College Ahead

Unknown“Danyell’s going to college,” Rochelle told me several months ago. Danyell is her eldest sister’s first child, who was born when her mother was 14. Rochelle’s sister dropped out of high school, had another child with the father of the first, then married a man and had three more children. She is recently divorced from the father of the three youngest children. Danyell is going to first go to the local community college and then her plans are to transfer to a state college thirty miles away. Yesterday was graduation day and Rochelle and her family went. Rochelle is the only one to have graduated from high school in her immediate family; now the eldest cousin of Rochelle’s children has graduated from high school and is going to college. Danyell’s mother has had a stable job as a receptionist at a pediatric center for many years and her ex-husband also has had a stable job. He had been living with the family since the two older children were young. It seems to have made a huge difference in the lives of the children. Though now divorced, he is still a factor in this family’s life.

This week I will ask Rochelle about the graduation and what her children thought about it. When I first was learning about the family dynamics I thought Mary-Jane, the eldest sister, would have been the one to have had the most difficult life. She wasn’t because she had a stable job and was not a single mother. Five children isn’t easy for anyone, especially when the first was born when the mother was only 14, but she has made it work so far. Currently she is not on any public assistance and hasn’t been since she married the father of her youngest three children. Having a help-mate in the family has made all the difference in the world.

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.

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.