We need to be talking about the privilege that matters most.
Much has been written about privilege in academic settings over the past few decades. There’s the privilege of wealth, and the advantages wealth confers if a baby is lucky enough to be born into it. Much too has been written about the advantages of being born into this world as a Caucasian — known in academia as “white privilege.”
But not enough has been written about the most important advantage a baby can have in America: the advantage of being born with a mother and father who happen to be married. Call it “the marriage privilege” — the advantages are startling.
In a report last year entitled “Saving Horatio Alger,” which focused on social mobility and class in America, Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution discovered that the likelihood of a child raised by parents born into the lowest income quintile moving to the top quintile by the age 40 was a disastrous 3 percent. Worse, 50 percent of those children stay stuck in the bottom quintile. And the outlook for the children of those marriage-less children is equally stark.
That’s bad news for the country, and the American dream, such numbers.
But Reeves discovered a silver lining while crunching the data: Those children born in the lowest quintile to parents who were married and stayed married had only a 19 percent chance of remaining in the bottom income group.
Reeve’s study revealed that this social-mobility advantage applied not just to the lower class: The middle class was impacted, too. The study revealed that children born into the middle class have a mere 11 percent chance of ending up in the bottom economic quintile with married parents, but that number rises to 38 percent if their parents are never married.
You’d think a finding like that would be headline news across the nation, or that the media might want to talk about the real reason for the wealth gap in America — the marriage gap.
Raj Chetty, the Bloomberg Professor of Economics at Harvard University, had this to say about the very same subject in the executive summary of his study, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the U.S.”:
The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in the area. As with race, parents’ marital status does not matter purely through its effects at the individual level. Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents.
We find modest correlations between upward mobility and local tax and government expenditure policies and no systematic correlation between mobility and local labor market conditions, rates of migration, or access to higher education.
Chetty wasn’t finished. In his full paper, he had this to say:
Finally, mobility is significantly lower in areas with weaker family structures, as measured e.g. by the fraction of single parents. As with race, parents’ marital status does not matter purely through its effects at the individual level. Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility in communities with fewer single parents. Interestingly, we find no correlation between racial shares and upward mobility once we control for the fraction of single parents in an area.
That last sentence is worth including in every discussion we have about race and class in America. Because it turns out that once you control for the proportion of single parents in an area, the correlation between social mobility and race disappears.
“They are more likely to thrive in school, to steer clear of encounters with the police, to avoid having a teenage pregnancy, to graduate from college, and to be gainfully employed as an adult.”
Few people in America have done better work in this area than the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox. In a recent paper published through the American Enterprise Institute, he had this to say about America’s growing gap between America’s marriage haves and have-nots:
The retreat from marriage — a retreat that has been concentrated among lower-income Americans — plays a key role in the changing economic fortunes of American family life. We estimate that the growth in median income of families with children would be 44% higher if the United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today.
The reasons for the stark difference in economic outcomes are as obvious as they are important. Marriage is a form of social capital that creates the foundation for all kinds of positive results.
“Children raised in a stable, intact family are much more likely to benefit from the time, attention, and money of two parents,” Wilcox explained in a recent interview. “They are more likely to thrive in school, to steer clear of encounters with the police, to avoid having a teenage pregnancy, to graduate from college, and to be gainfully employed as an adult.
The marriage deficit has been seen as the defining problem in the black community by at least one prominent black opinion-shaper: the late William Raspberry, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post columnist.
Back in 2005, he was as blunt as blunt can be about the elephant in the room when it comes to race and class in America.
“Father absence is the bane of the black community, predisposing its children to school failure, criminal behavior and economic hardship, and to an intergenerational repetition of the grim cycle,” he wrote.
The culprit, Raspberry concluded, alongside some of the top ministers in the African-American community who’d just met in Washington to call attention to the issue, was the decline of marriage. Indeed, he pointed out that some youth workers in black neighborhoods know children who’ve never seen a wedding.
