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September 11th, 2013

The new white Negro: family breakdowns are now biracial



Isabel Sawhill

By Isabel Sawhill

Continued from last week...

In a fascinating piece of academic research published in the Journal of Human Resources in 2011, Scott Hankins and Mark Hoekstra discovered that single women who won between $25,000 and $50,000 in the Florida lottery were 41 percent to 48 percent less likely to marry over the following three years than women who won less than $1,000. We economists call this a "natural experiment," because it shows the strong influence of women’s ability to support themselves without marriage-uncontaminated by differences in personal attributes that may also affect one’s ability or willingness to marry. My own earlier research also suggested that the relative incomes of wives and husbands predicted who would divorce and who would not.

Women’s growing economic independence has interacted with stubborn attitudes about changing gender roles. When husbands fail to adjust to women’s new breadwinning responsibilities (who cooks dinner or stays home with a sick child when both parents work?) the couple is more likely to divorce. It may be that well-educated younger men and women continue to marry not only because they can afford to but because many of the men in these families have adopted more egalitarian attitudes. While a working-class male might find such attitudes threatening to his manliness, an upper-middle-class man often does not, given his other sources of status. But when women find themselves having to do it all-that is, earn money in the workplace and shoulder the majority of child care and other domestic responsibilities-they raise the bar on whom they’re willing to marry or stay married to.

These gender-related issues may play an even greater role for Black women, since while White men hold slightly more high school diplomas and baccalaureate degrees than White women, Black women are much better educated than Black men. That means it’s more difficult for well-educated Black women to find Black partners with comparable earning ability and social status. In 2010, Black women made 87 percent of what Black men did, whereas White women made only 70 percent of what white men earned. For less educated Black women, there is, in addition, a shortage of Black men because of high rates of incarceration.

In a forthcoming book, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, Timothy Nelson and Edin, the Harvard sociologist, describe in great detail the kind of role reversal that has occurred among low-income families, both Back and White. What they saw were mothers who were financially responsible for children, and fathers who were trying to maintain ties to their children in other ways, limited by the fact that these fathers have very little money, are often involved in drugs, crime, or other relationships, and rarely live with the mother and child. In other words, low-income fathers are not only withdrawing from the traditional breadwinner role, they’re staging a wholesale retreat-even as they make attempts to remain involved in their children’s lives.

Normative changes figure as well. As the retreat from marriage has become more common, it’s also become more acceptable. That acceptance came earlier among Blacks than among Whites because of their own distinct experiences. Now that unwed childbearing is becoming the norm among the White working class as well, there is no longer much of a stigma associated with single parenting, and there is a greater willingness on the part of the broader community to accept the legitimacy of single-parent households.

Most Americans, whatever their race or social class, still aspire to marriage. It’s just that their aspirations are typically unrealistically high and their ability to achieve that ideal is out of step with their opportunities and lifestyle. As scholars such as Cherlin and Edin have emphasized, marriage is no longer a precursor to adult success. Instead, when it still takes place, marriage is more a badge of success already achieved. In particular, large numbers of young adults are having unplanned pregnancies long before they can cope with the responsibilities of parenthood. Paradoxically, although they view marriage as something they cannot afford, they rarely worry about the cost of raising a child.

Along with many others, I remain concerned about the effects on society of this wholesale retreat from stable two-parent families. The consequences for children, especially, are not good. Their educational achievements, and later chances of becoming involved in crime or a teen pregnancy are, on average, all adversely affected by growing up in a single-parent family. But I am also struck by the lessons that emerge from looking at how trends in family formation have differed by class as well as by race. If we were once two countries, one Black and one White, we are now increasingly becoming two countries, one advantaged and one disadvantaged. Race still affects an individual’s chances in life, but class is growing in importance. This argument was the theme of William Julius Wilson’s 1980 book, The Declining Significance of Race. More recent evidence suggests that, despite all the controversy his book engendered, he was right.

To say that class is becoming more important than race isn’t to dismiss race as a very important factor. When we look for the reasons why less skilled Blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of Whites as well. The jobs that unskilled men once did are gone, women are more financially independent, and a broad cultural shift across America has created a new normal.

Isabell Sawhill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


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