Can Anything Fix the Problem?

images-3It’s Jessie again, for the final installment of The Marriage Problem.  I don’t think marriage is going to make a triumphal return.  I believe it will become increasingly restricted to some conservative religious communities and to people of privilege.  In my experience, more women than men would like to marry, but many men, especially young men, and especially those of low income and social status, resolutely avoid it.  So how can we make the Marriage Problem less devastating fpr impoverished, extranuptial families like Rochelle’s?  It will take an attack on two fronts.  First, there needs to be a revolution in the American approach to social services and support for the poor, with specific attention to female headed households.  And second, the expectations and education of girls and women need to change radically.  I think the same is true of boys and men, but the truth is that they are a lot harder to reach psychologically on these issues.  And in fact, we know much less about them.  Unfortunately, few unmarried fathers are willing to talk to female researchers about the subject (I’ve had no success), and very few male researchers seem very interested in doing one-on-one interviews with unmarried fathers.

 We have already discussed the two-track organization of American marriage and childbirth: elite women get married and then have children; lower status women are much less likely to get married and much more likely to have children without husbands.  And yet it is elites who make the laws and establish the policies and regulations that to a great extent determine the well-being of impoverished households.  In general, elites are culturally conservative.  That is, they tend to maintain old traditions, mostly because they have prospered from them.  They are not always aware of this motivation.  Mostly, they just believe that the ways of the ancestors are good merely because they have been around for so long.  They are seldom aware of how differently other people may be living, and how much their lives and expectations may diverge from their own. Like most people, they also often resent the idea that they might have to provide economic support for cultural practices that they see as not “following the rules.”  This is particularly true in the United States, which is extremely culturally conservative. In Sweden, social policy provides a modest but adequate standard of living for extranuptial households, on the grounds that comfortable families will produce better educated, more successful, and less alienated members of the next generation.  American social policy has another goal.  US policies tend to be guided by the notion that extranuptial households are the result of activity that ranges somewhere between sin and folly, and that they should not be rewarded for their mistakes.  Although moral judgement is consciously and specifically directed at the unmarried mothers, it inevitably also affects the children in pretty terrible ways.  And the money that is saved by not providing comfortable lives for these female-headed households is more than made up for by the costs associated with the health, educational, unemployment, and often criminal justice problems associated with the children of poverty.  Americans tend to prefer to pay for poverty on the installment plan, without recognizing the high cost of credit.

Clearly, American federal and state governments need to increase support for poor families, most of which are headed by unmarried women like Rochelle.  And perhaps the single most important element of this increased support should be free and affordable childcare, the lack of which is the greatest barrier to improved education and employment for single mothers. These improvements will lead inevitably to generally better lives for all the members of extranuptial families.

Then there are the expectations of life that American culture and institutions build into the upbringing and education of children, especially of girls.  Despite vast evidence to the contrary, even in their own lives, many girls develop the assumption that they will be supported by men.  They do not understand that the majority of all American women, including mothers of small children, now work, and that increasingly they are the sole support, not only of themselves, but also of their children.  Sometimes, girls don’t even think about where their support, or that of their children, will come from.  I have asked many single mothers about this, and most of them have told me that they had never thought about it.  They just figured their lives would go on as they always had, working at low paying, mostly fast food jobs.  They didn’t think about who would take care of their children.

Finally, there is a widespread lack of understanding about birth control.  Few young men will use condoms, though they are easily available.  Girls and inexperienced women often don’t know where to go for oral contraceptives, or they are too embarrassed to investigate.  Rochelle’s prescription for oral contraceptives expired, and she couldn’t afford the required new exam. Some girls may even believe they can’t get pregnant the first time they have sex.  Or they just want to please their boyfriends and continue the relationship so much that they refuse to think about contraception.

It seems essential to me that the schools need to do two things immediately.  First, they need to introduce and maintain the idea that all people, males and females, will work outside the household, so they need to prepare for this work.  It is not an alternative to motherhood, or an optional pathway for women; it is a universal reality.  And second, the schools need to make sex education universal, concrete, and specific, and include practical information about birth control and how to obtain it.  The preaching of abstinence is merely a prescription for pregnancy.

So now my soliloquy on the Marriage Problemis over.  I’ll post again before too long.

