Liberalism’s Unlikely Critic

It’s no surprise that Kay Hymowitz, who grew up in a politically-active family in Philadelphia, with her father and brother marching in Selma, Alabama—a name hallowed in the Civil Rights movement—developed an interest in the causes and effects of poverty. But few would have expected that the Brandeis graduate, who would go on to become an expert on poverty and family issues at the Manhattan Institute and the author of four books and countless articles on these subjects, would become a leading voice challenging liberal orthodoxy.

“As I got older and moved to New York,” says Hymowitz, who is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, “I began to see that the story I had grown up with, while true to a great extent and true for a time, was no longer the whole story. It wasn’t enough just to talk about civil rights in conventional terms. We needed to talk about a culture that was going to make it harder and harder for African Americans to achieve equality. So my interest in the poor, particularly African Americans, goes back to my family, though they would not always approve of everything I say.”

This isn’t the only area in which Hymowitz challenges the conventional wisdom. When the recent and much talked-about Pew Research Center study on “Breadwinner Moms,” which reported that mothers are the primary earners in forty-percent of U.S. families with children under eighteen, came out, the media was ecstatic. What a victory for women! Hymowitz, however, who spoke on a panel sponsored last July by the IWF and the Heritage Foundation, immediately smelled a rat: most of these women weren’t junior Sheryl Sandbergs climbing the corporate ladder; they were single parents who were living in poverty or near poverty, struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s very hard to get not just feminists but the media to pay attention to the real story, which is that there are some women who are very much like the ones reporting who are doing quite well, but there are also many who aren’t doing well. Feminism has worked out for the top, but not for women on lower economic rungs.”

While Hymowitz readily acknowledges that feminism has brought many good things for women, she says that the media will not acknowledge its costs.

“The breadwinner moms story is really about the breakdown of marriage,” says Hymowitz, “and that is a more complicated narrative. I don’t say by any means that it is the fault of feminism, but it is related to the idea that we are sole actors, sole individuals and that we need to make our way on our own. Our country and every other society was founded on the household, the family unit and that’s been taken away from the people who need it most, the people at the bottom of the social ladder, the people who need the social and economic support of a family.”

As the consummate cultural observer, Hymowitz had become interested in what she calls the “unmarriage revolution” long before the “breadwinner moms” study. This revolution began in the 1960s, when the institution of marriage declined for young people at all socio-economic levels. But then, as Hymowitz wrote in her groundbreaking, 2006 book “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age,” a funny thing happened: The educated classes rediscovered marriage, which they again came to recognize as the best arrangement for child-rearing, while illegitimacy rates soared among lower-income people.

America had become, as disgraced presidential candidate John Edwards like to say, two Americas, though not precisely in the way Edwards meant: In one America, parents marry and then rear children, and in the other America, children are brought up in chaotic, struggling, single-parent households. What does the rise of the household headed by an unmarried parent portend for society?

Hymowitz isn’t sure because, “Nothing like this has ever happened before.” But the prospect of a society with widespread non-marital child rearing is cause for concern. “So far we can give one fairly solid answer,” she continues, “which is that it will increase inequality. It creates very unequal environments for growing the next generation. Not only does Dad frequently move out or disappear altogether but more stepparents and step siblings—what academics call multiple partner fertility—create chaos that leads to a lack of trust in the future—which is understandable—but also to a lack of trust in the opposite sex and love relationships in general.”

Young men who grow up households headed by an unmarried mother often understandably fail to internalize the traditional “life script” that men in earlier generations took for granted. It includes a job, marriage, and raising a family–with marriage coming before fatherhood. The current system, with a vast government apparatus to support single mothers, deprives men of their role as providers. Hymowitz, who explored the status of men in her 2011 book “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men into Boys,” says that the breakup of marriage has been “very bad for children but devastating to men. A lot of what we see happening to men is a consequence of just not being needed.”

Psychologist Helen Smith’s recent book “Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood and the American Dream—and Why It Matters” argues that men have been “going Galt” (after the John Galt, the Ayn Rand character who withholds production in the face of government overreach) in alarming numbers because American society is anti-male. Hymowitz calls Smith’s book “an important book,” but takes issue on one point. Smith describes the male withdrawal from aspects of society as a rational decision, while Hymowitz views it as “something more existential.”

While Hymowitz had been outspoken about the hardship of growing up in a single-parent family, she also has written about more affluent families. Her book “Liberation’s Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age” explored growing up in the post-feminist era. One mistake well-intended parents today make, she says, is offering children insufficient guidance. Sometimes parents see children as “already an individual” and believe that “our job is to let that individual flower because it’s all there all inside the child, and we really don’t have much to do to teach him how to be a member of society.”

Hymowitz, who has a master’s degree in English literature from Tufts and has taught at Brooklyn College and the Parsons School of Design, is herself married and the mother of three. In another brave debunking of a feminist sacred cow, she took on the topic of maternity leave, in a Time Ideas column headlined “Longer Maternity Leave Not So Great for Women After All.”

Noting that the U.S. is often chided for being the largest economy in the world that doesn’t require paid maternity leave, Hymowitz finds that in the Nordic countries that do mandate “seemingly Arcadian” maternity leave, the effect is the exact opposite of what is intended: They “harden” the country’s glass ceiling. The U.S. actually has a higher percentage of female managers than the “women’s paradises” provided by Scandinavian countries. Although fathers are encouraged to take maternity leave, mothers are more likely to take it—and sometimes, after the second child, they just might not come back to full-time work.

Hymowitz says that “as long as women continue to bear children,” many—not all but many—will prefer flexible and probably shorter hours.

Such statements may not win friends in her adopted home of Brooklyn, but Hymowitz has never shied away from her search for the truth, no matter where it takes her.

Other books written by Kay S. Hymowitz
Marriage and Caste in America
Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future-and Ours