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interview: james q. wilson

Can you tell me about the importance of a family as a foundation in society? ...

The family is the core unit in social cohesion. Society is built around family structures, and when the family decays, society becomes loose at the hinges. I think that the family is the core of social structure and social cohesion, because it solves problems that human biology does not solve automatically. It gets men committed to the idea of caring for and raising the children they have fathered. It provides a way of managing property. It provides a way of limiting sexual access. Above all, it provides a way of supplying to children the core values that a society wants to inculcate in children.

Marriage is a fragile institution. Unless you enforce it by social mechanisms including shame for not being married, stigma for having a child out of wedlock, then we will see marriage continue to suffer.

What happens as that foundation [weakens]?

The family is becoming weaker in the United States and in most Western European countries. It is not becoming weaker in some other countries that are not Western. The weakness and the consequence of that weakness are not yet fully understood. We're watching the script being played out.

But so far, we know that children raised by a mother living alone without a father present are much more likely to have behavioral problems in school, much more likely to become delinquent, much more likely to become idle, much more likely to become sexually promiscuous, and much more likely to go on welfare when they grow up. So by all of these measures, the weakness of the family imposes real costs on society. What these costs will be in the long run, how they will affect the values in society, of course no one knows yet.

Describe the dimensions of this demographic [shift].

When [Daniel] Patrick Moynihan was a member of the Johnson Administration in the early 1960s, he published a well-known report about the decline of the black family -- or the Negro family, as it was then called -- as a way of explaining why the armed forces were having difficulty recruiting people that met their standards. He was widely denounced. He was widely denounced, because he said that about one-fifth of all black children were growing up with only mothers and no fathers.

Three decades later, when the proportion of white children growing up in single-mother families was now one-fifth and the proportion of black children growing up in single-parent families was somewhere between half and three-fourths, he gave a speech at Harvard University that was wildly applauded. He wasn't applauded because he'd solved the problem. Nobody knows how to solve the problem. He was applauded because when whites began to experience problems that only blacks had experienced, then suddenly, people began to realize we had something on our hands we did not know how to manage. ...

[And what are the causes of this decline in marriage?]

I wrote a book called The Marriage Problem, the central purpose of which was to try to explain why this occurred. My best guess at present is that it occurred because of the spread of individualism in Western society. Individualism is one of the great accomplishments of Western society. It makes possible a scientific invention, marked economies, personal freedom, political democracy.

photo of wilson

Wilson is a political scientist and author of The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families. He argues that families are the core unit of social cohesion in U.S. society and that family structure has weakened as the idea of individualism has gained a stronger foothold in our culture. He tells FRONTLINE, "Marriage is a fragile institution. Unless you enforce it by social mechanisms including shame for not being married, stigma for having a child out of wedlock, then we will see marriage continue to suffer." This interview was conducted on Aug. 22, 2002.

No one wants to get rid of individualism, but every culture has a cost. The cost of individualism is that people withdraw from their earlier commitment -- sometimes a religious commitment, sometimes simply a habitual commitment -- to social cohesion. One of the elements of social cohesion that individuals have withdrawn from is the idea that you should not have children unless you're married, and if you do have children without being married, you should get married immediately. That has gone. The shotgun marriage has evaporated.

This problem of individualism, of the extreme form of individualism we have today, is the leading cause of the problem. Not the only cause, but I think the leading cause. ...

So how big a problem do we have on our hands?

The magnitude of this problem is difficult to understand with statistics. I think the best way to understand it is to walk around poor neighborhoods in American cities, white or black, and discover that in an increasing number of them there are no fathers present. There are men present, but they're not fathers. They're mobile impregnators, on the streets, living in gangs, working in crime, selling drugs, going in and out of prison, playing around with alcohol and other women. In those neighborhoods, nothing that we call a neighborhood really exists.

That problem profoundly limits America's ability to solve its problems by making people richer. We do very well at making people better off financially, especially if they're married, especially if they're educated. But people are being left behind in larger and larger numbers. The question is how long can we leave them behind before we suddenly discover that the miracle of America is no longer miraculous? ...

[How is the U.S. dealing with these social changes?]

I think the United States, like most countries, is trying to deal with the symptoms of this profound social change rather than the causes. They worry about reducing crime. They worry about reducing drug abuse. They worry about reducing delinquency. All of these things are worth doing, and sometimes we do them reasonably well.

