Monday, August 29, 2005

Wax Nails It

An old law school professor of mine, Amy Wax, takes on the root causes and effects of single-parent families in today's Wall Street Journal. (Unfortunately, the article is for subscribers only at this time.) In "What Women Want" Professor Wax takes issues with "left-leaning scholars" who "insist that family breakdown is all about economic opportunity." In essence, these social scholars explain the disparity in the incidence of marriage between economic and social classes thusly:
Expectations for marriage have risen across the board. A house, a well-paying job, and enough money for a nice wedding are now needed to tie the knot. But wages at the bottom have stagnated or declined, so few of the unskilled can afford to marry. The authors' message is clear: Out-of-wedlock childbearing is simply a matter of money. Raise economic prospects and the problem will fix itself. That objective is best addressed through government programs, not individual or community reform.
With a B.S. from Yale, and M.D. from Harvard and a J.D. from Columbia, Professor Wax has never suffered fools gladly*, and she quickly calls the scholars on the results of their studies of 150 Phildelphia unwed mothers.
Nice try, but it misses the mark. The explanation is at odds with what these women say: Men's antisocial behavior, not their modest earning power, is the main obstacle to matrimony. The complaints are not of insufficient potential income, but of drug use, criminality, financial irresponsibility, violence, poor work ethic, defiant attitudes and, above all, flagrant sexual infidelity. That most boyfriends had children by other women was a source of great mistrust.

This is no different from other portraits of urban family life, such as Jason DeParles's "American Dream" and Adrian LeBlanc's "Random Family." The men in these books also openly reject sexual fidelity and flout the most basic standards of male responsibility towards their women and children. The women respond by seeing marriage as an impossible dream. These are not stories of rising expectations. Rather, these women want what women have always wanted: men who are steady, faithful, considerate, and industrious. What has changed is men's willingness to live up to these age-old standards. Indeed, Ms. Edin and Ms. Kefalas tacitly acknowledge this: They describe the one man who comes closest to displaying the traditional bourgeois virtues as "the neighborhood equivalent of a Rhodes Scholar."
The explosion of single-parent families among the urban poor is not a result of economic status, Professor Wax tells us. Rather, the qualities that make for economic success and orderly families, "foresight and capacity for self-governance," are no longer present at certain levels of society following the the "demise of clear standards" that resulted from the sexual revolution. The higher the level of education, the lower the incidence of single-parent families.

At bottom, Professor Wax is simply stating what should be common sense in any society:
Wise behavior can secure economic well-being. Men and women who stick together, stay out of trouble, and work steadily are rarely poor, and their children surmount poverty as well. Public money and policy gimmicks are no substitute for good conduct.
How simplistic! Clearly, the good Professor has lost it. I mean, what are we supposed to do? Say "just say no to pre-martial sex?" Tell people that having babies out of wedlock is a sure ticket to low income status? In short, talk to them as if they were children? Come to think of it, yes. That's exactly right...and beyond the will of this society. Sadly, until we can figure out as a society how to fund "good conduct" so that our esteemed politicians can get re-elected, I am afraid that such helpful lessons will be confined to the social class where they are already part of the curriculum. But that doesn't mean we have to piss our dollars away in the meantime, either.

*In the interest of full disclosure, as a newly minted first-year student in Prof. Wax's Civ Pro class, your host once found himself on the wrong side of the Socratic Divide. The words "Thank you, mr. rdr. We're all much stupider for your remarks" mark the low point of my law school experience. I hated her guts and livers, but I have always admired her brain.


KJ said...

Something like that happened to me in contracts class once. The day I didn't read of course.

spd rdr said...

Strange how that always seems to be the case.

portia said...

Ouch:) You have to tell us what you said that promoted her comment.