In other words, if you are a baby about to be born, your best odds are to choose married black parents over unmarried white ones.

Second, recent research finds that, dire though the consequences of single parenthood often are for black children, the consequences tend to be even worse for white children. "The consequences of family disruption are smaller for disadvantaged black and Hispanic children than for disadvantaged white children, both in terms of percentage points and in terms of proportionate effects," write Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur in their 1994 book, Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. They add that a middle-class income is no shield. "The chances that a white girl from an advantaged background will become a teen mother is five times as high, and the chances a white child will drop out of high school is three times as high, if the parents do not live together."

This is not to say that most children in single-parent families become teenage parents or drop out; most don't. It is to say that the long-term presence of two parents–in other words, marriage–is a better predictor of a child's life chances than is race or income, and that illegitimacy and single parenthood are risky no matter what your race or income. Indeed, Sawhill notes that the proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.

Other things being equal, unmarried parenthood tends to propagate itself. Children of unwed parents are more likely to become unwed parents themselves. The problem becomes even more severe when children grow up in whole communities where marriage is more the exception than the rule. Sawhill notes that in some of the country's biggest cities, and even a few states, a majority of all children (not just black children) are born out of wedlock. There are large areas, in other words, where marriage may seem as exotic as lawn tennis. Perhaps partly as a result, about half of American high school seniors now say that having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle choice or does not affect anyone else. Anything so common, after all, must be normal.

No one knows what all this portends, but it would be foolish not to consider the possibility that America's families and children may be splitting into two increasingly divergent and self-perpetuating streams–two social classes, in other words–with marriage as the dividing line. Some children would grow up in a culture where marriage is taken for granted and parents worry about sport utility vehicles and quality day care, others in a culture where marriage is a pipe dream and deadbeat dads and impoverished kids are the norm. Ominously, in her research Sawhill finds that more American children today than in the 1970s have either very good or very poor life prospects, and fewer are in the middle. "There is a bifurcation in children's life prospects that threatens to divide the U.S. into a society of haves and have-nots," she writes.

Suppose, as all this evidence suggests, that what afflicts America is no longer first and foremost a poverty problem or a race problem but, rather, a marriage problem. Then neither income-based remedies such as welfare nor race-based remedies such as affirmative action will hit the mark. But what might a marriage-based remedy look like? "We don't have a clue how to get people married," Sawhill says. Theodora Ooms, the director of the Center for Law and Social Policy's marriage resource center, agrees. "This area is so new for social policy that we have no track record of research, demonstrations, evaluations," she says. "We're jump-starting the public policy debate" before either science or the public is prepared.

Still, the only way to find the right answers is to start asking the right questions. Every day, it becomes clearer that the old lenses of poverty and race are out of focus. The welfare reauthorization debate is a chance to begin looking at the world through a better pair of spectacles.