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Why Has Marriage Declined?

images-1This is Jessie again, with the sequel to the last post about marriage, money, and wellbeing.  As marriage declines, we inevitably consider why this should have happened.  As far as we know, marriage has been around as long as humans have been.  There are no societies on the planet that do not have marriage, although marriage takes a bunch of different forms.  There are, for example, more societies that permit marriage between one man and multiple women than there are societies that don’t.  Some societies permit marriages between one woman and several men, several men and several women, two women, two men, and between humans and nonhumans, mostly supernatural beings or institutions.  So I don’t expect that American marriage to wither away and disappear forever.  Instead, I think it will increasingly become like cloth napkins: a luxury item increasingly reserved for the well off, the well educated, and the white–a perk of privilege.

What has caused the decline in American marriage?  I’d say it comes from a decline in what some anthropologists have called “complementarity.”  If you look at marriage across time and space, one thing you notice is that marriage has primarily been a practical institution.  In order to get through life and take care of children, men do men’s chores, and women do women’s chores, and together people survive.  That’s complementarity.   Ideally, husbands and wives come to like and even love each other, but romantic love has certainly not been the basis or goal of most marriages on the planet now or ever.  That’s why parents and other family members have choose spouses for their children, and they base their decisions on practical concerns.  Some of these arranged marriages work out well, and some don’t—just as is true for contemporary American marriages, which are successful about 50% of the time.

But nowadays in the US, complementarity has broken down.  Men no longer need women for survival, and women no longer need men.  A hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago men needed women to cook for them and make and maintain their clothing, both of which activities required specialized skills and a lot of time and energy.  And women needed men to provide a large part of the food the family ate, and later on, money.  But laundromats, fast food, and ready made clothing have replaced the need for a wife.   These same advances in technology have produced numerous forms of employment that don’t require male strength and tasks that women can perform just as well as men.  These largely service jobs have replaced the need for a husband.  Then there is the fact that so few people are now engaged in agriculture (around 3% today, compared to roughly 50% in the middle of the 19th century).  Thus, worries about having legitimate heirs to pass property on to are now way less important to all but the most affluent.  And arching over all of these technological and demographic issues (but related to them) is the reality that despite the emotional and political power of Christianity on the United States, the actual power of religion to shape personal behavior has dramatically declined.  Christian teachings on the immorality of extranuptial sex, for example, have not officially changed in the last century.  But the power of these teachings to control human behavior has definitely diminished.  So more babies are born to unmarried women than ever before, but the opprobrium attached to these mothers and their children has declined as definitely as their incidence has increased.

And there’s one more thing to consider.  As has been reported now for at least the last five years (and longer, if one reads the specialized literature), job opportunities for the least educated workers with the least education and the fewest contemporary job skills have shrunk dramatically.  Americans in this category disproportionately include African Americans and Hispanics, but also include a significant number of whites.  Barely able to support themselves with the little work they can find in today’s economy, these men cannot possibly enter into a traditional family structure in which they contribute significantly to the support of a household.  Many turn to illegal means of earning money.  Thus an increasing proportion of impoverished men abandon economic responsibility for their children and their children’s mothers.  As more and more young men do this, it becomes an increasingly expected and accepted pattern of behavior, fueled not only by economic constraints, but also by freedom from psychological obligation and from sexual restriction.  The mothers—women like Rochelle—have fewer choices than the fathers.  Unless they are severely impaired by psychological damage or drug use, they cannot ignore their responsibility to their children.  So–again like Rochelle– they cobble together a precarious existence for their extranuptial households from low paid employment, social services, and assistance from family members.

This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is a serious national problem, and a human tragedy for the adults and children involved.

Next time:  suggestions for solutions.

The Luxury of Marriage

UnknownThis is Jessie, once again—the anthropologist sister.  Every so often I have an overpowering desire to contribute a post to Rochelle’s World, especially when an issue comes up that I feel strongly about.  One of these issues, which showed up in last week’s blog, is marriage—or maybe it would be better to say the lack of marriage.  I’m not talking about marriage as a moral issue.  I’m talking about marriage as an economic issue, and as a phenomenon that profoundly affects the wellbeing of a family.

I’ve spent the last dozen or so years researching marriage, both in the US and elsewhere in the world.  I’ve read a lot about the changing landscape of marriage, and I’ve collected a lot of data on my own, through interviews with never-married mothers (that is, they aren’t just divorced or widowed) in rural Washington state and Idaho, and on the Texas-Mexico border.  That’s how I became involved with Rochelle, who (as you know if you read this blog) is a friend and former coworker of my sister’s.