But then in many respects, these symptoms reflect this profound change in family life, and about that, we have done nothing. I think we've done nothing, in part, because many people think we ought not to try to tell people how to live and, in part, because other people believe that if we tried to tell them how to live, we don't know how to tell them how to live. We don't know how to improve family life. Therefore, we're going to continue to focus on symptoms rather than causes. ...

Moynihan opened that conversation and, to us in many ways, for many years, it's [been shut down] in a sense. Now it's being opened up again. Why?

The family problem is once again on the public agenda, in part, because whites now suffer from the problem to the same extent blacks suffered from 40 years ago. So much information has been generated by so many scholars about the harmful effects of growing up in single-parent families, and now new information about the harmful effects of growing up simply among cohabiting parents as opposed to a woman living alone, that scholars simply can't deny it.

Moreover, the early passions of the civil rights movement have faded. They've been replaced with debates about affirmative action quotas and targets and goals. This has made the civil rights agenda less a burden to public conversation than it once was. So you can say, "Of course we're in favor of civil rights, but we have other problems to deal with." And that conversation can now be conducted in America without destroying a reputation. ...

What happened to Dan Quayle [when he gave what became known as the "Murphy Brown" speech]?

Vice President Quayle was criticized for the Murphy Brown speech in large measure because of who he was -- a person not much admired by the media and by liberals -- than because of what he said. But of course, the criticism of him began to stick to what he had said.

But then, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a famous essay in The Atlantic Monthly magazine entitled "Why Dan Quayle was Right," in which she brought together all of the ... social science findings that pointed out how his argument about the problems of single-parent families is based, in fact, from reality.

Not long after that, other scholars who had long been working in this field began to generate even more data about how he was right. So that though now the Dan Quayle speech is largely forgotten, the message he gave is remembered, and has been enlarged upon. Most scholars now believe that single-parent families are clearly a problem, and it's not a problem simply linked to poverty.

Let's talk about [what you've described as the two nations developing in the U.S.]

I've made the argument, and others have made the argument that the nation is becoming divided into two nations; not a nation of the rich and the poor, but a nation of the married and the unmarried bearing children. ...

The effort of the United States to expand freedom and economic opportunity to everybody is now running up against this wall. The wall consists of women who are raising children without a father present and condemning those children to a life that puts them at a profound disadvantage to other people -- a disadvantage that cannot be corrected simply by extending the benefits of a free economy, because these children will not do well in school.

If they're females, they will have children out of wedlock when they're 15 or 16 years old. They'll repeat the problems of their mothers. They will live on welfare or whatever comes along to substitute for welfare in the future. Their children will not do well in school, so their grandchildren will have this problem. We will not be able to reach this second nation with America's chief resources, which are personal freedom and economic progress.

[Does this also hold for the black community?]

I think black America consists of two nations as well. There is a black America consisting of middle- and upper middle-class blacks, and working-class blacks who are married, who are doing well. If you look at the incomes earned by a young black couple, say age 25, they're indistinguishable from the incomes earned by a young white couple of the same age. They're finishing school at increasing rates.

But there is also in the black community, as in the white community, a second nation. That is the nation of unmarried mothers, and that nation is not getting smaller. In fact, it is getting larger. It has become dramatically larger in the last 40 years. Although the rate of change, the rate of increase has slowed down a bit, we are still at a condition in which half or more of the black children growing up in America will not be living with their fathers. Now, some will overcome this problem, but others will suffer from this problem. And we don't know how to deal with it.

Why? What's going on?

I think what you see among young African-American women today is the legacy of many decades, indeed I would say probably two centuries or more of neglected marriage. With the addition of welfare support and other things that prop them up, we now see teenage girls routinely having children while unmarried at the age of 15.

If you look at a city such as Washington, D.C., or New York and ask what proportion of the teenage African-Americans who have children are married, the answer is somewhere between zero and 3 percent. Ninety-seven percent or more are unmarried, and this is because their mothers were unmarried, their grandmothers were unmarried, their great-grandmothers were unmarried. If these data are correct, we have lost the tradition that marriage is the way a woman copes with the problem of having children in a society.

The real question is will these mothers or mothers-to-be change their minds and say "No, it may make me unpopular in the short run, but I'm not going to run the risk of having a child unless I'm married." ...

I've got a sentence here from [your book]: "Because the marital problems of the poor nation are more painful for society than those of the affluent one, this book will focus on the former." Why did you choose to focus on the poor in society?

In my book, The Marriage Problem, I recognize that the difficulty with marriage extends throughout society, among the rich as well as among the poor. But I focus on the poor, in large measure because they're without resources. They need help, and they contribute so powerfully to the problems that the rest of society has to endure, such as crime and drug abuse and gang activity. One could write a book about the family problems among the affluent, which would be just as important, but a bit less important because the people who are affluent have found ways of managing their difficulties to a greater extent than is true of the poor. ...

