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Scholar Examines the Decline of Marriage

April 10, 2002|JEFF RIVERS | HARTFORD COURANT

In "The Marriage Problem," James Q. Wilson, a leading social scientist and expert on crime and public policy, synthesizes and interprets the work of others to present stark and disturbing points about the decline of marriage as a stabilizing influence on society.

Wilson has had a long and influential career. For more than 20 years, he taught political science at Harvard. He has been a professor of management at UCLA and teaches at Pepperdine University.

In some ways, his book, published by HarperCollins, is a continuation of the scholarship that has made him an influential academic. And it comes at a time when marriage is being presented by some conservative policymakers as a way to sew up a society they believe is unraveling, especially at the margins.

The Bush administration has proposed a welfare plan that includes spending $300 million to promote marriage. It drew praise from the right and condemnation from the left.

Wilson says he doesn't think people can marry their way out of poverty or that groups or nations prosper because of their moral values, no matter how those values might be assessed and interpreted.

Still, he believes that there are two nations in America, and the one in which marriage is becoming rare suffers an array of social pathologies as a result.

In "The Marriage Problem," Wilson says, "The children of single moms are more likely than those of two-parent families to be abused, to drop out of or be expelled from school, to become juvenile delinquents, to take drugs and to commit adult crimes."

Wilson said he began the book with the assumption that changing attitudes toward marriage could be traced to the 1960s. But his research led him to causes centuries earlier. He believes the decline in marriage is rooted in the European Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the movement toward greater personal freedoms and individual rights can be traced to the Magna Carta in the 13th century. Wilson is most concerned about the near-absence of marriage among the black poor in America's big cities today. In the book, he quotes sociologist Elijah Anderson, who describes "a second culture of young, marginally employed, sexually adventuresome, socially aggressive young men who reject the idea of hard work and social conformity that made their elders successful."

Although the book offers little data to prove it, Wilson posits that this group's attitudes toward marriage results from an unholy trinity of the legacy of the Enlightenment, slavery and an African family structure that favors the extended family, or village concept, of child-rearing over the nuclear family.

Wilson says there has been little research on African families of 200 to 300 years ago, and contemporary research is limited to just a few African countries. Nevertheless, what he does know compels him to raise the possibility that the remnants of African family structures, coupled with the legacy of slavery, continue to hurt black Americans.

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