Bourgeois ambitions, well-ordered lives

This article by Kay Hymowitz in City Journal puts forward three interesting propositions.  The first is that the decline of the institution of marriage which began in the 1960s has now evolved into a caste system:  college-educated women tend to get and stay married, while less-educated women are far more prone to divorce and single motherhood.

Second, the educational-marital divide generates massive social and economic effects, particularly for children.  The truest indicator of poverty is single motherhood.

Third, the consequent inequalities have started to harden into true castes.  Children of less-educated mothers are less likely to study hard, have children within marriage, or prosper economically.  Americans may soon be fated from birth to success or failure, based on their mother’s educational level.

Hymowitz contends the American way of life, predicated on equality and a level playing field, is in trouble.  “We are now a nation of separate and unequal families,” she writes, “not only living separate and unequal lives but, more worrisome, destined for separate and unequal futures.”  Is she right?  Let’s examine her three claims.

The decline of marriage since the Sixties is a well-known fact.  The human and economic devastation this rupture with the past has worked on single mothers and their children is equally well understood.  The new information concerns the link with education.

According to a Harvard study cited by Hymowitz, among college-educated women the rate of divorce and single motherhood flattened out around 1980, and actually declined somewhat in the 1990s.  Less-educated mothers continued to divorce and give birth out of wedlock at increasing rates for another decade; their rates stabilized at a much more dysfunctional level than that of their educated peers.  Out-of-wedlock births among college educated women thus stands at 4 percent, but rises to 10 percent among high-school-educated women and to 15 percent among the least educated.

I can’t find an online link to the study cited by Hymowitz.  Pending confirmation, though, I’m willing to grant a strong educational component to the marital divide.  Does this amount to “separate and unequal futures”?  The connection between single motherhood and economic hardship is, as I noted, well documented, and Hymowitz culls from a mountain of evidence:

Thirty-six percent of female-headed families are below the poverty line. Compare that with the 6 percent of married-couple families in poverty — a good portion of whom are recent, low-skilled immigrants, whose poverty, if history is any guide, is temporary. The same goes if you want to analyze the inequality problem — start with the Marriage Gap. Virtually all — 92 percent — of children whose families make over $75,000 are living with both parents. On the other end of the income scale, the situation is reversed: only about 20 percent of kids in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents.

One can find lucid refutations of the “two Americas” scenario Hymowitz accepts unquestioningly.  Still, her specific claim is surely correct:  single mothers and children born outside marriage dwell on the harsh side of an immense economic divide.  But why should this be fated to continue in the future?  What advantages pertain to children of college-educated mothers — and are these advantages permanent and insuperable, in principle or in fact?

Here we leave hard statistics behind and enter the domain of human motivation.

Hymowitz is curiously ambivalent about the behavior of college-educated women.  She understands — is quite passionate about — the importance of marriage to achieving the good life.  Yet a tone of condescension, almost of contempt, creeps in when she describes high-education mothers.  These women, Hymowitz writes, are hell-bent on what she calls “The Mission”:

the careful nurturing of their children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development, which, if all goes according to plan, will lead to the honor roll and a spot on the high school debate team, which will in turn lead to a good college, then perhaps a graduate or professional degree, which will all lead eventually to a fulfilling career, a big house in a posh suburb, and a sense of meaningful accomplishment.

An educated woman will keep her husband around because he is essential to The Mission.  And  belief in The Mission, Hymowitz argues, is “part and parcel of her bourgeois ambition” — meaning, I take it, a desire for material success for herself and her children.  By contrast, uneducated women haven’t got a clue about The Mission, and in any case, if they are single mothers, lack the resources to lavish on their children so they can attain the Valhalla of posh suburbia.  The two groups, inevitably, become self-perpetuating castes.

This is pretty flimsy stuff.  Possibly, some educated women devote themselves to something like The Mission.  But the vast majority of mothers of all descriptions, I suspect, just want to help their kids to become decent and happy adults.   The drivers of human behavior are complex and variable, in any case.  Economic self-interest is only one element in the mix — overridden, Hymowitz admits, by the self-defeating behavior of those low-education single mothers.

Also, economic success, like happiness, can be variously understood.  The high-school teacher in her Cape Cod may feel like a world-beater, while the corporate attorney in the McMansion stresses over perceived failures.  “Bourgeois ambition,” like “socialist medicine,” is a phrase emptied of meaning.

The moral element of the marriage divide is largely ignored by Hymowitz.  But consider:  strength of character and moral discipline may be responsible for all the successful behaviors — getting a college education, enjoying a meaningful career, marrying and having a husband to help with the children.  And there’s nothing fated about good character.  It’s available to CEOs and cleaning ladies.

If I understand Hymowitz’s numbers correctly, a majority of low-education women are neither divorced nor unwed mothers.  According to the theory, their children should join the ranks of the privileged, highly-educated classes.  That negates the concern about castes.  But the interesting question is:  what sustains these women despite their low education, if not a high moral purpose?

What of the children?  Growing up with a single uneducated parent is a relative disadvantage.  Having fewer “resources” bestowed on a child is a relative disadvantage.  This should not be glossed over:  people’s fortunes are highly dependent on the families they are born into.  But is this anything more than a trivial observation?

The heart of the matter is whether the disadvantages are in some sense absolute, an iron law of destiny.  Hymowitz seems to think so, though she offers no evidence.  We have no way of knowing, from her article, whether today’s uneducated poor are linear descendants of yesterday’s.  All we have is a hypothesis:  book education determines one’s place in life, and to obtain a book education requires educated parents.

Yet moral education, which is open to the poorest and most disadvantaged, precedes book education, much as it precedes marriage, parenthood, and work.  Far from being a smug blowoff of the underclass by the bourgeoisie, the call to virtue is the last desperate hope for some, at least, to leap over the great divide and achieve a well-ordered life.


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