What are the root causes [for low marriage rates in the inner city?]

I think marriage rates in inner-city neighborhoods are so low because there is no model of marriage around that one wishes to copy, and no model of marriage around that society informally enforces on people. Marriage has become so rare and so scarce that it is not a routine way of identifying how girls and boys should be with each other. ...

[What about the liberals' argument] that, in fact, what we need to be doing is finding economic supports and jobs for people that will then create an environment [more conducive to marriage]?

There is the view that we can manage the marriage problem by redistributing money more efficiently. I think this is profoundly wrong. It is wrong, because once you hold income constant, being in a single-parent family still creates risks for children. It is wrong in another reason, because you cannot redistribute income except to people who consist of a husband and a wife living together and able to work and take advantage of jobs. It is wrong because redistributing income simply makes it, for some people, easier to raise children without a father present. They do it with more money, but they do it with no greater effect. ...

William Julius Wilson, a very distinguished scholar, has said that jobs are the problem. Jobs may be the problem for some people in some places, but it's not generally the problem. If you look here in Southern California at Latino immigrants, many of them illegal, arriving here. They do not have children without getting married. They do not go on welfare, because why? They have a cultural commitment to marriage. Now, that commitment will probably weaken if they stay in this country long enough. By the third or fourth generation, they will be behaving the way Anglo-Americans are behaving. ...

I do not think that by giving people jobs or giving them higher incomes or building better schools will encourage marriage. We have done all of those things in this country for the last 40 years. We have spent a huge fraction of the federal budget on improving schools or trying to improve them, on supplying housing, on creating jobs; and the rate at which people fail to get married and still have children has gone up steadily. ...

Can you tell me what the stark reality is [in terms of what one can do] stay out of poverty?

William Galston, who used to be an advisor to President Clinton, is now a professor at the University of Maryland, said that every person should understand that to avoid being poor you only have to do three things: finish high school, not have children until you are 20, and be married before you have children. If you do those three things, 8 percent of you will be poor. If you fail to do these three things, 79 percent of you will be poor.

[So what is the relationship between marriage and poverty?]

The relationship between marriage and poverty is bi-directional. That is to say, if you are poor, you are less likely to get married, and if you don't get married, you're much more likely, to be poor. We can statistically separate out the effects of marriage and income, and show that both contribute to social problems. But they are also closely related.

Is marriage a tool for fighting poverty?

Marriage is, I believe, a tool for fighting poverty. Not a perfect tool, but it's much better than the alternative -- not being married. We know from statistics that the income of people who are married will be roughly the same across racial groups. This suggests that there's nothing particularly peculiar about black Americans and particularly advantageous about white Americans. The difference is the rate at which people get married. ...

[Do you think that our society should be more judgmental in its attitude towards unmarried people?]

Americans, and perhaps Westerners generally, don't like to be judgmental, so we can no longer talk about illegitimate children. We have to talk about out-of-wedlock children, just as we can no longer talk about illegal aliens. We have to talk about undocumented aliens. We cannot point out to people that their behavior is the cause of their problems, because that is to judge the people.

I think this is wrong. I think the reason why marriage persists in some societies is that those societies are judgmental. Mothers tell their daughters, and fathers tell their sons, that they will go to hell or they will face severe social repercussions if they don't get married when they're going to have children. We don't do this. This is evident in the fact that, if you poll high school seniors today, nearly two-thirds of them will now agree with the statement that it's better to live together to see if marriage is going to work out before you get married -- a profoundly wrong judgment. But they believe it. ...

Society depends on both praise and shame to function. We're very good at praising people. We're very bad at making people feel shameful. I would like to see it possible for people to employ in a reasonable degree the concept of shame. But I think there's very little likelihood of this because, to use the word shame, that is to say, to blame people for their behavior, is to judge people. And we don't like to do that. ...

[Should we use shame and stigma as tools to regulate behavior?]

I think we should use shame, I think we should use stigma as a way of controlling the behavior of people who think that having children is a matter of popularity or fun and games. It's not a real commitment to the children's future. Marriage is a fragile institution. Unless you enforce it by social mechanisms including shame for not being married, stigma for having a child out of wedlock, then we will see marriage continue to suffer. ...

What is government's role [in solving the marriage problem]? Does government have a role?

