Marriage is in deep trouble in America, and indeed throughout most of the Western world. The numbers tell the story. By the mid-nineties, nearly one-fifth of all white children in the U.S. lived in single-parent families, almost always headed by mothers. Well over half of all black children now live in such mother-only families. These percentages represent a spectacular increase from just a few decades ago. A similar trend is at work in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, and throughout the Caribbean (though not in other parts of the world, including the Far East). Add in the number of kids living with a divorced parent—more than 1 million in the U.S. by 1995, compared with 500,000 in 1960—and you have a crisis in the traditional family.
As James Q. Wilson, doyen of American social theorists and author of numerous important books on crime, bureaucracy, human nature, and other topics, argues in his new book The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, it is a crisis that threatens to undermine the free society. Children in one-parent families, he observes, simply have a much harder time in life. They are twice as likely as kids in two-parent families to drop out of school or become drug addicts or juvenile delinquents. Boys in single-parent families wind up in jail for bad crimes a lot more than do their counterparts in mother-father families. Girls in single-parent families become unwed teenage mothers, stuck on the public dole, at a much higher rate. Nor is it children alone who suffer from marriage’s decline. Married folks are happier than the unmarried, have more money, and are significantly healthier. Ultimately, stresses Wilson, marriage is crucial to the formation of responsible citizens. “It is not money but the family that is the foundation of public life,” he says. As that foundation weakens, everything that rests upon it weakens too.
Wilson warns that the social failure of children in single-parent families is inexorably leading to an America of “two nations.” In the first, middle-class nation, kids still have a mom and a dad, get educated, land jobs, get married themselves, and live in homes “kept separate from crime by distance, fences, or guards.” In the second nation—crime-ridden, poor, dependent on government handouts, and disproportionately black—“a child is raised by an unwed girl, lives in a neighborhood filled with many sexual predators but few committed fathers, and finds gang life to be necessary for self- protection and valuable for self-advancement.” Even in the first nation, though, troubles brew. Alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, anomie—today’s middle-class teenager is often a distressed soul, her work-obsessed, frequently divorced parents too busy to notice or too feckless to help.
Why is marriage collapsing in the West? And why is it in truly grave condition among African-Americans? For answers, Wilson looks at the institution of the family in its relationship to human nature and culture and charts its trajectory across history. The family, he stresses at the outset, is a human universal, existing in every community known to humankind. In every place and every time, the family has the awesome responsibility of raising kids. Family is a remarkable creation, woven out of biological imperatives and cultural pressures. At its core, Wilson explains, is “the central element in human relations”: the union of mother and child, so rooted in “powerful natural forces” that only extreme circumstances can sunder it.
But if the mother-child bond is natural, causing men to become family-oriented is primarily a cultural achievement. Just as in his earlier book The Moral Sense, Wilson draws on evolutionary biology to show that evolution on its own simply rewards men who inseminate many women, guaranteeing the maximum dissemination of their genes. Left to their biological impulses, Wilson holds, men would offer little protection to the mother-infant bond. After all, if life is just about sowing your seeds, why invest so much time and energy in one field? What curbs the biological male’s sexual interests and ties him to family, Wilson believes, is culture.
That family life has such a powerful cultural component, however, means that cultural change can have a considerable impact on its health. Many social thinkers see the upheavals of the 1960s as the primary cause of our contemporary family problems. “Just-do-it,” “follow your bliss,” “let it all hang out”—such sixties libertarian ideals are impossible to square with the kind of sacrifice and concern for others that family life requires. As Wilson acknowledges, it is true that an unprecedented erosion of marriage began in the sixties.
But in Wilson’s view, blaming our marriage woes solely on the sixties is too simple and neglects the big picture, which, he claims, goes back hundreds of years to the onset of the Western Enlightenment. For a long time in the West, he observes, culture—largely through the efforts of the Catholic Church, the then-chief culture-forming agency—made marriage a sacrament, giving the institution of marriage more moral weight than the interests and desires of the individuals who married. With the Enlightenment, however, a new social logic of individual liberty was unleashed that inexorably weakened the family. The ideals promoted by men like John Locke and Adam Smith elevated the principle of personal choice over the obligations of church and family, eventually transforming marriage from a sacrament into a contract—one that the marriage partners could dissolve with more or less ease if they no longer found it satisfying.
