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Jewish World Review April 1, 2002/19 Nisan, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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What to do when 'I Do' becomes 'I Don't' | George Bush is humming "Here comes the bride." He wants the government to promote marriage. He wants the next stage of Welfare reform to be more marriage-friendly, emphasizing two-parent families. His ideas will provoke a heated debate, in and out of Congress.

He is also considering a new initiative that would channel money through child-support programs for about 15 communities to be spent "to rebuild cultural norms" in support of marriage. These experiments would emphasize educating young men and women in the values of marriage for forming families with hopes of lowering illegitimacy rates. These deserve public debate, too.

Welfare reform, which Bill Clinton signed into law five years ago, gave the states the power to promote marriage, but the new work requirements required a different priority and not much was done on behalf of marriage. Illegitimacy rates are no longer rising, but it's not much of a success story when the illegitimacy rate has leveled off to a mean 33 percent of all births.

Like everything else, illegitimacy hurts the poor most of all. With Welfare reform, we've stopped punishing those low-income recipients who choose to marry, and public attitudes have begun to recognize the importance of a father to a child. But why people do and don't marry isn't at all simple.

We've moved long past the lyrics that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. A lot of horses bolted, abandoning the carriage. The most recent emphasis has been on cumulative statistics that married people live longer, healthier, happier, more gratifying lives and that makes society better off, too.

But such arguments do not make for romance in the moonlight. "Will you marry me, so that we're less likely to end up on Welfare or get sick?" doesn't have much thrill appeal even if the gent speaks from bended knee. The argument that children born in families with a mother and a father are less likely to drop out of school, pursue a life of crime, or suffer from bad health hardly drives a Jack and his Jill in the heat of passion to seek out rabbi, priest, preacher or justice of the peace to say "I do."

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It's easy (and glib) to blame the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s for the breakdown of the family, but a lot more went into that breakdown than baby boomer hedonism, feminism and the Pill. In search of "root causes," James Q. Wilson, in his new book, 'The Marriage Problem," observes that a man shortage has been a major contributing factor.

When there are more men than women, men work harder to please women, showing off desirable characteristics such as steadiness, reliability and sexual restraint. What one man doesn't offer, another man will. When there's a shortage of men, women are less demanding, indulging irresponsible behavior and taking on sexual liaisons with men who aren't desirable as husbands.

"In the first case, women have a lot of bargaining power and so find it easier to get men to marry and stay with them," writes Mr. Wilson. "In the second case, women have less bargaining power and so must settle for what they can get."

In 1970, there were considerably fewer unmarried white men between the ages of 23 to 27 than white women aged 20 to 24. The deficit grew worse for unmarried women as they got older. A gap between eligible men and women persisted into the 1980s and 1990s, especially as women married later. This kind of ratio affects cultural mores on a local level, too. New York and Washington have many more single women than men. (You can judge for yourself how that affects behavior.) Rock Springs, Wyo., on the other hand, has a major shortage of women.

The disparity between the sexes has played out differently for blacks and whites. Slavery, of course, determined which black men could stay with their families and naturally contributed to family breakdown. Today, high numbers of young black men are in prison, and higher rates of alcoholism and drug abuse among black men than among black women make them a scarce commodity. Women like to marry "up" - or at least move laterally - and many more black women than black men attend college, further reducing marriage possibilities for ambitious black women.

The cycle that begins with a man shortage when men and women are in their 20s creates a momentum all its own, and the shortage collides with other social issues as they grow older. So what to do? There is no panacea, but a robust debate on the virtues of marriage, the importance of family stability and two-parent families for children as well as seeking ways to bolster the family unit can't hurt.

Turning things around, as hard as it is to do, may be easier than moving to Rock Springs.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS