In contemporary America, there seem to be two major scripts for life. In one script, families encourage, cajole and steer their young adults to get their names on three documents in this order: a college degree, a marriage license and a baby’s birth certificate.
In the other life script, families encourage their youths to strive for the same three things, but there’s little or no emphasis on the order. As a result, it’s no big deal for a young woman or young man to sign a baby’s birth certificate when there’s no marriage license or college degree.
The outcomes of these two scripts couldn’t be more different — in fact, they are dividing the nation into “separate and unequal families,” says Manhattan Institute scholar Kay S. Hymowitz.
The “middle-class” script that pays attention to the order of events leads to — and perpetuates — a comfortable, prosperous, self-sufficient middle-class life, she said recently at an event at the Heritage Foundation.
The other script, which typically results in unplanned, “accidental” families, leads to — and perpetuates — a “single-mother proletariat” class.
“Not exactly what America should look like, is it?” she asks in her book, “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.”
Closing this “marriage gap” is one of the most efficient ways to tackle intergenerational poverty and inequality, she says. This means spreading the cultural message that “marriage and childbearing belong together.”
Rekindling a marriage culture in poor neighborhoods is not impossible, says Kathryn Edin, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor who is nationally known for her research on low-income families. “Virtually all of these women would love to adopt Kay’s script,” says Mrs. Edin, co-author of “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.”
But it will take investments in relationship skills and economic growth — so adults, especially men, can find good work — as well as a change in attitudes about marriage.
Mrs. Edin says that now in poor communities, marriage is seen as “a luxury,” something to aspire to and achieve when circumstances are “right,” while having a baby is “a necessity” — it gives young men and women identity, position, purpose and meaning in life.
In fact, poor women are likely to view their children as a saving grace rather than a hardship, she says. It’s not uncommon for women to say that if it weren’t for their children, “I’d be messed up on drugs,” “I’d be nowhere at all” or “I’d be dead or in jail.”
Both Mrs. Hymowitz’s and Mrs. Edin’s books offer a wealth of information for policy-makers seeking to reduce poverty and increase two-parent homes.
Mrs. Hymowitz says that while the whole nation experimented with unwed childbearing and divorce in the 1960s and 1970s, educated women quickly tired of the drama and returned to the marriage-before-children script.
College-educated women never went in for “the ‘Murphy Brown’ thing,” she told the Heritage event, referring to the popular 1990s sitcom about a professional single woman who became a mother. Instead, they were more likely to follow the script where they get a job, get married and then have children.
“And they raise their children with their husbands,” says Mrs. Hymowitz, noting that the unwed-childbearing rates and divorce rates for female college graduates are very low, about 4 percent and 10 percent, respectively.