Friday, May 18, 2007

The Marriage Gap

There are millions of poor Americans, living not just in down-on-your-luck hardship but in entrenched, multigenerational poverty. There is growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots. And there are reasons to worry whether the American dream is within the reach of all. But what two-America talk doesn’t get is just how much these ominous trends are entangled with the collapse of the nuclear family. While Americans have been squabbling about gay marriage, they have managed to miss the real marriage-and-social-justice issue, one that affects far more people and threatens to undermine the American project. We are now a nation of separate and unequal families not only living separate and unequal lives but, more worrisome, destined for separate and unequal futures. Two-America Jeremiahs usually nod at the single-parent family as a piece of the inequality story, but quickly change the subject to describe—accurately, as far as it goes—an economy that has implacably squeezed out manufacturing jobs, reduced wages for the low-skilled, and made a wallet-busting college education crucial to a middle-class future. But one can’t disentangle the economic from the family piece. Given that families socialize children for success—or not—and given how marriage orders lives, they are the same problem. Separate and unequal families produce separate and unequal economic fates.

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