One thing that has struck me with increasing force recently is not only the ways in which marriage has shifted, but also the fact that marriage now seems to be a two –track system.  The tracks parallel each other, but their realities are dramatically different.  One is affluent, educated, and influential, and knows very little about the other.  Those who travel this track generally marry, and they believe that everyone else should, too.  They make the laws and the policies for both tracks, but they have little understanding of those who travel the other track, or the shape their lives take.  The second track is poorer, less educated, and far less influential.  Though the numbers of people who travel this track are growing, they seem to live in the shadows.  People like me, anthropologists and sociologists who study culture and society, refer to the travelers on the second track as “extranuptial” or “nonconjugal” households.  That is, like Rochelle’s, they’re not based on marriage.

As a way of starting to get a handle on these families, let’s look at a few numbers.  First off, marriage in the US is declining.  Not only are people marrying later in their lives than they used to, but fewer people are marrying at all.  For example, in 2011, 51% of American women (over 15) were married, as opposed to 72% in 1960.  Another way to look at it is to note that in 2012 the marriage rate was 31 women (over 15) per 1,000. Compared to 92 per 1,000 in 1920.  And here are a few more numbers from the last couple of years:

Percentages of births to unmarried mothers:

African American 73%

Hispanic 53%

White ` 29%

Bachelor’s degree or more 7%

High school diploma or less 57%

 Family income for families of married and unmarried mothers:

Married Unmarried

Less than $30,000 19% 61%

$30,000-$45,000 10% 21%

$50,000 or more 62% 15%

It’s easy to see that Rochelle and her three children are part of a large group of similar households.  Clearly, the mothers in these families have relatively (or absolutely) little education, and thus they also have poorly paid jobs and low incomes.  They are also overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) people of color.  And the numbers of extranuptial households in all ethnic groups are going up. What’s going on?  Why are the numbers of extranuptial households steadily increasing?  What kinds of problems result from this household structure, and does it really constitute a problem, or just a choice of a way to live?  If it is a problem, what kinds of policies might help, and why haven’t we put them into effect already?  We’ll talk about this next time.

Definitions of the Word “Half-Sister”

Unknown-1“She’s my sister because we have the same mother,” Rochelle explained to me about six years ago.  For some reason we had been talking about her family when we were at work; she had just told me that her two sisters and she all had different fathers.  “Oh, so they are your half-sisters,” I had said.  “Why do white people say that?  We have the same mother,” Rochelle had exclaimed, with an exasperated tone in her voice.  That began my education into the description of half-siblings in Rochelle’s world.  I just thought Rochelle didn’t understand genetics; she thought I just didn’t get it at all.

Rochelle’s family relationships are complex; there are a lot of siblings fathered by a lot of different men throughout the generations. During that discussion six years ago, I grabbed a piece of paper to start diagramming the relationships; I wanted to better understand what she was telling me.  The paper quickly became a mess of lines, and I realized it wasn’t going to work; I just listened and tried to remember how everyone was related.  But soon after I started interviewing Rochelle weekly for this project, I did map out her family relationships over three generations.  At first I tried to find a generational chart on the internet.  There were a lot to choose from, but I could find none that gave the options I needed for the many siblings from the many different fathers that Rochelle’s family tree required.   I finally used these charts as a guide and drew my own.  It is still, however, somewhat of a mess and needs to be re-done.  But I can understand it and I now know whom everybody is when Rochelle and I talk about her family.

Rochelle has three children by two different men; her mother has three children by three different men; and her grandmother, her mother’s mother, has six children by five different men.  None of those siblings are considered half-siblings.  “They have the same mother,” Rochelle again explained:  “Half-sisters and brothers don’t have the same mother.  If they have the same father, but a different mother, then we call them “half.”  My sisters lived in the same house with me.  Our half-sisters and half-brothers didn’t.  We might not even know them.”  I already understood how she used the word and now I understood why.  I use pure genetics when I use the term “half.”  Rochelle, on the other hand, uses genetics as well, but modified in a fashion that works in her culture.  “There are a lot of different fathers in Black families,” Rochelle told me last week.  “I guess that’s why we talk about brothers and sisters differently from white people.”  There may be more to it than that, but it was obvious that Rochelle and I had both learned something about the other’s culture.  We no longer have to define what we mean when talking about sisters and brothers.