Without its sacramental underpinnings, based now solely on preference and freedom, the institution of marriage became much flimsier. Wilson thinks that marriage would have unraveled much earlier than the 1960s—the Roaring Twenties showed what was on the way, he maintains—if not for the Great Depression and World War II, which required sacrifices that put off the era of personal liberation. The sixties, says Wilson, were the culmination of a long history.
Even if it is true that the Enlightenment is the original source of the marriage problem, why have American blacks suffered such catastrophic family breakdown since the sixties far worse than among whites? Wilson goes part of the way with social theorists like Charles Murray, who blame welfare dependency for encouraging rising illegitimacy among blacks. But welfare was around for three decades before African-American illegitimacy rates began to spike up in the sixties.
What really led to the dramatic increase in black families headed by unmarried mothers, Wilson thinks, is a complex mixture of historical and cultural causes. Wilson updates an old argument, shared by W. E. B. Dubois and, later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his famous 1965 report on rising black illegitimacy, that slavery bore some of the blame. Slavery, on this account—a “vast, cruel system of organized repression” that denied to slaves the right to marry, sold off their kids on the auction block, and separated slave parents at whim—left the black family a weak reed, with much higher out-of-wedlock birth rates historically than has been commonly acknowledged.
The same forces that have shaken marriage across the West and that intensified in the sixties thus hit American blacks particularly hard. Add the perverse incentives of welfare (if you desired a child but not a husband, the nanny state would step in and supply the money and benefits), the sixties’ corrosion of stigma surrounding both illegitimacy and government dependency, and too few marriageable black men, Wilson argues, and you have at least a partial explanation for black family breakdown.
Other pressures have hit the modern family, black and white, Wilson explains. No-fault divorce laws, introduced for the first time in the late 1960s, have made it a cinch to dissolve marriages, making it much more likely that troubled couples will break up rather than work through the bumpy patches that most marriages hit from time to time. The flood of women into the workforce has put strains on family life too, Wilson admits. But both of these developments, like the rest of our marital difficulties, he feels, are outgrowths of our modern regimes of freedom and Enlightenment. Freedom, for all its benefits in personal happiness, has a downside in Wilson’s tragic outlook.
The link between freedom and the marriage problem makes Wilson pessimistic about halting the ongoing breakdown of the traditional family. Many Americans wish to return to an era of stronger marriages, Wilson writes, but “history is marching in a different direction.” Cultural change is possible: the Victorians launched a host of efforts—revivals, YMCAs, temperance societies, orphanages, Sunday schools, and other initiatives—that successfully slashed crime rates, illegitimacy, and drunkenness among newly urbanized populations during the nineteenth century. But Wilson does not see the leadership today that could convincingly restore the value of marriage throughout our culture. Our society, moreover, “has managed to stigmatize stigma so much so that we are reluctant to blame people for any act that does not appear to inflict immediate and palpable harm on someone else.”
The best we can hope for, Wilson seems to believe, is to temper some of the worst consequences of illegitimacy through, say, supervised homes for unwed mothers, and perhaps make some marriages harder to dissolve through “covenant” marriages, where couples enter into a legal agreement that makes it harder for them to divorce. Otherwise, we seem destined to become two nations.
Yet Wilson may be too gloomy about cultural change. Is it really true that sky-high divorce rates and ever-rising illegitimacy numbers are inevitable byproducts of a free society? Even in terms of secular happiness, divorce and illegitimacy spread more woe than joy. It is not impossible to imagine people changing their behavior somewhat to address this empirical truth. If we also consider the prospect of another religious awakening, restoring a deeper sense of duty and human purpose to our culture, even greater changes might be in store.
Wilson also places too much faith in sociobiological theories, which, as his own argument shows, offer woefully inadequate accounts of human motivations. When we sacrifice for our children, evolutionary biology claims, we are really just perpetuating our genes; and when we help others, we are just looking for help from them in the future. Wilson grants that these theories—inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism—do not clarify everything, since they cannot explain why people make sacrifices for their pets or adopted children or why people make anonymous financial contributions. But given such glaring exceptions, do today’s reductive evolutionary theories of man’s nature explain anything? Wilson’s lengthy chapter on the effects of “sex ratios”—the number of marriageable men compared with the number of marriageable women—comes with so many exceptions that one is tempted to question whether they have any true influence on behavior at all.
But The Marriage Problem is nevertheless an essential work for anyone seeking to know our cultural predicament. In its reasonableness, its patient sorting of evidence, its humanity, it presents the many virtues of its author, our Weber, as Moynihan once called him.