The Economist has a fascinating story on the economic and cultural gaps between those we might call the 'life-long married' and the rest of America. Based on research from a number of different organizations, it seems that the best educated and most prosperous Americans tend to marry for life, and are better at passing on the tools for success to their children. Single parents, separated parents, and those who move from one relationship to another are at a great disadvantage in trying to pass on to their kids the values and habits that will help them succeed:
There is a widening gulf between how the best- and least-educated Americans approach marriage and child-rearing. Among the elite (excluding film stars), the nuclear family is holding up quite well. Only 4% of the children of mothers with college degrees are born out of wedlock. And the divorce rate among college-educated women has plummeted. Of those who first tied the knot between 1975 and 1979, 29% were divorced within ten years. Among those who first married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5% were.
At the bottom of the education scale, the picture is reversed. Among high-school dropouts, the divorce rate rose from 38% for those who first married in 1975-79 to 46% for those who first married in 1990-94. Among those with a high school diploma but no college, it rose from 35% to 38%. And these figures are only part of the story. Many mothers avoid divorce by never marrying in the first place. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women who drop out of high school is 15%. Among African-Americans, it is a staggering 67%.
Does this matter? Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, says it does. In her book “Marriage and Caste in America”, she argues that the “marriage gap” is the chief source of the country's notorious and widening inequality. Middle-class kids growing up with two biological parents are “socialised for success”. They do better in school, get better jobs and go on to create intact families of their own. Children of single parents or broken families do worse in school, get worse jobs and go on to have children out of wedlock. This makes it more likely that those born near the top or the bottom will stay where they started. America, argues Ms Hymowitz, is turning into “a nation of separate and unequal families”.
The Economist piece further notes that according to the National Marriage Project, marriage itself is a 'wealth-generating institution.' That is, those who marry wind up -- on the average -- four times wealthier than those who do not. It also addresses the seemingly counter-intuitive finding that couples who live together before marriage tend to divorce at a higher rate than those who do not.
I find this piece fascinating, and encourage you to take 10-15 minutes to read the whole thing. It's very reminiscent of the late Pat Moynihan's report on illegitimacy in the African American community, in its linkage between a strong two-parent family and ultimate economic success.
For those of us in Washington, the possible policy responses to the problems of broken marriages seem limited. The Economist makes clear that this is not due to the tax code, but is traced to broad changes in American culture -- ultimately finding its roots in the sexual revolution. The piece suggests that there may be one program created by President Bush that represents a step in the right direction:
Since last year, his administration has been handing out grants to promote healthy marriages. This is a less preachy enterprise than you might expect. Sidonie Squier, the bureaucrat in charge, does not argue that divorce is wrong: “If you're being abused, you should get out.” Nor does she think the government should take a view on whether people should have pre-marital sex.
Her budget for boosting marriage is tiny: $100m a year, or about what the Defence Department spends every two hours. Some of it funds research into what makes a relationship work well and whether outsiders can help. Most of the rest goes to groups that try to help couples get along better, some of which are religiously-inspired. The first 124 grants were disbursed only last September, so it is too early to say whether any of this will work. But certain approaches look hopeful.
Given the evident link between strong marriages and future prosperity, perhaps this is the sort of issue worthy of a national debate -- particularly as we head into a presidential election year. In 1992 Bill Clinton implicitly embraced the findings of the Moynihan report when he called for an end to welfare as we know it. Is there a candidate in the current field who's willing to tackle the larger but related problem of the devaluation of marriage?