January/ February 2013 The New White Negro

What it means that family breakdown is now biracial.

By Isabel Sawhill

Black jobless rates not only exceed those of whites; in addition, a single-minded focus on declining job prospects for men and its consequences for family life ignores a number of other factors that have led to the decline of marriage. Male employment prospects can lead to more marriages, but scholars such as Harvard’s David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks have argued that economic factors alone cannot explain the wholesale changes in the frequency of single parenting, unwed births, divorce, and marriage, especially among the least educated, that are leading to growing gaps between social classes. So what else explains the decline of marriage?

First, and critically important in my view, is the changing role of women. In my first book, Time of Transition: The Growth of Families Headed by Women, published in 1975, my coauthor and I argued that it was not just male earnings that mattered, but what men could earn relative to women. When women don’t gain much, if anything, from getting married, they often choose to raise children on their own. Fifty years ago, women were far more economically dependent on marriage than they are now. Today, women are not just working more, they are better suited by education and tradition to work in such rapidly growing sectors of the economy as health care, education, administrative jobs, and services. While some observers may see women taking these jobs as a matter of necessity—and that’s surely a factor—we shouldn’t forget the revolution in women’s roles that has made it possible for them to support a family on their own.

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. One estimate puts the proportion of black men who will spend some time in prison at almost one third.

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 black 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.

Despite this change in norms, however, 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.

Isabel Sawhill , a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written extensively on the family and the economy. Her most recent book is "Creating an Opportunity Society."


  • Clifton Little on January 25, 2013 1:04 PM:

    Further excellent reading from the Washington Monthly. I really recommend that our youth be encouraged to read these bites of history that may have effected their lives today that is not so well-publicised.

  • David on January 27, 2013 2:06 AM:

    A further thing that ought to be mentioned is that working-class whites now have a lower life expectancy than working-class blacks.

    So while they have higher employment, they tend to live slightly less. This is the first time this has happened in the history of the U.S.

    The implications of this are mostly the same as Ms. Sawhill has outlined. Further, demonizing the white working class, popular among liberal pundits, is not going to be a great formula going forward as most working-class whites are now living in conditions that are truly bad. But as long as they sense, correctly, that there is a general hostility towards them from the liberal chattering classes, they will vote with their feet.

    Racial politics is, in the end, not good. But it is addictive to ethnic activists, who need a bogeyman to hate and unite around.

  • Qatmom on February 05, 2013 3:36 PM:

    At a class in 1985, a black chemist told me that all the evils visited upon the black family would eventually spread to the white family as well. It made sense. Now, it is happening--she was right.