- December 15, 2014
One of academic social science’s most harmful influences since the 1960s has been its role in the emasculation of the nuclear family, married couples and the rearing of children, drastically reducing their lifetime expectations. America’s turn away from marriage is both a cause and consequence of increasing economic inequality and the growing decline of the middle class. Ironically, the focus of social science on cultural and sexual liberation from the allegedly patriarchal family, and on diversity to vanquish racism, has worsened the social and economic condition of the poor black family and children. Moreover, that adverse condition is spreading upward into more cohabiting middle-class families in small towns and suburbs, producing ever more disadvantaged children. Prosperity is increasingly the province mainly of college graduates, who marry one another, stay together, and raise advantaged children—who perpetuate their real class superiority while denouncing legacy “white privilege.”
Let’s consider some facts about marriage and children. In 2010 married couples dropped below half (48 percent) of all households for the first time in American history, far below the 78 percent of households occupied by married couples in 1950. Out-of-wedlock births have soared from 5 percent in the 1960s to 40 percent today, with rates now over 50 percent among women under thirty and the poor. In 1965, out-of-wedlock births among blacks were 24 percent; today such births are 70‒80 percent.
The latest trend, accelerating since 2000, is that not only less-educated poor women, but also middle-class women in their twenties are deferring or dismissing marriage—but not childbearing—opting instead for short-term cohabitation or single parenthood. In 2010, for young women with less than a high school education, 83 percent of first births were out-of-wedlock; with a high school education, 58 percent; and with a college education, only 12 percent. Marriage is increasingly not seen as the “cornerstone” for raising children, but a “capstone” for a financially independent adult life, more and more out of reach for the middle class, with its growing numbers of less educated, low-earning men. More and more children are being raised without biological fathers, which is particularly harmful to boys—and their futures as men. And, perhaps surprisingly, 60 percent of births to young, single women are unplanned, resulting from non-use or misuse of contraception.
The proportion of children living with a single-parent or cohabiting couples, not always both a parent, rather than with their married biological parents has increased twelvefold since 1970 and is at an all-time high. Such children are vastly more likely to lack parenting, perform poorly in school (the achievement gap), have behavioral and psychological problems, be poor, and go on to have out-of-wedlock families themselves. Children raised in unmarried families have diminished social capital and mobility, increasing inequality and social stratification. But “more than two-thirds of Millennial women” are opposed to the idea of women returning to traditional roles in a nuclear family that so benefited children throughout earlier American history. Reflecting that belief, 57 percent of births to Millennial women are out-of-wedlock.
The collapse of the nuclear family is enabling a nation of separate and unequal families begetting children destined to separate and unequal futures. Yet academic social science continues to denigrate marriage and emphasize alternative adult lifestyles in its pedagogy, and to advocate more women’s rights and state action for family breakdown, which civil society must solve.
In Marriage (2008), the late Emory historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese explained that marriage long enjoyed a privileged status within Western civilization (and America) as the primary social unit of civil society—the essential bond that created a bridge between the sexes.
In joining a man and a woman, marriage attempts to hold men to collective social standards, including responsibility for the women they impregnate and the children they father, while also stringently hedging in women’s sexuality. In short, marriage has always demanded that both men and women sacrifice a considerable measure of individual freedom…[to act] in the interest of the family.
The late Harvard sociologist Carle E. Zimmerman argued, in Family and Civilization (1947), that from the early twentieth century, social science began to challenge all social values and institutions, including the family. New “scientific” explanations divorced the family from history. Family sociology held that progress consisted in dropping family bonds and perpetually creating new types of families. Social groups were to be contractual, man-made, incidental, and nominalist in nature. The “unrestrained individual” was to be the end of society and the family his private agent.
During the 1960s, the American academy became imbued with the ideas of the Frankfurt School: cultural Marxism. Herbert Marcuse argued that Freudian “polymorphous perversity” was wrongly being channeled into only monogamous marriage, which enforced submission to social rules and the patriarchal compulsion to work. Cultural Marxism contended that strict parenting predisposed children to right-wing ideology and that Christianity, capitalism, and the traditional family created a personal character prone to racism and fascism.
Stemming from The Second Sex (1953) by Simone de Beauvoir, the French Marxist-feminist, the ideology of “gender feminism” also became prevalent in the academy during the 1960s and 1970s. Gender feminism rejects the “patriarchal” marriage and family—“the cradle of women’s oppression”—and maternal responsibility for child rearing. It transforms the union of a man and woman into a vehicle for realization of adult lifestyle choices and desires. It substitutes social science and the state for the family as developers of the faculties of children, undermining the ethic of parental responsibility.
