A review of The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, by James Q. Wilson

In concluding his excellent overview of the state of marriage and family in America today, social scientist James Q. Wilson wonders why American elite culture appears to prefer a post-marriage society like Sweden, "where unmarried couples care for children and the state pays money to help them do that." A better model, he suggests, would be Japan, where "shame remains a powerful force for controlling behavior" and "crime, drug abuse, and out-of-wedlock births are all remarkably rare," while the divorce rate is one-third of ours. Why do so many in our culture willingly embrace liberated cohabitation over committed wedlock? The Marriage Problem finds the answer mainly in two factors.

First, the Enlightenment led to a "redefinition of marriage as an agreement between two people with individual rights rather than as a partnership made sacred by law, custom, and God." In a superb analysis, Wilson traces the rise of modern marriage from medieval times to the present, showing how the fruits of the Enlightenment have engulfed us. By replacing "a sacrament with a contract and then a contract with an arrangement," society made marriages weaker and children more vulnerable in today's ubiquitous single-parent families.

The second factor is the effect of slavery. The low marriage rate and high illegitimacy rate among African-Americans today, says Wilson, are partly attributable to the legacy of the African culture from which the slaves came. In this culture, polygyny was common and one's clansmen were more important than one's father, who was often unwed and absent. But Wilson rejects the view of many historians who claim that slavery did not destroy the African-American family. Slavery, he suggests, bears much responsibility for today's serious problem of the "two nations": in one nation, a child is raised by two parents and in the other, "a child is raised by an unwed girl" and "lives in a neighborhood filled with many sexual men but few committed fathers." 

Whatever the extent of slavery's impact, the fact remains that although single-parenthood was always more common among blacks than whites, it increased tremendously among blacks, and to a lesser extent among whites, from the 1960s on. The legacy of slavery can hardly have affected blacks more in the 1960s than in the 1880s, and it cannot explain white behavior at all.

Wilson paints a grim picture of marriage and families today: one-half of marriages end in divorce; one-third of children are born out of wedlock; and marriages are declining despite overwhelming evidence that married people are happier, healthier, and wealthier than the unmarried. Contrary to past history, men are refusing to marry the women they impregnate. Among those aged 25-34, "more than two-thirds of all white men and women but less than one-third of black men and women are married," and "educated, affluent African-American men are no more likely to marry" than poorer ones.

In painting this grim picture, Wilson also unflinchingly states facts that many would like to deny. By numerous measures of well-being, "children in one-parent families are much worse off than those in two-parent families even when both families have the same earnings." The popular 1996 Welfare Reform Act has the drawback of telling "young mothers to be employed, away from their children for much of each week," so that they "will be raised by somebody else" (this is also the fact when any mother enters the workplace). As women "work independently of the family" and "personal income now flows to each working person rather than to one united family," the family "must lose some of its value"; "marriage does not offer much to the father and mother" if children "can be raised by a nanny or a day-care center." "Working women, once married, are more likely to go through a divorce than those not working." 

Yet he presents these devastating facts with a seeming sense of resignation, as if he believes we are determined to continue following a path laid out long ago that leads inexorably to a post-marriage society. Our problem, Wilson advises, is "to find a way whereby marriage is restored," but he denies that the government can help much: "That effort must be done retail, not wholesale, by families and churches and neighborhoods and the media, not by tax breaks or government subsidies." Though he's correct that the motivation for change must well up within the culture, accomplishing change often requires reform of the laws that contributed to the problems.

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Although Wilson wants to minimize the effect of the 1960s, our families were far better off in the 1950s than today, and the feminist movement, for one, deserves more immediate blame than Voltaire, although he may be the movement's spiritual forefather. It was feminists who undertook, with great success indeed, to model our country on Sweden, and legislation was an important tool in their quest. Wilson states that feminists gave the enactment of no-fault divorce laws "hardly any notice." In fact, the movement's leaders saw these laws as crucial to achieving their goal of forcing homemakers into the workplace by denying them the social and economic security afforded by strict divorce laws. The staunchest opponents of current efforts to reform no-fault are feminists, who argue that if given a choice to return to a traditional sex role within the family, too many women would make that choice. No-fault must be retained, they insist, to deprive women of that choice and keep them in the workplace.

Wilson recognizes that the family must protect itself against the fact that the "mother-infant bond will be tighter than the mother-father bond." Past societies provided this protection, he says, "by embedding marriage in an elaborate set of rules designed to protect the fragile parts of marriage from the interests of a wandering male." The most important rules were those making divorce difficult to obtain. Many of Wilson's sources demonstrate that the happiest and longest-lasting marriages are those in which the spouses believe that divorce should be difficult and rare. By enacting strict divorce laws, government teaches its citizens that marriage should be a permanent commitment, the precise opposite of the lesson taught daily by our current regime of no-fault divorce.

In addition to divorce reform, there are other ways that government can help solve the marriage problem. Through various subsidies, government now encourages use of the paid childcare that feminists advocate. Supporters of traditional families should seek to have any government aid go to all families, not just to those that pay others to care for their children. 

Countless other laws, enacted at the behest of feminists, have contributed to the development that is at the root of the marriage problem—the deterioration of males. Lionel Tiger analyses this in his book, The Decline of Males, which documents what he identifies as today's pattern of growth in the confidence and power of women and of erosion in the confidence of men. Among the crucial aspects of the decline of men and ascendancy of women that Tiger describes are the facts that more women than men are now completing high school and graduating from college, women as a group are working more and earning more, and men are working less and earning less. Fostering this decline are laws requiring preferential treatment of women in education, workplaces, the military, and the awarding of government contracts. The decline is promoted also by laws requiring the feminization of our schools and by the perversion of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, in effect promoting elimination of many male athletic teams in high schools and colleges.

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Finally, as Wilson explains so well, the sex ratio—the number of men per 100 women in a society—is critically important in determining the fate of marriage. A low sex ratio—fewer men than women—causes a decline in marriages insofar as "many women will settle for less than what they had hoped for by never marrying, accepting casual offers of sex from men who offer no marital prospects, or producing babies without being married to their fathers." 

This is our situation today. Since women usually marry men who are somewhat older, more educated, and more affluent than they, and since far fewer men are graduating from college or are employed than previously, the sex ratio has dropped significantly. The sex ratio was about 100 in 1940; it was 95 in 1970. But if you confined the population figures to unmarried white men between the ages of 23 and 27 and unmarried white women between the ages of 20 and 24, the sex ratio in 1970 was only 67. In 1950, there were twice as many men as women in college, but in 1997, there were only 79 men for every 100 women. By the time college-educated unmarried white women reach the age of 30, there are only half as many unmarried men of the same age and education. Overall, African-Americans have a lower sex ratio than whites; by 1970, there was about one young black man for every two young black women.

Increasing the ratio is critical to solving the marriage problem. And combating the numerous feminist-initiated attacks on men's social position is crucial to increasing the sex ratio. For those endeavoring to restore marriage—through legislation, when possible—Wilson's thorough and very moving account of today's familial distress and its causes is a welcome source of information and supporting argumentation.