On this week’s episode, Kay Hymowitz joins to talk about the decline of marriage. With people marrying later, or nor getting married at all, what does this mean when it comes to the family and the importance of long-term committed relationships. Has the rise of educated women and women in the workforce led to a rise in the happiness of women? 

Kay Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America. Hymowitz is the author of several books the most recent being The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back  She has written for numerous outlets including the NYT and the WAPO and has is a frequent guest on numerous radio and TV programs.  


Beverly: And welcome to She Thinks: A podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today’s episode we discuss the decline of marriage with people marrying later or not getting married at all. What does this mean when it comes to the family and the importance of long term committed relationships? Has the rise of educated women and women in the workforce led to women being happier as a whole? Well, there’s much to get into on this podcast and I am delighted that Kay Hymowitz joins us. Kay Hymowitz is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America. Hymowitz is the author of several books, the most recent being The New Brooklyn: What It Takes To Bring A City Back. She has written for numerous outlets including the New York Times and the Washington Post and is a frequent guest on numerous radio and TV programs. Kay, a pleasure to have you on She Thinks.

Kay: Well, I’m so glad to be here.

Beverly: And of course, this is always, in my opinion, a fascinating topic to talk about the family and to talk about marriage. But we’re releasing this on Valentine’s day so I think it’s a very appropriate topic to talk about. So I’m curious from you, if you could just start with some personal context. What caused you to delve into this issue of relationship and love and marriage? Why did you decide to study and research this issue area?

Kay: Well, I actually started from the angle of children. I was studying education for awhile and education policy. This was when my own children were in the elementary school years. And I became interested in education naturally as I watched what was going on in the schools. And then from there I became more interested in families and family structure. And I had grown up in a family that was very committed and involved in civil rights. And as I started to look at the data and study the issue a little bit more, I began to realize that the breakdown of the black family, in particular, at the time it was mostly the black family, was making it impossible to have the kind of progress for in civil rights that or in terms of black equality, black white equality that most of us were looking for. So that got me very interested in poverty and the family. And then as the white family began to, the white working class family, began to disintegrate, then I got interested in inequality more generally.

Beverly: So first of all, let’s start with some of the statistics. You talk about the decline of marriage both in minority families but also in white middle to upper class families. What are the data points? How much of a decline are we seeing?

Kay: So let’s start with the black family because that’s where we began to see the changes most dramatically. And in, let’s see, in about 1960, the black family was not quite as healthy as white in terms of single parenthood and that kind of thing, but it was close. But starting in 1960, the number of single mothers, unmarried mothers began to rise and rise dramatically. And some of your listeners may be familiar with the very famous Moynihan Report that was published in 1965. And at that point, about 24% of black mothers or black births were to unmarried mothers. So that was 24%. And at this point, I won’t take you through the whole decline, but at this point it’s 70% which is just an unbelievable data point that I don’t think anybody could have imagined in the time that Moynihan wrote his report.

We began to see more decline in marriage rates or in rise in single motherhood among Hispanics in probably around 1980. That’s now at about 50%. And among whites, really, we didn’t see much change until well into the ’80s and it was almost entirely among less educated, less skilled couples. And now the white out of wedlock birth rate is about 24% so it’s about where it was when Moynihan wrote, with great alarm, by the way, about the decline of the black family. So this goes across races, but it does seem to be not so much across educational and income levels. It’s relatively unusual to see a college educated higher income woman to have a child on her own. It happens and it’s gone up a little bit. I think it’s still probably about 8% of births to educated women are to single or to unmarried women, but that’s very low compared to what we see among the other groups that I’ve mentioned.

Beverly: And on this, you just mentioned the word alarm, you talked about the alarm of this. Can you give us some of the factors for this decline and why you see this as a reason for great alarm and concern?

Kay: So that is a very loaded question. It’s one that scholars have been debating the question of why this happened. I think that the best guess at this point is that there were some very profound economic changes that began well, in the ’60s, but intensified later on where with the decline of the industrial economy, many, many of the working class or low skilled men that I’ve been talking about or the couples that I’ve been talking about. Many of the men in those couples were working in factories and those factories gave them fairly reliable and well paid enough jobs and the middle-class, as you’ve probably heard, the lower middle class was doing quite well. The working class called themselves middle-class and for good reason. They could afford a home and take care of the kids and have just one of the couple working. You didn’t have to have a full time second income to make it at the time.

