When Charles Murray’s best-selling Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 appeared a few months ago, the book’s fictional working-class neighborhood, Fishtown, became one more battleground in America’s 50-year-old culture war. Fishtown was representative, Murray argued, of a new white underclass in America—one produced by cultural decline, especially the collapse of marriage. Critics objected that the real source of misery in the nation’s Fishtowns wasn’t a lack of marriages; it was the extinction of manufacturing jobs. The disagreement was familiar to culture-war veterans: conservatives versus liberals, family breakdown versus dearth of good jobs, culture versus economics, David Brooks versus Paul Krugman.
Murray might have done more to acknowledge that globalization, technology, and the knowledge economy have wrenchingly changed the working-class world. Still, Coming Apart is correct: you can’t grasp what’s happening at the lower end of the income scale without talking about family breakdown. In fact, the single-mother revolution, as I’ll call it, takes us a long way toward understanding the socioeconomic problems on everyone’s mind these days: poverty, inequality, and the inability of those at the bottom to move up.
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The single-mother revolution shouldn’t need much introduction. It started in the 1960s, when the nation began to sever the historical connection between marriage and childbearing and to turn single motherhood and the fatherless family into a viable, even welcome, arrangement for children and for society. The reasons for the revolution were many, including the sexual revolution, a powerful strain of anti-marriage feminism, and a superbug of American individualism that hit the country in the 1960s and ’70s.
The first public sign that the single-mother revolution had arrived came in 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his controversial report on the black family. As a young assistant secretary of labor, Moynihan had stumbled across data showing that the percentage of black mothers who were unmarried at the time of their children’s birth was rising, reaching a then-staggering 24 percent, even while black male unemployment was falling. This puzzled Moynihan: Shouldn’t more male paychecks mean fewer single mothers? Moynihan realized that he was uncovering a new cultural phenomenon—voluntary single motherhood—and concluded that it would impede blacks’ economic progress.
After 1965 came the deluge. Other minorities and then whites joined the revolution, and it found plenty of extra recruits among the rapidly increasing number of women made single through divorce. In its broad outlines, the story is familiar by now. When Moynihan was writing, 93 percent of all American births were to women with marriage licenses. Sure, lots of these women might have married just before the baby bump, as had long been the case—but they nevertheless had husbands, with whom they formed a unit responsible for the coming baby. Over the next few decades, however, the percentage of babies with no father around rose steadily. As of 1970, 11 percent of births were to unmarried mothers; by 1990, that number had risen to 28 percent. Today, 41 percent of all births are nonmarital. And for mothers under 30, the number is 53 percent.
Read More at city-journal.org. By Kay S. Hymowitz.