I fancy myself a relatively aware observer of the social scene, but I have to say that the graph to the left startled me somewhat. In less than my lifetime the modal young mother in the United States has gone from being married to unmarried. The effect is ameliorated by the rise in co-habitation, but we have to keep in mind that co-habitation tends to be a looser, and often more ephemeral relationship, than marriage.
But does this matter? I’ve asserted before that families don’t matter as much as you’d think, that marriage is not a panacea for long term social ills which play out in individual lives. Well first, there’s the short term experienced aspect. Even if children can bounce back from a less stable childhood better than you’d think, they still have to experience that instability during many years when they could have been in less stressed circumstances. We’re leaving utility on the table. But the bigger issue is that social statistics are often indicators of deeper underlying dynamics which we perceive but darkly.
Beware the moray in the reef!
Across the political spectrum there are particular and specific panics over a given set of phenomena. Generally conservatives worry about morality and social cohesion, and liberals fret over economic inequality. Though I have personal political views, and suspect that policy can affect change on the margins, I’d be willing to bet broader social dynamics are going to exhibit an internal inertia which all the political theater will not be able to change. The social cohesion which American conservatives yearn for is unlikely to come back due to basic demographics; only 50 percent of births today are to non-Hispanic whites, who themselves are divided by religion, class, and politics. Though some assimilation to a white identity will occur over the long term through intermarriage, in the medium term we’ll have greater multiculturalism. Liberals can change the economic inequality statistic through redistribution, but that doesn’t seem to build up long term human capital. Sweden has reduced poverty and improved the quality of life of immigrants through redistribution, but they remain situated in a social position predicted by their initial human capital (e.g., the children of well educated political refugees from Iran and Chile tend to flourish and assimilate, those of Somali nomads fleeing civil war, not so much).
Where does that leave us? If I had to make a prediction, the American future is going to be more like Brazil. If conservatives are ascendant then there will be attempt to create a myth of national unity to overcome the centrifugal pressures. If liberals are ascendant there will be economic policies to level differences. Likely these two visions will alternate periodically in a stable democracy. But neither will be able to change the reality of a diverse and segregated United States across a variety of metrics.* This isn’t entirely an exotic or novel development, recall the 19th century period of sectionalism.
These data illustrate that reality for me personally. I’m a married “young” father of two in my 30s. I don’t really know people who have children in their early 20s or teens. If you read the full Census report you see that only 1 percent of these women giving birth at a young age have a bachelor’s degree or higher, so that stands to reason. In earlier periods the dynamic above would be sharply racialized in the public imagination, but the data are more nuanced than you’d think. Only 1 percent of these mothers are of Asian background, which one expects. But 43 percent are non-Hispanic white women, not that much lower than the 50 percent of all births. As Charles Murray documents in Coming Apart white America is itself breaking down into its constituent elements, defined by region and class.
As for my children, whose parents are middle class and college educated, the future has bright possibilities. But all the choices I make are going to be geared toward making sure that they are not at the American median, because unlike in decades past that median is not going to be quite so congenial and prosperous. As long as they move in a college educated world where parents are married I’ll be happy, as they can select from an appropriate menu of outcomes which will result in personal flourishing. The key is not to move down in the social pecking order, as therein lies a diminishing of expectations. And this last fact I think explains the panic and frantic aspect of middle class parenting in America today. You always worry that the kids won’t be alright if they aren’t in the top 25%.
* Diversity and segregation not just racially, as we’re wont to think, but economically and socio-politically.