So there was this dramatic change in what was available in particular to unskilled men, the kinds of jobs that were available. There was that, but there also was a cultural transition going on in the 60s and which I remember well from my young adulthood where people were beginning to question the whole point of marriage. This was partly related to the rise of feminism. On the more extreme left, this certainly wasn’t all feminists, but on the extreme left there was a argument that marriage was a form of, well, almost just slavery for women, that it was holding them back, that women were under the thumb of their husbands. And there was something to be said for that. It was a time where women couldn’t have their own mortgages, couldn’t have their own credit cards. Well, not that we had credit cards so much then any way. But the point is that you were expected to be part of a family with the husband as the head of the household. And feminists rebelled against this and I think even though many or even the majority of women did not call themselves feminists for most of that time and I think even today, they still, I think, absorb that assumption that women should have a more independent livelihood and more independence in their identity as well.

And that created just a lot more give in, or a lot more, I want to use the word flexibility, but that sounds too not as neutral as I’d like it. Much more freedom, many people felt, to leave a marriage if they wanted to and even to have a child on their own. Although though the numbers at that point of women who were doing that were quite small. So both those things were happening. It was a huge change in the economy and also a large change in our assumptions about what women’s role in marriage should be and what the marriage relationship ought to be as well. And that’s a very important piece of this that I think we’ll probably be coming back to in the course of our discussion.

Beverly: Well, I even know that there’s been a push over the past few decades for women to focus on a career, like you said, to be independent. I think there are a lot of positives when it comes to if a woman was in a bad marriage, she didn’t have many options before. So being able to leave a bad marriage today I think is good. But of course it took on this mentality among, like you’re saying, that the feminists of the extreme left, that men were bad, that marriage was bad. And I wonder where that has left women today. I mean, when you see … In some ways I think that there has been the pendulum swinging back a little bit. You even see celebrities staying in marriages, praising the idea of motherhood. So I feel like it’s coming back a little bit. Do you think that the extreme feminism arm, feminist arm, took it too far and therefore that’s been negative towards women long term?

Kay: Well I think it’s been, I agree with you, but I think it’s not just negative towards women. I think it’s been negative towards men as well. And more highly skilled, more highly educated men have adapted to the demands from women for changes and some of those changes were, I think, necessary. But I think it’s been much harder on lower skilled men to not only find the stable jobs that I talked about before, but to understand the new roles. Because what’s happened is that everything is under negotiation in marital relationships now. And in actually all male female relationships.

We used to have these scripts and it was pretty clear what it meant to go on a date, what it meant to court somebody, what it meant to ask somebody to marry you, and what it meant to be married, and what the role of men were and what the role of women was. And whatever the problems with those scripts, it made a certain amount of regularity and predictability in people’s lives that as if for people who were not that flexible or didn’t have the verbal skills to sort of rethink these things, they were not in a position really to adapt to these new ways. So I’ve been convinced that we’ve underestimated just how much the lack of clear roles and rules and norms in marriage has affected less educated women and men and has made it more much more difficult for them to create lasting bonds.

Beverly: And this also brings up the question of cohabitation, sex before marriage. How does that factor into people being able and being willing to commit? And do we find that the way that people interact through the technology that we have and also less of a restraint and less of a negative connotation with sex before marriage, has that actually been damaging to stable relationships?

Kay: Yeah. Well, that speaks to the same point that I was just making to a certain extent. I think for people dating now, it’s so unclear what the rules are, what the expectations are. I think that some of the less egregious examples that we’ve heard about during the Me Too movement, like the Aziz Ansari example, for instance, has a lot to do with a lack of clarity about what women expect, what man expects. I think that women, young women grew up in an environment that said, “You should have all the sex you want. You’re just like men that way. Casual sex is great.” They would add, “If you want it.” But frankly, there was, I think, pressure. The fact is there’s pressure on women who maybe don’t want to have sex on the first date to do so if a lot of their peers are.

