Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Marriage and Caste 1: Are Things Worse Now?

Kay Hymowitz has written a fine article in City Journal, "Marriage and Caste." Facing the question, "what is America’s chief source of inequality?," she answers, "The Marriage Gap." The top classes not only get educated and keep working, they marry before they have kids and stay married. The bottom classes have kids without any of these structural supports – which is why they stay poorer.

Hymowitz sums up the social consequences of this pattern this way:

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.

Hymowitz then worries that this pattern of passing on status at the top has a worrying corollary at the bottom:

The Marriage Gap—and the inequality to which it is tied—is self-perpetuating. A low-income single mother … 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. … Instead of an opportunity-rich country for all, the Marriage Gap threatens us with a rigid caste society.

I agree with Kay Hymowitz that we have a marriage gap. I think we always have – there are a dozen reasons why kids with married parents usually do better than kids without. Nowadays, though, there are many more kids from single-parent homes, or worse. And there are many more kids with two educated professional or corporate parents who get boosted higher. So the gap is bigger, and there are more kids at the bottom.

Where I disagree with Hymowitz is whether this gap is creating a new, rigid caste system. As I see it, the social structure today is the most fluid that it has ever been. Today, more than any previous era in American history, the class, power, and status that you end up with has more to do with how you have chosen to live your life, and less to do with inherited qualities that you can't do anything about. Sure, being raised in a two-parent family is an advantage, and a single-parent background is a disadvantage. It always has been. And, statistically, people are more likely to repeat the pattern of their parents. But any given couple can choose to break a bad marital cycle – or throw away their advantage and disadvantage their own children.

SO: marriage gap, yes; marriage caste, no.

1 comment:

SPorcupine said...

Only a couple of years ago, I would have read this thought on opportunity for parents as mainly about our family and others like ours. Now, I see it first as about Gruntled's former students who are newly engaged, or have just shared wedding dates, or have gotten married in the last few years and are starting families. I'm not yet thinking it's about futures for grandchildren, but now it does seem to be about "grandstudents."