It is often said in conservative circles that "the best social program is a job." Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute makes a persuasive case in Marriage and Caste in America that the best social program is actually marriage.
Marriage largely consists of articles Hymowitz wrote for City Journal on the subject. If economist Thomas Sowell and marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher were to team up on a book about the place of marriage in American society, the result might be a lot like this one. Hymowitz not only probes the oft-examined the effects of marriage on children and current society, but she also explores how marriage contributes to what Sowell calls the "cultural capital" of America.
In fact, Hymowitz argues, marriage is at the center of American culture's "life script" for success. Before the Founding Fathers, the American version of marriage had been a part and parcel of New World dynamism, a blatant rejection of the European caste system of kinship and arranged marriages within class. No one sat down 300 years ago and designed the American way of marriage. It was a natural outgrowth of the freedom and self-determination sought by those who settled here.
While it's true that every healthy society has developed some sort of marriage tradition, Hymowitz contends that the success of the American free market largely depends on the traditional American model of marriage and children. Such an institution is uniquely evolved to prepare one to be able to take advantage, rather than be left behind, by a dynamic and rapidly changing economy.
Hymowitz focuses not on narrow causes and effects but on the whole ecosystem of incentives: "Marriage is not a lifestyle choice, a bundle of benefits or a piece of paper. And it goes far beyond planning for a wedding or a home mortgage. As the core cultural institution, marriage orders life in ways we only dimly understand. It carries with it signals about how we should live, signals that are in line with both our economy and our politics in the largest sense. In choosing their own spouses and planning their own home lives, people act out the individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness that are our primary values [and] pass the ideals of self-sufficiency and individual responsibility on to the next generation."
American marriage makes the dynamic economy possible. It's why you don't see American youths rioting in the streets like Parisians for the guaranteed right to clean oilets for the next 20 years.
On the flip side, Hymowitz argues that the unmarriage revolution has introduced a stagnant caste system to a growing segment of American life: "When the poor lost the language of American marriage, they lost a good deal more than a spouse. They lost the touch with the values of self-sufficiency and individual ambition. They lost a life script, and they lost the language of opportunity."
For all the Democrats' current fuss over using the minimum wage or, even dumber, a "living wage" to haul the poor out of poverty, the fact remains that it is very difficult for a married couple in America to remain desperately poor.
John Edwards will likely give his "two Americas speech" countless times in the next two years, and even Hymowitz concedes we're approaching a day when that division might exist as something other than a figment of his blow-dried imagination. But not for the reasons Edwards cites. "Two-America Jeremiahs," Hymowitz writes, "usually nod at the single parent family as a piece of the inequality story, then quickly change the subject." Why pick on single moms when you have moneyed special interests that are eager to hear about Wal-Mart, outsourcing, and the need for class-action suits?
But as Hymowitz documents, the fact that the poor are still living with the effects of the unmarriage revolution even as the more educated and well off are returning to a traditional marriage model, could be a cause for even greater inequality down the road. The 1972 Supreme Court case Stanley v. Illinois does not get the same attention of Roe v. Wade a year later, but in declaring that the distinctions between wed and unwed fathers are "constitutionally repugnant," the court put a legal stamp of approval on the unmarriage revolution and overturned centuries of precedent and the laws of most states.
Putting a legal divide between parenting and marriage opens up a Pandora's Box of no-fault divorce and gay marriage. The only real interest the state has in marriage is to establish responsibility for the raising of children and to establish lineage and inheritance rights; it is not for notarizing romantic feelings. Hymowitz explains: "Marriage has always had a fundamental universal core that makes gay marriage a non sequitur; it has always governed property and inheritance rights; it has always been the means of establishing paternity, legitimacy, and the rights and responsibilities of parenthood; and because these goals involve bearing and raising children, it has always involved (at least one) man and woman."
Divorce, Hymowitz writes, is a "conundrum" for the nation because "it follows directly from American principles even while threatening to subvert them." For a long time, Americans had a slightly higher divorce rate than much of the rest of the world because the same impulse toward freedom that created American marriage was also reluctant to force its bonds. However, it was not until marriage was de-linked from child rearing that no-fault divorce enabled the explosion of broken marriages.
Like all social experiments, the unmarriage revolution affected the poor most adversely. In the black community, thanks to a lethal combination of political correctness, rage and social engineers run wild, marriage all but disappeared in some urban areas. Hymowitz necessarily chronicles this decline and its ill effects, though it is obviously well tilled soil, and while she puts her own stamp on the telling, breaks little new ground. She is less than optimistic that the current trend of young fathers expressing the desire to "step up" for their children will be a long-term success. While this may be a valuable rhetorical first step, only comedian-turned-social-critic Bill Cosby is using the word "marriage" in his criticism of parenting in the black community. And while he attracts large older crowds, he is getting hammered by members of the younger generations.
Hymowitz expresses doubt that, without the permanence of marriage, fathers will be around when the cute factor wears off and child-raising becomes real work. Even at its early stages, with fathers already moving on to other women - and possibly creating more children - a quasi-polygamy with no legal ties is working against them.
However, Marriage and Caste in America is the first book I have read on this subject that ends on an optimistic note. Despite desperate attempts by the media - most recently The New York Times - to say that fewer adults are living as married couples, Hymowitz writes there is a generational backlash against the Destructive Generation's legacy of self-fulfilled parents.
Hymowitz shows that the divorce rate is falling, and the percentage of children living with both parents is rising - even among black children. Long life and the fact that Gen X and Millennials are getting married later because they value marriage accounts for the misused media stats. But that might be the most encouraging part of this trend -- that it is happening without the "help" of the cultural elite.