So I think a lot of the loss of that script created problems I mentioned before for lower income and less skilled people but also for everybody who was dating and hoping to find a mate because every time you meet somebody, you’re trying to figure out what are their rules, what are they about, what is it they want? It’s not clear anymore. So I think that does create a lot of uneasiness and a lot of unhappiness of a different sort maybe than my mother or my grandmother might’ve experienced in her marriage. But nevertheless, it’s real and frustrating and difficult.

Beverly: And marriage itself, some would say, “Well, why does there need to be the actual certificate of marriage?” So many people are committed and cohabiting and having children that way. I would say that’s more of a European model. We see that in Europe very much. And that is something that we’re seeing more with the upper class individuals, those who do have wealth, trying out living together first, doing it that way. What have you found in your research and the change of people making committed relationships with each other but not having the marriage certificate attached to it?

Kay: Okay, so I think that among educated couples there is emerging a new script. I’ve seen this with my own daughters and their friends where it is expected that you’ll live together, but it’s seen among many of them, maybe most of them even, that living together is a step towards marriage. In other words, it’s part of the script that’s leading ultimately to marriage. For less educated couples, that’s not the way it works. Living together is not a step towards, it’s not a substitute for marriage. It’s simply, well I shouldn’t say simply, it’s complicated. It has to do with whether you can afford to live alone. If somebody’s just lost an apartment, it’s cheaper to live together. Maybe the woman gets pregnant without planning it as is often the case. And so a baby is coming so they’re living together.

But you need to understand that regardless of what’s going on in Europe, and I’ll get to that in a minute, in the United States, cohabiting couples break up at a much higher rate than married couples. And if you have a child, when you’re cohabiting, you’re three times as likely to break up before that child is five than if you are married and have a child.

Beverly: Wow.

Kay: So that’s quite a difference. It’s a very unstable environment for children. And I mean, I could speculate for you but nobody knows for absolute sure that there’s something about making a decision and making a promise, a vow in front of family and friends or even without the family, but just making that vow, making that commitment saying, “This is what we are. We are aspiring towards permanence and we’ll do all we can to achieve it.” It’s very different than a cohabiter who often falls into a relationship. I don’t want to say that’s true of all cohabitors. I think some, I guess some are committed. But it’s not the normal script, shall we say, for cohabiting couples.

Now in Europe, it’s complicated. Again, it depends which country we’re talking about. There are countries where cohabitation seems to be almost the same as marriage in terms of longevity. Although, and by the way, I mean, Americans are unique in how temporary or how much their relationships, their romantic relationships break up. So in Sweden, for instance, a couple that’s living together is more likely to be together when their child is 15 than a married couple in the United States. So we’re talking about a very different culture. I think there must be, and this is something I would love to study firsthand, but I haven’t been able to. I suspect there’s something in the culture that says you have a child. Of course you’re a permanent couple. Well, yes, they don’t see the need for a government certificate, official recognition from the government that they’re married. But they do take their commitment to each other and to the family as seriously as Americans who married. That seems to be the case. And again, there’s so many notions about why that would be, but I think part of it, again, may have to do with the diversity in the United States. People are growing up with very different ideas about these scripts, about what’s expected and we may need marriage more to make a clearer statement about these things than some other more homogeneous cultures.

Beverly: And so, I want to talk about the application of this and what it means. I think there’s been a lot of research done on what this means for children. Children tend to do better when they’re raised by their married mother and father, have less of a chance to be in poverty. The financial side is typically much better for children. But I also want to talk about just the happiness of men and women when they don’t marry, when there’s confusion in dating, when, as you said, the scripts aren’t the same. Has this led to, do you think, general unhappiness as a whole and what do you expect if this trend continues? What does this mean for singles who are aging? What does this mean for not having a family to care for you the same way if you don’t have that nucleus family?

Kay: Yeah. Yeah. Well, this is a big concern I’ve written about fairly recently about how the rising number of never married. When you combine with the number of divorced and cohabitors who have broken up, the number of people who don’t clearly have family to care for them as they get older. And in my article Alone, it’s called Alone, in City Journal, I described a oncologist that I know, a cancer doctor who was telling me that he’s seeing an increasing number of men who come into his inner city hospital, particularly black men in the neighborhood he’s in, who have nobody with them and nobody to help them understand and deal with their prognosis. If they are admitted to the hospital, they have no visitors. And often they die with nobody claiming the body. So I think that that’s kind of a symptom or a scene, a scenario that I think we’re going to see more and more of.