Cultural Marxism and gender feminism converged in the theory that the patriarchal family needed to be overhauled to include forms more suitable to female choice and empowerment. Sexual liberation and obsession, and self-centered expressive individualism (choice over commitment), came to prevail in social science and spread, through education, from the academy to society. These academically inspired beliefs, along with a welfare state that subsidized only unmarried recipients until 1996, instigated a massive disintegration of marriage and the nuclear family.
In a dissenting forecast in 1965, sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an Assistant Secretary of Labor, warned of the effects of the collapse of the nuclear family on blacks in his report to President Lyndon Johnson, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which:
focused on the deep roots of black poverty in America and concluded controversially that the relative absence of nuclear families (those having both a father and a mother present) would greatly hinder further progress toward economic and political equality.
Marxist feminists vehemently protested that the Moynihan report presented a male-centric view of social problems.
In the same time frame, the Pill, backed by legal abortion, became widely available and American attitudes about sexual relations progressively and rapidly changed.
In the remainder of this article, I draw primarily upon studies by (1) the well-known Brookings Institution; (2) the Institute for American Values (IAV), a think tank that focuses on family issues and strengthening civil society, chaired by William Galston of Brookings and former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton; and (3) the National Marriage Project (NMP) at the University of Virginia, which collects research on marriage, headed by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox. These institutions disseminate information to scholars; civic, business, and religious leaders; professionals; policy makers; and others interested in understanding the state of marriage in America.
College family textbooks have long disparaged marriage. In Closed Hearts Closed Minds: The Textbook Story of Marriage (1997), a study for IAV, the late Texas family sociologist Norval Glenn reported the results of a review of a representative sample of 20 recently published undergraduate marriage and family textbooks and concluded that:
First, current textbooks convey a determinedly pessimistic view of marriage. Both by what they say and, sometimes even more importantly, by the information they omit, these books repeatedly suggest that marriage is more a problem than a solution. The potential costs of marriage to adults, particularly women, often receive exaggerated treatment, while the benefits of marriage, both to individuals and society, are frequently downplayed or ignored. Second, almost all of these textbooks shortchange children, devoting far more pages to adult problems and adult relationships than to issues concerning child well-being….
What kind of story do today’s family textbooks tell about marriage?...First…marriage is just one of many equally acceptable and equally productive adult relationships…[including] cohabiting couples, divorced non-couples, stepfamilies, and gay and lesbian families. In fact, if anything, marriage as a lifelong child-rearing bond holds special dangers, particularly for women, who, if they don’t find marriage physically threatening, will very likely find it psychologically stifling….
Overall, most of these textbooks remain rather dogmatically dedicated to the proposition that intact marriages are not especially important for raising children. The great majority of Americans who persist in thinking otherwise are, as these authors frequently suggest, merely ignorant….Any future therapist, marriage counselor, minister, teacher, or family lawyer would come away from these textbooks with the distinct impression that marital disruption and unwed childbearing have few if any harmful effects on children or society.
A review in The New York Times quoted an IAV critic, Stephanie Coontz, a progressive historian at Evergreen State College, who said of the study, “much of what they say is unassailable, but there are still plenty of marriages that are unfair and toxic.” Coontz went on to support the textbooks:
Textbooks have to negotiate a fine line, that 50 percent of kids don’t live in families with their two married biological parents, so do you tell them that they’re doomed, or do you work with what you’ve got?
Interestingly, a contemporaneous report for IAV on high school textbooks (used in health classes) by New York University psychologist Paul C. Vitz found that:
Especially regarding the importance of marriage, these high school textbooks stand out in marked contrast to college-level texts….Family is important. Marriage matters. All things being equal, children are better off when they grow up with their two, married parents.
However, in an article written for NAS in 2008, Sandra Stotsky showed that high school students are given a contrary view in Grade 11 reading anthologies, that:
American women have been oppressed by their husbands and society throughout their country’s history, that marriage is an oppressive institution that has caused women much suffering, that middle-class American family life leaves much to be desired, and that women have achieved a great deal despite marital, social, and political oppression.
Another contribution of higher education and social science to our current state of stratification has been affirmative action based on diversity. After watching oral arguments about affirmative action (Fisher) at the Supreme Court, David Leonhardt of The New York Times observed:
Only one side talked about fairness. And it was not the side defending affirmative action….The defenders of affirmative action spoke instead about the value of diversity….The crucial choice…made long ago was to focus the program on race rather than more broadly on disadvantage….By foregoing a broader view of disadvantage, colleges ...”forfeited fairness”…They have preferred a version of diversity focused on elites from every race.
