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Marriage and Caste in America:
Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age

by kay s. hymowitz
ivan r. dee, 192 pages, $22.50

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 the 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 prison-building 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 countless children have paid for their parents’ failure to get or stay married. She recognizes that the 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 co-ops,” 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 college-­educated 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. First, the divide only deepens the disadvantages facing children at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. Children born to poor and working-class mothers face “double trouble”: Parents who are less likely to have the skills, savvy, and income to help them advance in life and parents who are unmarried or don’t stay married. The double disadvantage these children face dramatically increases the odds they will fall prey to drug and alcohol abuse, to school failure, to crime, and to an adulthood scarred by family breakdown and poverty. Indeed, the collective consequences of family breakdown are striking: Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill estimates that nearly all the increase in child poverty this country witnessed since the 1970s can be laid at the door of the nation’s retreat from marriage. 

By contrast, children born to parents from the upper end of the socioeconomic ladder typically benefit from having parents who help them advance in life; indeed, most middle- and upper-class parents are dedicated to what Hymowitz aptly calls The Mission—the intensive parenting style practiced by millions of American soccer moms and dads, all of whom are doing everything they can to ensure that their children will eventually end up with “a fulfilling career, a big house in a posh suburb, and a sense of meaningful accomplishment.” In part because they have come to recognize that two parents are more likely to succeed in The Mission than one, middle- and upper-class parents have made increasingly successful efforts to get and stay married. Consequently, their children typically lead doubly advantaged lives that allow them to avoid a life of crime, to attend a selective college, to be reasonably well-adjusted, and to avoid the twin scourges of poverty and family breakdown in adulthood. 

The rise of the marriage gap also reveals that a large minority of working-class, poor, and minority adults no longer “believe in marriage as an institution for raising children.” They have lost touch with a marriage orientation that requires them to keep an eye on the future, to work hard, to discipline their sexual (or at least reproductive) behavior, and to be discriminating in their choice of romantic partners. In making this point, Hymowitz provocatively turns on its head the standard liberal argument that the poor do not marry because they do not have good jobs, adequate income, and decent housing; instead, she persuasively argues that the disappearance of a marriage orientation—and the virtues and values associated with this orientation—among the poor and working class is a big part of the reason that they and their children are more likely to end up at the bottom of the social ladder.

By contrast, even if the middle and upper classes pay lip service to notions of tolerance for family diversity, their commitment to material and social advancement means that they manage to hold on to both a marriage orientation and the bourgeois virtues that make a reasonably comfortable middle-class family lifestyle possible. Single motherhood may be fine in theory, but most college-educated Americans know it won’t work in practice to secure the American Dream.

Hymowitz does not write much about the sources of America’s marriage malaise, but she rightly points to the sexual revolution and the feminist movement as key contributors to the retreat from marriage, largely because they succeeded in getting people to think and act in ways that suggested that sex, children, and marriage need not be packaged together. “For the first time in history—not just American history but the history of known human society—people began to toy with the idea that children and marriage were really two discrete life phenomena.” She also calls elites to account, especially for their complicity in turning a blind eye toward or even celebrating the breakdown of the black family after the 1960s.

What is missing from her diagnosis is an adequate appreciation of the way that secularization and shifts in the American economy have also played a role in fueling the retreat from marriage. Marked declines in religious attendance in the immediate wake of the 1960s and even more dramatic declines in Americans’ willingness to grant moral weight to religious teachings regarding sex, marriage, and divorce certainly helped drive the retreat from marriage.

So did the rise of a service economy, and the fall of a manufacturing economy, that tilted the economic playing field away from working-class men and toward working-class women, thereby making working-class men less valuable as providers—both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their partners. One reason that the marriage retreat hit the working class and poor much harder than middle- and upper-class Americans is that college-educated men, unlike working-class men, have largely prospered in the service economy. These men continue to be attractive as potential providers, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their future wives.

Another reason that the working class and poor paid a much higher price for the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is that they did not and do not have the same commitment to the bourgeois virtues and values—delayed gratification, self-control, a commitment to education, and a vision of future success—that have steered most college-educated Americans clear of illegitimacy and divorce. Thus, when society and its institutions stopped enforcing norms demanding that marriage and children go together, many poor and working-class Americans had nothing to ensure that they would find their way to the altar before the delivery room. By contrast, their better-educated and more strategic peers made sure—one way or another—that the baby came after the wedding, knowing full well that this would raise the odds that they and their progeny could make good on the American dream.

In a concluding chapter appropriately titled “It’s Morning After in America,” Hymowitz suggests that modesty, stay-at-home motherhood, and marriage-mindedness seem to be making a comeback. And she presents some evidence that these have more cachet than they did two or three decades ago, as educated Americans come to terms with the “damage that their decades-long fling with the sexual revolution and the transvaluation of traditional values wrought.” But her evidence is largely drawn from trends in middle- and upper-class precincts—we learn, for instance, that, miracle of miracles, even left-leaning experts can now be found admitting that “society should try to help more children grow up with their two biological, married parents in a reasonably healthy, stable relationship.”

What Hymowitz does not do is provide the reader with much ground for hope that the American marriage gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots is likely to be bridged in the near future—probably because she cannot.

Even as the divorce rate continues to go down (evidence perhaps that it is indeed the “morning after” in many reasonably well-off white communities), the illegitimacy rate continues to climb, which means that for poor, working-class, and black communities there is no light yet on the marital horizon. If Hymowitz’s book tells us anything, it is that the American republic is unlikely to integrate its Two Americas, separate and unequal, until that day when the institution of marriage once again regains its pride of place as the nation’s preeminent locus of sex, childbearing, and childrearing.

W. Bradford Wilcox is professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.

Photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash. Image cropped.