The Stris (a.k.a. “Mom”) told me on Friday morning that a new book was forcing her to reconsider her views on marriage. Apparently, the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson had written a new book discussing the disastrous effects of single-parent families in the African-American community.
Before, The Stris said, she hadn’t been particularly partial to marriage, and didn’t really have a view either way on whether it had much to do with the many social problems which plague African-Americans, including higher rates of unemployment and imprisonment and lower rates of high school and college completion.
I must admit that while I don’t pretend to know all the answers to the problems that plague blacks in America, single-parent families certainly don’t seem to help the matter much. Raising a child in a stable, two-parent home seems more important to me, personally, than the parents being “married,” per se. After all, not all parents can make a marriage work, especially in cases where one partner is abusive or what-have-you.
But what occurs in the black community — where half of children are born out of wedlock — is that too often marriage is not even considered an option. Or too many of the men in the community are, frankly, unsuitable husbands. Anyhow, it’s a complex problem which merits open-minded discussion, as do all matters of public importance.
Later, though, The Stris told me that William Julius Wilson hadn’t written this new book at all. She hadn’t read it, you see, but only heard about it. It turns out that conservative scholar James Q. Wilson had written the new book, “The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families.”
That changed everything as far as she was concerned. William Julius Wilson was a respected sociologist, known for such probing works as “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor,” which, while it considers cultural factors, puts most of the blame for inner-city rot on economic factors. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Wilson calls for a major government jobs program in the book.
In contrast, J.Q. Wilson explicitly rejects much of what W.J. Wilson’s analysis of the problems of inner cities. While admitting that one reason why marriage among blacks has dropped is the financial disincentives provided by welfare benefits, he argues that a larger factor is cultural, over and against W.J. Wilson’s economic arguments. He wrote in a winter 2002 City Journal essay, “Why We Don’t Marry“:
At least for blacks, one well-known explanation has been offered: men did not marry because there were no jobs for them in the big cities. As manufacturing employment sharply declined in the central cities, William Julius Wilson has argued, blacks were unable to move to the suburbs as fast as the jobs. The unemployed males left behind are not very attractive as prospective husbands to the women they know, and so more and more black women do without marriage.
The argument has not withstood scholarly criticism. First, Mexican Americans, especially illegal immigrants, live in the central city also, but the absence of good jobs has not mattered, even though many Mexicans are poorer than blacks, speak English badly, and if undocumented cannot get good jobs. Nevertheless, the rate of out-of-wedlock births is much lower among these immigrants than it is among African Americans, as W.J. Wilson acknowledges.
Second, Christopher Jencks has shown that there has been as sharp a decline in marriage among employed black men as among unemployed ones, and that the supply of employed blacks is large enough to provide husbands for almost all unmarried black mothers. For these people, as Jencks concludes, “marriage must … have been losing its charms for non-economic reasons.”
Of course, J.Q. Wilson’s larger point is that the reason why out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed among blacks (and among whites too, though not to the same levels) is that the cultural norms have changed in such a way that marriage is no longer a religious or social obligation but a personal choice. Wilson blames the Enlightenment for this development, and apparently now sees it as essentially irreversible except by a profound change in cultural attitudes.
But that was not the case four years ago when he advocated a “GI Bill for moms,” which would have the federal government giving education credits to women in exchange for their staying home with children. Apparently, not only is being unwed a crisis — being a working mother is too. This is the danger of cultural conservatism — it is a short leap from deciding what’s best to people to using government as a social engineer.
And I certainly don’t agree with J.Q. Wilson’s fierce opposition to drug legalization or his alarmist opposition to cloning. Still, I think there’s something to be said for the argument that marriage is devalued.
I don’t think it’s right for everyone at all times, but it’s useful as a social default — kind of like the Windows settings that come pre-set on your desktop the first time you power up your new computer. It doesn’t mean you can’t change things around, but for most people raising children, marriage probably works better than not being married. (Which, by the way, makes me wonder why so many conservatives are opposed to gay marriage. But that’s another issue.)
So I’ve got problems with both Wilsons, but I think it’s funny that The Stris was so open-minded about changing her position when she thought it was the liberal sociologist W.J. Wilson who wrote the book, and so off-put when she discovered it was conservative scholar J.Q. Wilson. I suppose we all filter out opinions and sources for information in this way. I read Reason religiously, but only read the National Review or The New Republic occasionally. And, certainly, I give more credit to the opinions of self-described libertarians than to liberals or conservatives.
But in the end, I like to think that I’m open to a viewpoint no matter it’s source. I guess The Stris is not. But she’s honest about it — you’ve got to give her credit for that much.