Identity-group-based affirmative action by higher education has increased class differences within such groups rather than improving the prosperity and prospects of the minority poor since the 1960s.
Our Societal Situation
Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax has summarized the current situation in America.
The past 30 years have witnessed a dramatic divergence in family structure by social class, income, education, and race….Society-wide changes in economic conditions or social expectations cannot account for these patterns. Rather, for reasons that are poorly understood, cultural disparities have emerged by class and race in attitudes and behaviors surrounding family, sexuality, and reproduction. These disparities will likely fuel social and economic inequality and contribute to disparities in children’s life prospects for decades to come.
In a 2011 joint study, Why Marriage Matters, the NMP and IAV reported that:
Today, the rise of cohabiting households with children is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives. In fact, because of the growing prevalence of cohabitation, which has risen fourteen-fold since 1970, today’s children are much more likely to spend time in a cohabiting household than they are to see their parents divorce….
More children are currently born to cohabiting couples than to single mothers….More than four in ten children are exposed to a cohabiting relationship. Thus, one reason that the institution of marriage has less of a hold over Americans than it has had for most of our history is that cohabitation has emerged as a powerful alternative to and competitor with marriage.
For this reason, the third edition of Why Marriage Matters focuses new attention on recent scholarship assessing the impact that contemporary cohabitation is having on marriage, family life, and the welfare of children….
The report’s conclusions can be summarized as (1) children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting households, compared to intact, married families, and (2) the nation’s retreat from marriage has hit poor and working-class communities with particular force.
Another IAV study in 2008 assessed the positions of social science on marriage:
For the past four decades, family scholars have been engaged in an often intense debate about the changing place of marriage in American family life. One side…has argued that the decline in marriage has been a troubling trend with demonstrably negative consequences for families, and children in particular. The other side…has argued that families haven’t necessarily been weakened by divorce and unwed childbearing and that the negative impact on children has been exaggerated….
This academic dispute has had serious implications for society. Many Americans have been questioning the importance of marriage, and the rift among scholars has allowed both progressives and traditionalists to claim that the experts are on their side.
The study asks, “over the past 20 years, have leading scholars reached a consensus on marriage?” It found that:
Reviewing articles in the Journal of Marriage and Family, we find that an apparent majority of scholars have come to believe that family structure matters, and matters to an important extent, for children. This widespread agreement has emerged, in large part, because scholars have amassed a wealth of data on the subject, and the data support such concern.
But Professor W. Bradford Wilcox summarizes the latest progressive view of marriage and children, expressed in a recent Brookings’ paper:
Yes, we now acknowledge that children do better in married families, but it isn’t marriage per se that matters for the kids. It’s the “money,” “time,” and “good parenting” found at higher rates among the types of parents who are married that really “drive” children’s outcomes, not “marriage itself.” And that’s a good thing because “family income and parenting skills are more realistically addressed through public policy than marriage anyway.”
As Wilcox comments on that view:
We know that levels of parental involvement, supervision, monitoring, and closeness are higher, on average, in two-biological-married parent families than in single-parent families….Two parents can invest more time in their children; they can support one another when the going gets tough; and they can encourage and monitor one another in ways that foster higher quality parenting. And married partners…are much more likely to stick together, compared to their cohabiting peers, when it comes to sharing the joys and challenges of parenting…
The Brookings report concludes that:
Marriage is a powerful means by which incomes can be raised and parenting can be improved. But marriage itself seems immune to the ministrations of policymakers. In which case, policies to increase the incomes of unmarried parents, especially single parents, and to help parents to improve their parenting skills, should be where policy energy is now expended.
Government efforts since the 1990s to increase the role of marriage in American life have had little success. A return to marriage faces a steep climb over a long time. Interim steps such as income support and parenting advice for families with children are being considered by public policymakers. Such steps should incentivize marriage and not drive fathers from families as welfare programs have done. The solution must come primarily from civil society and a change in the cultural ethos of our lower classes.
The upper middle class, including college-educated elites, sets the direction for a nation and urgently needs to speak to those lower classes about the value and benefits of marriage, based on their own positive contemporary experience with maintaining the nuclear family. Academic social science needs to shine a spotlight on the plight of our increasingly cohabiting lower and middle classes, and especially their children, and act to redress the harm it has caused—by supporting a return to marriage, the important institution rightly esteemed by Western civilization.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
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