We’ve broken down this very fundamental human connection and yeah, friends can help and you can have all kinds of tight networks that can help a lot. But many people are not going to have that if they don’t have family. Historically and across cultures, it’s been kin, relatives who take care of the sick and elderly. Or at least attend to them and needs. So yes, that is a very scary thing. Now I think we’ll be seeing much more in the way of what is called in Japan lonely deaths, people who die with nobody to even tell about their death. So that’s the kind of long term thing.

As for children, the data is pretty clear at this point, although there’s again some dispute about the selection and causation here. Children who grow up with a single mother and without their fathers, generally, or with minimal contact with their fathers show all sorts of disadvantages in life. They are more prone to health problems, to behavioral problems, to poor levels of achievement from school. They’re less likely to go to college. And if they do go to college, they are less likely to graduate. You frequently hear about parents who are fighting so much about money, divorced parents who are fighting so much about money that they can’t come to an agreement of who’s going to pay for a child’s college and then the kid has to drop out. So you see that kind of thing a lot. So that’s one kind of effect.

And then just the kinds of networks that people from more intact homes can create of uncles and aunts and friends of the family, they get disrupted and they’re just not the same dense connections that you can sometimes and hopefully get with intact families. So the children, no, do not do as well as we want. And one of the reasons I think this is so worrisome is that because we’re seeing much more marital breakdown, much more divorce and single parent homes among lower income kids, it means that they’re doubly disadvantaged. Not only do they lose the benefits that come with married parents, but they’re poorer to begin with. And I think that there’s plenty of evidence that this has affected our inequality, rates of inequality. And very under reported, under appreciated part of our poverty in an equality story.

Beverly: So then this is the final question I have for you then. So knowing this data and this research which you brought out, of course, children can’t make a decision for their parents on getting married. That’s something that is out of their control. But what encouragement would you give people listening to this program on what they should do? Let’s say for example, I’m single. Other people out there are single. It’s Valentine’s Day. What do you tell your daughter and your daughter’s friends? So based on this and you talk about the dire outcomes that we’re seeing and what could possibly happen, what should people do?

Kay: Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer. Remember, what I’m describing are broad trends and they’re worrisome trends for the country. It doesn’t tell us that much about each of us as individuals. I do think, though, what I would recommend, especially for younger women, is that they take their future as, assuming that they want to have children or think they might want to, that they take their future partner, husband very seriously from the time that they’re in their 20s. I mean, there was a tendency, I think, when you’re just out of college, you think you’ve got forever. You’ve got such a long time to play around, to date, to be single. And time flies. It happens very quickly.

Beverly: It sure does.

Kay: And I hate to think that we have told young women, “Oh, don’t marry too young. Don’t worry about that. Women don’t need men and you can do it by yourself.” And then find themselves by their 30s and wondering, “Well, gee, am I going to find somebody?” And I think most do, but plenty don’t. And the stories of young women in their late 30s and 40s who have been disappointed on this road to adulthood are plentiful and very sad. So I think the best thing I can offer is for us to remember to be clear with younger people about what they’re going to want. We don’t want to impose. My generation of boomers, very reluctant to impose any life vision on their kids. And I think that their kids pay the price for that. Some of them did at any rate. The fact is they know full well that what’s given them the most joy in life is, and difficulties as well, the most richness in life is their family and their children. And they have not passed on that wisdom or they’re reluctant to pass on that wisdom to their children. And I hate to think that by refusing or neglecting to talk about that, we’ve disappointed a lot of young people.

Beverly: Well, Kay, we so appreciate you joining us and talking about your research and the importance of marriage. So thank you for joining us today.

Kay: Well, thank you for having me.

Beverly: And thank you all for joining us today. Before you go, I did want to let you know of another great podcast you should subscribe to in addition to She Thinks. It’s called Problematic Women, and it’s hosted by Kelsey Bolar and Lauren Evans, where they both sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative leaning or problematic women, that is women who’s views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so called feminist left. Every Thursday, hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics by searching for Problematic Women wherever you get your podcasts. Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks, do leave us a rating or a review on iTunes, it does help. And we’d love it if you shared this episode so your friends know where they can find more She Thinks episodes. From all of us here at Independent Women’s Forum, thanks for listening.