cThe Most Important Kind of Privilege in
America, by Lee Habeeb & Mike Leven National Review March 23, 2015 4:00 AM
Itfs marriage. Much has been written about
privilege in academic settings over the past few decades. Therefs the
privilege of wealth, and the advantages wealth confers if a baby is lucky
enough to be born into it. Much too has been written about the advantages of
being born into this world as a Caucasian — known in academia as gwhite
But not enough has been written about the
most important advantage a baby can have in America: the advantage of being
born with a mother and father who happen to be married. Call it gthe
marriage privilegeh — the advantages are startling.
In a report last year entitled gSaving
Horatio Alger,h which focused on social mobility and class in America,
Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution discovered that the likelihood
of a child raised by parents born into the lowest income quintile moving to
the top quintile by the age 40 was a disastrous 3 percent. Worse, 50 percent
of those children stay stuck in the bottom quintile. And the outlook for the
children of those marriage-less children is equally stark.
Thatfs bad news for the country, and the
American dream, such numbers.
But Reeves discovered a silver lining while
crunching the data: Those children born in the lowest quintile to parents
who were married and stayed married had only a 19 percent chance of
remaining in the bottom income group.
Reevefs study revealed that this
social-mobility advantage applied not just to the lower class: The middle
class was impacted, too. The study revealed that children born into the
middle class have a mere 11 percent chance of ending up in the bottom
economic quintile with married parents, but that number rises to 38 percent
if their parents are never married.
Youfd think a finding like that would be
headline news across the nation, or that the media might want to talk about
the real reason for the wealth gap in America — the marriage gap.
Raj Chetty, the Bloomberg Professor of
Economics at Harvard University, had this to say about the very same subject
in the executive summary of his study, gWhere is the Land of Opportunity?
The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the U.S.h:
The strongest predictors of upward mobility
are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in
the area. As with race, parentsf marital status does not matter purely
through its effects at the individual level. Children of married parents
also have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with
fewer single parents.
We find modest correlations between upward
mobility and local tax and government expenditure policies and no systematic
correlation between mobility and local labor market conditions, rates of
migration, or access to higher education.
Chetty wasnft finished. In his full paper, he
had this to say:
Finally, mobility is significantly lower in
areas with weaker family structures, as measured e.g. by the fraction of
single parents. As with race, parentsf marital status does not matter purely
through its effects at the individual level. Children of married parents
also have higher rates of upward mobility in communities with fewer single
parents. Interestingly, we find no correlation between racial shares and
upward mobility once we control for the fraction of single parents in an
That last sentence is worth including in
every discussion we have about race and class in America. Because it turns
out that once you control for the proportion of single parents in an area,
the correlation between social mobility and race disappears.
Few people in America have done better work
in this area than the University of Virginiafs Brad Wilcox. In a recent
paper published through the American Enterprise Institute, he had this to
say about Americafs growing gap between Americafs marriage haves and
The retreat from marriage — a retreat that
has been concentrated among lower-income Americans — plays a key role in the
changing economic fortunes of American family life. We estimate that the
growth in median income of families with children would be 44% higher if the
United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today.
The reasons for the stark difference in
economic outcomes are as obvious as they are important. Marriage is a form
of social capital that creates the foundation for all kinds of positive
gChildren raised in a stable, intact family
are much more likely to benefit from the time, attention, and money of two
parents,h Wilcox explained in a recent interview. gThey are more likely to
thrive in school, to steer clear of encounters with the police, to avoid
having a teenage pregnancy, to graduate from college, and to be gainfully
employed as an adult.h
The marriage deficit has been seen as the
defining problem in the black community by at least one prominent black
opinion-shaper: the late William Raspberry, the Pulitzer Prize–winning
Washington Post columnist.
Back in 2005, he was as blunt as blunt can be
about the elephant in the room when it comes to race and class in America.
gFather absence is the bane of the black community, predisposing its
children to school failure, criminal behavior and economic hardship, and to
an intergenerational repetition of the grim cycle,h he wrote.
The culprit, Raspberry concluded, alongside
some of the top ministers in the African-American community whofd just met
in Washington to call attention to the issue, was the decline of marriage.
Indeed, he pointed out that some youth workers in black neighborhoods know
children whofve never seen a wedding.
