There is a tendency in Washington to miss the forest for the trees; the result often being different from what was intended. An example was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which, in the words of Thurgood Marshall, stated that the Constitution should be “colorblind.” Brown overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s (1896) “separate but equal” doctrine. While that was the right decision, an unintended consequence was that Brown led to affirmative action. The “colorblind” nature of the law was considered by some as too constraining on minorities.
Today some conservative African-Americans, like Jason Riley, Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, claim affirmative action has done more harm than good. Others see it as a new form of discrimination.
Changing mores have likewise affected attitudes toward the family. Cultural changes and laws now ensure that women have control over their own bodies and most states allow gays to marry. Both movements have merit, and I support them. But a consequence has been a decline in the nuclear family. There has been an increase in cohabitation, one-parent households and the number of children born out of wedlock. Data from the Census Bureau confirms those trends and shows that poverty is most common in single-parent families. Forty-five percent of children living with a single mother live below the poverty line, as do twenty-one percent of children living with a single father. In contrast, only thirteen percent of children living with both parents do so. Are correlation and causation the same? Empirical studies suggest that they are.
Retreat from marriage is a fact. In 1980, 78% of households with children were married couples. In 2012, that number was 66%. Of children living with only a mother in 2013, 48% had a mother who had never been married. A 2014 study by W. Bradford Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute and Robert I. Lerman of the Urban Institute documents the links between family structure and financial well-being. Wilcox and Lerman assigned an “intact-family premium” to those who were raised by their own biological or adoptive parents. Among all married adults who were themselves raised in two-parent homes, the annual average “family premium” was $42,000 compared to their counterparts who were raised in single-parent families. Statistics regarding the deteriorating concept of the family are startling; we know that single-motherhood is a fast road to poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percent of people in poverty – six years after the recession ended – is higher than it has been at any point since the early 1990s. And the Census Bureau’s numbers show that female households, with no husband present, have almost six times the poverty rate as do traditional households with a married couple.
There are many reasons for the decline in traditional marriages, and government is not blameless; in fact it has been complicit. A culture of dependency fostered by government has meant that many aspects of life have increasingly become the responsibility of the state rather than of families. Most of us have no desire to return to a time when the burden for the care of the sick and elderly fell solely on the family. But there is, at some level, a tipping point where dependency becomes a debilitating hindrance. As women entered the workforce in the 1960s, the demand for daycare increased. Medicare and Medicaid have become ubiquitous. We cannot imagine life without them. But dependency on government is a slippery slope. When we assign a particular function to the state, we lose some measure of independence. And government being government, bureaucracies get built. The right of Pre-K education has become a political issue, as we saw in the 2013 mayoral election in New York City. Where does it end? During the 2012 Presidential campaign, the Obama team produced a video, “The life of Julia,” which showed the cradle-to-grave experience of a woman – a frightening, dystopian world, in my opinion.
But the decline in traditional families has not been the fault of government alone. Young people need heroes and heroines – people to look up to and whose behavior to emulate. There was a time when these exemplars came from history, literature, or from the field of sports. Most, then, emphasized virtue and helping others, along with the need to study, work hard and play fairly. But consider our culture today – movies, video games and rap music that celebrate drugs and binge drinking. Many, if not most, extol licentious behavior and encourage violence. They belittle tradition. Hubris and narcissism define our age. We live in a time of “me,” exemplified by social media, You-tube videos, Selfies and “beta” marriages.
In an article a few years ago, Paul Vitz, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at New York University, wrote about the decline of families. Some of his findings were sobering when we consider the correlation between marriage and poverty. His studies showed that children of divorced and single parents are less likely to get married, and if married, more likely to divorce than those from two-parent households. He noted that (not surprisingly) cohabiting couples are less committed to marriage. He also found that cohabiting women are five times as likely to suffer ‘severe violence’ as married women and are more likely to have extra-marital affairs.
There will always be examples of incompatibility and divorce must remain a viable option. Marriage is not a magic elixir that will cure poverty. It requires sacrifice, as well as producing joy. Regardless of the ubiquity of birth control methods, unwanted pregnancies will persist. We will never live in a world devoid of single parents, and society must be accepting of changing attitudes toward gay marriage. In most families, a stay-at-home parent is not financially feasible, despite its obvious attractions. But we would be profoundly remiss if we ignored the lesson in the fact that odds favor the child brought up in a traditional, two-parent household.
What can we do? While we should not stigmatize unmarried mothers or gay couples, we should extol the good that a traditional family brings to children and to society. I am reminded of my second-grade teacher who instructed us in brushing our teeth. She emphasized the backs of our teeth, cleaning the gums and brushing the difficult-to-get-at teeth, like molars and premolars. Finally I raised my hand: what about the front teeth? Sometimes the obvious deserves attention. We seek equitable treatment for single mothers (which is only fair), but our tax laws penalize marriage and parenting. They should be changed. We (rightly) condemn discrimination against gays, yet we stand idly by as the nuclear family retreats. As politicians have sliced and diced the electorate into smaller and more manageable pieces, they have ignored the traditional family. Inequality is indeed an issue, but it is a symptom. One of its causes – the decline of the family – is what needs to be examined. President Obama is an example. He shows support for myriad fringe voting blocs, but speaks little about the life he lives – as a father, with a wife and two daughters – a life we should all admire. He just doesn’t talk it up the way he should. There is no easy panacea, but these are some of things we can do.
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