Raspberry expressed little tolerance in the column for those who blame the low marriage rates on poverty, crime, or racism. “Black men aren’t born incarcerated, crime-prone dropouts,” he wrote. “What principally renders them vulnerable to such a plight is the absence of fathers and their stabilizing influence. Fatherless boys (as a general rule) become ineligible to be husbands — though no less likely to become fathers — and their children fall into the patterns that render them ineligible to be husbands.”
Raspberry wasn’t finished, highlighting the impact marriagelessness has on young girls, too:
The absence of fathers means, as well, that girls lack both a pattern against which to measure the boys who pursue them and an example of sacrificial love between a man and a woman. As the ministers were at pains to say, it isn’t the incompetence of mothers that is at issue but the absence of half of the adult support needed for families to be most effective.
And then came his conclusion:
America’s almost reflexive search for outside explanations for our internal problems delayed the introspective examination that might have slowed the trend. What we have now is a changed culture – a culture whose worst aspects are reinforced by oversexualized popular entertainment and that places a reduced value on the things that produced nearly a century of socioeconomic improvement. For the first time since slavery, it is no longer possible to say with assurance that things are getting better.
The problem of an unraveling civic culture was the central part of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart back in 2012, with a focus on two white fictional neighborhoods he labeled Belmont (an archetypal upper-middle-class town) and Fishtown (after a neighborhood in Philadelphia that’s been home to the white working class since the time of our nation’s birth).
“In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites in both Belmont and Fishtown were married — 94% in Belmont and 84% in Fishtown. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in both places. Then came the great divergence,” Murray explained in a long essay for the Wall Street Journal at the time. “In Belmont, marriage stabilized during the mid-1980s, standing at 83% in 2010. In Fishtown, however, marriage continued to slide; as of 2010, a minority (just 48%) were married. The gap in marriage between Belmont and Fishtown grew to 35 percentage points, from just 10.”
The conservative Murray, like his liberal counterpart William Raspberry, then made the connection between marriage and the other social problems that stem from the breakdown of family and religiosity.
The breakdown, Murray noted, hasn’t proceeded exactly as we might think:
It is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that Fishtown has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.
For example, suppose we define “de facto secular” as someone who either professes no religion at all or who attends a worship service no more than once a year. For the early GSS surveys conducted from 1972 to 1976, 29% of Belmont and 38% of Fishtown fell into that category. Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow in Belmont, from 29% in the 1970s to 40% in the GSS surveys taken from 2006 to 2010. But it grew even more in Fishtown, from 38% to 59%.
In writing about the very Americans that Murray described in that white working class neighborhood of Fishtown, Brad Wilcox has come to a very similar conclusion:
In the 1970s, this group was more likely to attend church than any other group in the country. But now, for both economic and cultural reasons, Middle Americans are falling behind. Middle Americans, especially Middle American men, are losing their connection to marriage, work, religion, and civil society. This doesn’t bode well for the fate of our nation, or for our democratic life together.
“I am convinced,” the late author Stephan Covey once wrote, “that if we as a society work diligently in every other area of life and neglect the family, it would be analogous to straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Middle Americans, especially Middle American men, are losing their connection to marriage, work, religion, and civil society. This doesn’t bode well for the fate of our nation, or for our democratic life together.
Covey was right, but the case for marriage is not lost. Indeed, it’s never fully been litigated in the court of public opinion, let alone the culture. Unlike social forces beyond any person’s control, teaching a generation to do the simple things generations did before them to live the American dream — finish high school, find work, get married, and have children, and in that order — is possible.
We have to be talking about the policies that could encourage marriage, and pay attention to groups around the country — particularly in some of our churches — that are doing some remarkable work on the marriage front.
It’s time we started talking about the connections between marriage, love, and God, too. Bonhoeffer said it best in a letter to his niece: “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”
It’s time we started talking about the health and happiness of married folks (take, for instance, the fact that married people have more sex than unmarried people).
It’s time we all started telling the story about the most important gap in American life, the marriage gap, and how we might close it.
We need, in other words, to be talking about the privilege that matters most in American life — the marriage privilege.