Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

To Have and to Hold

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

To Have and to Hold

Article excerpt


Reviewed by W. Bradford Wilcox

"THE FOUNDATIONS of national morality must be laid in private families," wrote John Adams in 1778. Adams recognized, as did many of the founders, that the institution of marriage played a vital role in promoting the moral health of the American republic, both by civilizing men and by fostering a family environment where children were more likely to grow in virtue. They knew that the new republic's commitment to liberty and limited government depended in no small part on the capacity of American men and women to form and maintain families that fostered fidelity, hard work, self-control, and a measure of independence. They knew, in other words, that self-government begins at home.

Modern Americans, however, seem no longer to see as clearly die connections between our nation's half-century retreat from marriage and dramatic declines in child welfare, as represented by marked increases in adolescent delinquency, depression, and suicide over this same period. They do not see how this retreat is implicated in unprecedented increases in the size and scope of the police state over the last half century-in, for instance, the prisonbuilding boom of the past three decades, the response of federal and state governments to the spiraling crime rates of the 1970s and 1980s. And they do not see that the poor and working classes have been hit hardest by the breakdown of marriage in America.

In Marriage and Caste in America, her bracing but beautifully written tour de force of contemporary American family life, Kay Hymowitz demonstrates that she does see it clearly. Although she carries no torch for the 1950s, Hymowitz notes the high price that coundess children have paid for their parents' failure to get or stay married. She recognizes that thie breakdown of marriage threatens such distinctively American values as freedom, self-reliance, and even individualism. Most of all, Hymowitz is able to see the myriad ways that our society's retreat from marriage has turned this country into a "nation of separate and unequal families," a nation where white middle- and upper-class Americans largely manage to hold marriage and childrearing together, while minority, poor, and working-class Americans largely fail to give their children the gift of married parents.

This latter insight will come as a surprise to many Americans. "Most people assume that divorce, unmarried motherhood, fatherlessness, and custody battles are all equal-opportunity domestic misfortunes, affecting the denizens of West Virginia trailer parks or Bronx housing projects just as they do those of Malibu beach homes or Park Avenue coops," Hymowitz observes. Nevertheless, "the assumption that Americans are all in the same boat when it comes to marriage collapse is dead wrong."

Take, for instance, the growing marriage gap between collegeeducated women and women without a college degree. College-educated women are at least 80 percent less likely to have a child outside wedlock than their less-educated peers, and the illegitimacy divide has grown since the 1970s. Divorce trends also divide by education. These divergent patterns are even more striking when the dividing line is race rather than education. African-American children are 165 percent more likely to be born outside wedlock than are white children, and black couples are 46 percent more likely to divorce than are white couples. The growing divergence in marriage patterns by race and education is particularly striking because, as recently as forty years ago, marriage trends were not all that different by race and class. We now live in a country where marriage is in danger of becoming a status symbol for a select few rather than a ticket into adulthood for the vast majority of Americans.

As Hymowitz points out, the emergence of the marriage gap is a problem for at least two reasons. …

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