Government's role with respect to marriage is like government's role with respect to drug abuse. Namely, its responsibility is to figure out what works. I don't think government can eliminate drug abuse anymore than I think it can ensure marriage. But it can use its resources to try ideas out in an experimental way, to see what will make a difference. I think that ought to be the federal government's chief role in this, because right now we don't know what works with respect to cutting drug abuse or to ensuring marriage.

Do we recognize the deterioration of marriage as an institution?

People at one level recognize that the weakness of marriage is a problem. But for most Americans, it's an invisible problem. It's located somewhere else. Most Americans live sheltered from the world in which the absence of marriage is commonplace. But we don't live sheltered from the world in which drug abuse is commonplace because our children, our children's friends, ourselves, we can get involved with it. So drug abuse is something high on people's agenda. Marriage is something that's not high on people's agenda.

What's the danger of [the government's] getting involved [in marriage]? The notion of whether it's government's role to be Cupid or to be bringing people to the altar -- what's the flip side of that?

I don't think government can play a direct role in managing marriage. Government cannot tell people to get married or escort would-be husbands and wives to the altar, although governments once did this. I don't think they can do it now. What the government can do is to figure out what kind of private, social, voluntary, church-based relationships will encourage marriage, and spend the money and supply the leadership to make these programs larger.

[Can we teach marriage as a set of skills?]

I don't think we could teach marriage as a skill the way we teach people how to drive cars as a skill. Marriage is not a skill. Marriage is a commitment. Now, there are skills involved. There's the skill you have to have to raise a child well rather than poorly, and that can be taught up to a point. There are skills on how to deal with husband/wife problems, and that skill can be taught by marriage counselors. But there isn't a general portfolio of marriage skills that somebody can teach, because marriage is not a skill. It's a commitment. ...

[What do you think has happened to the liberals in this argument?]

Liberals have been behind on the marriage problem for the same reason they were, for a long time, behind on the crime problem and behind on the welfare problem. They did not want to stigmatize other people. They did not want to hold back the civil rights revolution, and they did not want to abandon their hope that spending money would solve all problems.

But just as they recovered their voice on the crime problem and recovered their voice on the welfare problem, I think there's evidence they're recovering their voice on the marriage problem as well. There is a statement issued by a group of liberal and conservative professors at Morehouse College, a black college in the South, directing our attention to this problem. You get organizations such as the Urban League talking about this problem. So I think we will, at some point, get to a degree of bipartisan support that marriage is an important issue.

Are we convinced [that there is a] consensus about the importance of marriage and what we should be doing about it?

I think it's a very broad societal consensus that marriage is important, that marriage is suffering and that we ought to do more to help it. I don't think there's any doubt about that at all. ...

Political leaders are personally divided on this question, because they have invaded the family with all manner of regulations. They're concerned about child abuse. They're concerned about spouse abuse. They're concerned about the battered woman syndrome. They're concerned about all of these problems that afflict individuals in families but they won't speak about families as a whole as a problem.

But there's no reason why they shouldn't, because where is child abuse more likely? It's more likely where there's a stepfather present. Where is spousal abuse more likely? It's more likely among cohabiting than among married parents. So the problems are so intimately related that once you talk about the symptoms of the problem, you will be led eventually to talk about the causes of the problem. ...

What should our objective be? What are we trying to do here?

Our goal is to try to teach people, by whatever mechanisms of education we have at our disposal, that encouraging marriage among their children is the first responsibility of parents; unless, of course, the children don't wish to have children of their own, which many do not. But if they wish to have children -- the overwhelming majority do -- we have to tell them that marriage is the essential prerequisite, that you cannot have children without being married without putting the children at profound risk, unless, of course, you happen to be very wealthy, and not many people are very wealthy. Teaching parents to give that message is, I think, the central goal of the marriage movement. ...

Any special strategy [that we should apply to the] inner city about this [problem]?

I think in inner-city neighborhoods, the institution that can make the largest difference is the church. There are many churches in many cities across the country that are now working very hard on the marriage problem. There are churches that are trying to get the fathers to co-sign the birth certificate of the child as a way of encouraging marriage. There are courses and programs devoted to encouraging fathers to become real fathers and real husbands. I think this is probably the single most important institution for changing inner-city marriage.

[How big a job will it be to change people's attitudes about marriage?]

Encouraging marriage is not something that can be done with publicity or with slogans or with college courses. I think it has to be done retail; that is to say, you have to deal with people one at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time. That's why I think churches and similar institutions are so important for conveying this message publicly and forcefully, and reattaching the idea of shame to those who have children without getting married. ...

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