Divided America: The Children Are Not All Right

Divided America: The Children Are Not All Right


Forget class warfare and the fight over who earns too much and who earns too little.  The new battleground pits married voters against unmarried voters.  According to a new Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, married voters favor Romney 51-38 percent, while single voters back Obama 54-34 percent.  This gap means a lot more than votes in November.  It reflects a fundamental social change in a society that no longer shares common cultural values. 


At the top of the list is a steep decline in the marriage rate.  Who cares, you may ask.  Answer: children.  In 2009 alone, a whopping 41 percent of babies were born to single moms, according to the National Vital Statistics Report.  Median income for single mother families is only one third the median for married couple families. Census Bureau data shows the average median net worth of married households is seven times the wealth of unmarried households. 

In his column this week, David Brooks took a look at what this means to the future of the country and cited the work of top social scientists, including Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone).  He concluded that decades ahead, the U.S. will be more divided than ever.

Brooks points to a growing “opportunity gap”—affluent parents spend more time and money helping to shape their children’s futures. That includes reading to them, providing after school sports, arts, and other enrichment projects. Having children isn’t something that happens to them; they plan to have children and celebrate their births as a legacy of their own existence.  Having a marriage partner who shares in that celebration is the first step in providing the resources that bridge the gap between the so-called classes. And parents need those resources and then some if they’re going to educate their children. 

Whether the parent went to college or not, believing in a solid, modern education and what it can mean to children may be just as important as having the resources to send kids to college. Just having money isn’t enough. Charles Murray’s latest book, Why America is Coming Apart, describes the growing disparity and bifurcation of the American culture.  At the top of “the new upper class” are the DICE—dual income, college educated and married.  They shop at Whole Foods, drive hybrid or electric cars, and try to make sure their kids well-prepared for college and beyond.

The DICE are certainly more affluent than single parents, but they’re not necessarily “wealthy.”  What they do have is an empowered sense of self, a positive world view, and an expectation that their children will exceed and surpass them.  Life doesn’t happen to this group—they control their destiny as much as possible and that of their children.

In contrast, single parents -- I’m not talking about Ivana Trump – live in an insecure world where choices are limited and getting through the day may be a triumph.  Jonathan Rauch, a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution, says that Murray’s observations are not new.  In an article in Reason magazine, Rauch says: 

“In 1999, Isabel Sawhill [a former Clinton administration official] co-authored (with Laura Chadwick) a paper concluding that the life prospects of children were diverging, with two distinct groups developing. One group had two parents with strong marriages, good jobs, and college degrees; another had single parents with poor schooling and lousy prospects. Ever fewer were in the middle. Especially disturbing, the effects were intergenerational: Both groups were passing along their prospects to their children. ‘There is a bifurcation in children’s life prospects that threatens to divide the U.S. into a society of haves and have-nots,’ Sawhill wrote. Wow, I thought at the time, this is really important. As far as I know, her work got no attention at all.”  

American society may be a mix of married vs. single, of “Modern Family” and “Seinfeld.”  But it’s not “Leave it to Beaver,” where rules, conformity and middle class expectations were the norm. That model was broken long ago as women clawed their way out of subservient roles, and drugs, sex and rock n’ roll defined a generation.  Yet President Obama and Mitt Romney constantly pitch their campaign messages to the other America—the one that fought for the American dream and the opportunities that came with that middle class life.  That life was not based on money, it was based on expectation and human potential.  Will either of these men have the political will and inclination to reinforce the norms that led to a better life?