The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women with no more than a high-school education has skyrocketed since the 1960s but remains very low among college graduates. Divorce has declined among the well-off but is climbing among the unskilled. Although almost all college graduates still marry eventually, marriage rates are dropping steadily among those without a high-school degree.
As noted by Sara McLanahan in her recent presidential address to the Population Association of America, these trends tell an ominous story: The offspring of the well-off receive a growing share of parental time, attention, and investment and grow up in stable and orderly homes. The less privileged frequently endure a fractured and chaotic family life. These developments betoken diverging destinies for generations to come.
Why have these changes occurred? Interviews conducted by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas with more than 150 Philadelphia-area single mothers shed light on a dismal situation. Most of these women express a strong desire to marry and view extramarital childbearing as "second best." Yet almost all remained single. The authors' explanation: Expectations for marriage have risen across the board. A house, a well-paying job, and enough money for a nice wedding are now needed to tie the knot. But wages at the bottom have stagnated or declined, so few of the unskilled can afford to marry. The authors' message is clear: Out-of-wedlock childbearing is simply a matter of money. Raise economic prospects and the problem will fix itself. That objective is best addressed through government programs, not individual or community reform.
Nice try, but it misses the mark. The explanation is at odds with what these women say: Men's antisocial behavior, not their modest earning power, is the main obstacle to matrimony. The complaints are not of insufficient potential income, but of drug use, criminality, financial irresponsibility, violence, poor work ethic, defiant attitudes and, above all, flagrant sexual infidelity. That most boyfriends had children by other women was a source of great mistrust.
This is no different from other portraits of urban family life, such as Jason DeParles's "American Dream" and Adrian LeBlanc's "Random Family." The men in these books also openly reject sexual fidelity and flout the most basic standards of male responsibility towards their women and children. The women respond by seeing marriage as an impossible dream. These are not stories of rising expectations.
Rather, these women want what women have always wanted: men who are steady, faithful, considerate, and industrious. What has changed is men's willingness to live up to these age-old standards. Indeed, Ms. Edin and Ms. Kefalas tacitly acknowledge this: They describe the one man who comes closest to displaying the traditional bourgeois virtues as "the neighborhood equivalent of a Rhodes Scholar."
What can we learn from these tales of working-class city life and the demographic facts behind them? First, the decades-old demise of clear standards following the sexual revolution, at worst a mixed blessing for the well-off, has hit the less privileged hard. The disparities in family structure suggest that people are not equal in their ability to handle newfound sexual freedom. The well-heeled don't often defend the 1950s, but they haven't left them entirely behind. That behavior differs by social position should come as no surprise. Foresight and capacity for self-governance are qualities that make for economic success. They also make for orderly families.
Second, marital and sexual behavior depend more on mores than money. Restraint and social norms, rather than economic circumstances, best account for class differences. As Christopher Jencks and David Ellwood at Harvard have noted, economic factors fail to explain why privileged women, who are best equipped to go the single-motherhood route, insist upon marriage before children. Work by sociologists indicates that men may be the key. What we know about why marriages endure suggests that better-off men more often honor monogamy and strive for sexual fidelity. In family life, as in education, degrees matter: The rare or hidden lapse is worlds apart from infidelity as a way of life.
Left-leaning scholars adamantly resist this picture. They insist that family breakdown is all about economic opportunity. The problem is not that people are behaving badly or that — heaven forbid — one class is more prudent than another, but that our policies are inadequate. Material conditions, not moral commitments, are the source of domestic chaos. To change behavior, we must give the poor more resources.
Decades of experience belie this view. Poor relief and welfare policy, whether strict or lenient, can't rescue disintegrating families. Rather, as Mr. Jencks and others have shown, the very opposite is true: Wise behavior can secure economic well-being. Men and women who stick together, stay out of trouble, and work steadily are rarely poor, and their children surmount poverty as well. Public money and policy gimmicks are no substitute for good conduct.
Opinion leaders, meanwhile, continue to tout irresponsible sexual behavior as a mere lifestyle choice and disparage firm standards of conduct. They embrace a misplaced "tolerance" that sees family forms as equivalent and refuses to condemn variants as dysfunctional. The privileged have weathered the moral confusion and protected their children from the worst. At this juncture in our civilization, their outlook is the ultimate act of bad faith. Sexual freedom and political correctness for the advantaged have come at the price of broken families for the vulnerable. Greater inequality is the grim result.
Ms. Wax teaches social welfare law and policy at University of Pennsylvania Law School.
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