Rochelle and the Movie The Butler

a7bb21a8e4abc30bf1684ed072af5605“I don’t see why people are upset that Paula Deen used the “N” word,” Rochelle remarked when she arrived for a recent interview.  “Black people use it all the time.”  I knew that, but it seemed to me that maybe Rochelle was too young and too uninformed to understand how that word had been used against her race years ago; how it is still used in that way by some.  There is a 38 year difference in our ages; we are of different races; we grew up in very different parts of the country in very different circumstances.  I was not sure my explanation would succeed in getting Rochelle to understand why some people were turning against Paula Deen.  I didn’t think Rochelle watched cooking shows, but she does occasionally watch the news.  Her television is always on in the living room, and Paula Deen’s troubles were all over the news programs and talk shows.

The movie The Butler was also all over the talk shows.  I asked Rochelle if she had heard about it and suggested we go see it the following week.  She would, of course, need to make sure her children were cared for.  As a single mother who has child care problems, going to the movies requires some serious planning.  She had not been to a movie theater in over 6 years, and it had been about that long for me, as well.  It was also not the kind of movie Rochelle usually watches when she rents DVDs. The Butler had received both good and bad reviews, but it does shows race relations in the United States through the somewhat fictionalized story of a Black man who had served as head butler in the White House during six presidential administrations.  It ends with Barack Obama being elected President of the United States.  Rochelle registered as a voter in 2008, and she has now voted twice for Barack Obama.  During both of his elections she was watching the news and asking questions. She hasn’t yet voted for anything except the office of President, but it is a start.  Not only might the movie explain something that I was finding difficult to explain, but it would be fun and time away from responsibilities

Scheduling the movie was tricky.  It was the beginning of the month, and Rochelle had responsibilities to her grandfather.  He has no car and needs to be driven to pay bills and buy groceries.  Her mother lives in another town but does come in for medical treatment and sometimes stays with the children after school; permanent after school care had not been settled yet.  Rochelle, of course, works at the grocery store.  She found a neighbor to care for the children for an hour, and then her mother could take over while we went to the movies one day the next week.  It was a Tuesday afternoon, and there were about 10 people in the theater.  The main female character, the wife of the butler, is played by Oprah Winfrey.  Rochelle was quite familiar with her.

I couldn’t tell if Rochelle was enjoying the movie while we watched it, but when the lights came up I noticed she had been crying.  I had, too, but was trying to hide it for some reason.  “I loved it,” she exclaimed.  “I want to buy this movie and not just bootleg it.”  Throughout the movie she would lean over and ask me “who’s the president now?”  The movie did put a cut-line in every time there was a change in administration, but it was easy to miss.  Rochelle’s next question was always “was he a Democrat?”

Rochelle had never heard of the Freedom Riders; she didn’t know white people had also fought for the rights of African Americans; she didn’t know about the sit-ins; she didn’t know about the Black Power movement; and she didn’t know that a President of the United States from her state of Texas had engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I am the age of her grandmother and started college in 1964.  Her grandmother and her mother were enmeshed in the continuing cycle of the culture of poverty and were mostly just trying to survive in 1964.  They didn’t vote then, and they still don’t today.  They lived on the Black side of a segregated town regardless of what city they lived in. They still do.  Life probably changed very little for them in 1964.  I came to this formerly Confederate state in 1969, and Black customers were still coming in the “colored” door of a BBQ joint I went to while the white customers were using the “white” door.  Not much had changed but the law.

“Do you see why the “N” word caused Paula Deen problems?” I asked Rochelle.  “Nigger was used by bigoted people.  People who were not happy to see integration happen.  White people who were not pleased to see Blacks get their rights and their vote.  Did you see the hate on the faces of the white people in the movie during the sit-ins?”  I asked.  “Yes,” she said.  I then told her something I had heard Oprah Winfrey say when asked why she didn’t like even Black people using the word among themselves or in rap songs.  “It was the last word many African-Americans heard when the rope was being tied around their necks,” Oprah had answered.

We drove back to Rochelle’s apartment.  “I’m going to buy it when it comes out,” she said again.  “I’m going to show it to my kids.”  I suggested they were too young now but might enjoy seeing it when they got a bit older.  “Wow, I never knew all that, but now I get it,” she said as she got out of the car.  For me, it was not a great movie.  Quite confusing at times, with too much history jammed into two hours.  Rochelle, however, loved it and now understood a lot more.  It was a very enjoyable afternoon for both of us.