Raspberry expressed little tolerance in the
column for those who blame the low marriage rates on poverty, crime, or
racism. gBlack men arenft born incarcerated, crime-prone dropouts,h he
wrote. gWhat principally renders them vulnerable to such a plight is the
absence of fathers and their stabilizing influence. Fatherless boys (as a
general rule) become ineligible to be husbands — though no less likely to
become fathers — and their children fall into the patterns that render them
ineligible to be husbands.h
Raspberry wasnft finished, highlighting the
impact marriagelessness has on young girls, too:
The absence of fathers means, as well, that
girls lack both a pattern against which to measure the boys who pursue them
and an example of sacrificial love between a man and a woman. As the
ministers were at pains to say, it isnft the incompetence of mothers that is
at issue but the absence of half of the adult support needed for families to
be most effective.
And then came his conclusion:
Americafs almost reflexive search for outside
explanations for our internal problems delayed the introspective examination
that might have slowed the trend. What we have now is a changed culture – a
culture whose worst aspects are reinforced by oversexualized popular
entertainment and that places a reduced value on the things that produced
nearly a century of socioeconomic improvement. For the first time since
slavery, it is no longer possible to say with assurance that things are
The problem of an unraveling civic culture
was the central part of Charles Murrayfs book Coming Apart back in 2012,
with a focus on two white fictional neighborhoods he labeled Belmont (an
archetypal upper-middle-class town) and Fishtown (after a neighborhood in
Philadelphia thatfs been home to the white working class since the time of
our nationfs birth).
gIn 1960, extremely high proportions of
whites in both Belmont and Fishtown were married — 94% in Belmont and 84% in
Fishtown. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in both
places. Then came the great divergence,h Murray explained in a long essay
for the Wall Street Journal at the time. gIn Belmont, marriage stabilized
during the mid-1980s, standing at 83% in 2010. In Fishtown, however,
marriage continued to slide; as of 2010, a minority (just 48%) were married.
The gap in marriage between Belmont and Fishtown grew to 35 percentage
points, from just 10.h
The conservative Murray, like his liberal
counterpart William Raspberry, then made the connection between marriage and
the other social problems that stem from the breakdown of family and
The breakdown, Murray noted, hasnft proceeded
exactly as we might think:
It is worrisome for the culture that the U.S.
as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially
worrisome that Fishtown has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs
against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class
still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey,
the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not
leave much room for argument.
For example, suppose we define gde facto
secularh as someone who either professes no religion at all or who attends a
worship service no more than once a year. For the early GSS surveys
conducted from 1972 to 1976, 29% of Belmont and 38% of Fishtown fell into
that category. Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow
in Belmont, from 29% in the 1970s to 40% in the GSS surveys taken from 2006
to 2010. But it grew even more in Fishtown, from 38% to 59%.
In writing about the very Americans that
Murray described in that white working class neighborhood of Fishtown, Brad
Wilcox has come to a very similar conclusion:
In the 1970s, this group was more likely to
attend church than any other group in the country. But now, for both
economic and cultural reasons, Middle Americans are falling behind. Middle
Americans, especially Middle American men, are losing their connection to
marriage, work, religion, and civil society. This doesnft bode well for the
fate of our nation, or for our democratic life together.
gI am convinced,h the late author Stephan
Covey once wrote, gthat if we as a society work diligently in every other
area of life and neglect the family, it would be analogous to straightening
the deck chairs on the Titanic.h
Covey was right, but the case for marriage is
not lost. Indeed, itfs never fully been litigated in the court of public
opinion, let alone the culture. Unlike social forces beyond any personfs
control, teaching a generation to do the simple things generations did
before them to live the American dream — finish high school, find work, get
married, and have children, and in that order — is possible.
We have to be talking about the policies that
could encourage marriage, and pay attention to groups around the country —
particularly in some of our churches — that are doing some remarkable work
on the marriage front.
Itfs time we started talking about the
connections between marriage, love, and God, too. Bonhoeffer said it best in
a letter to his niece: gIt is not your love that sustains your marriage, but
from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.h
Itfs time we started talking about the health
and happiness of married folks (take, for instance, the fact that married
people have more sex than unmarried people).
Itfs time we all started telling the story
about the most important gap in American life, the marriage gap, and how we
might close it.
We need, in other words, to be talking about
the privilege that matters most in American life — the marriage privilege. —
Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content
at Salem Radio Network. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie,
and daughter, Reagan. Mike Leven is the former COO and president of the Las
Vegas Sands, and is now Chairman and CEO of the Georgia Aquarium.