Marriage and caste in America

Kay Hymowitz was in Denver recently to speak at the annual “Smart Marriages” conference, one of those elaborate affairs put on largely for people who need to earn continuing education credits to keep their jobs – family therapists, marriage counselors and such. We met to talk about her work on marriage and childhood in America, much of it published in City Journal, where she is a contributing editor, and collected in a book, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, that came out last year.


“Caste.” That’s an odd word in the American context, since it refers to inherited social status, as in India, where it is established, and often brutally enforced, as a matter of fact and sometimes of law. Americans loftily assume we don’t have anything like that here.


Hymowitz makes a persuasive case that America does have a caste system, in fact though not in law, and it centers on education.


Well-educated women, for the most part, follow the traditional life script; they grow up, finish school, get married and have children. In that order. Less educated women are more likely to have children before they marry, if they ever marry, and more likely to be divorced if they do. The result, in both cases, is that their children grow up and do likewise.


This is not biological determinism – people are free to make choices, and some of them are good and some of them are bad, or anyway worse, given that the children of married parents are better off statistically than children raised in just about any other circumstances you can think of. And it is not about race – I know what you’re thinking – although there certainly are some statistical correlations with race, and very troubling they are.


Her point is that people who follow the traditional life script, whatever race they are, can reasonably expect a smoother path through life than those who don’t, and so can their children. Anecdotes to the contrary prove nothing; if you care about your kids, present or future, that’s the way you should place your bets.


In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez at nationalreviewonline, Hymowitz wrote, “What ails marriage is not that it don’t get no respect; it’s that Americans no longer understand its meaning. For most people it appears to be a love relationship between two adults having little to do with childbearing or childrearing.” (Links here.)


That would seem to be borne out by a recent survey done by the Pew Research center, in which only 41 percent of respondents said having children was important to a successful marriage. Having children ranked eighth out of nine factors, well below “sharing household chores” and ahead only of “political compatibility.”


Look, when you read obituaries, they are about children and grandchildren, not about how often someone remembered to take out the garbage. When people look back over their lives, they rarely say, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”


There are many things about ourselves that we cannot change. But we can choose which life script to follow.







About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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