Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saving the American Family

My children are richly blessed. I often try to tell them that this is so, but I know that they don’t really understand yet. To them my pronouncements must sound an awful lot like parents telling their children to be grateful for the dinner they have because children in Africa are starving.

I know my children are blessed because I too was born abundantly blessed. Or you could say lucky, if you prefer that term. But I didn’t begin to understand how blessed I was until long after I graduated into adulthood. My wife was similarly born with perhaps the greatest blessing that a child can have.

For most of my lifetime I took this great gift for granted. I occasionally had glimpses of insight as I encountered people that lacked the benefits that I had. Sometimes I was amazed by how well some of these people did without such. At times I sensed an unspoken hunger to enjoy the richness I enjoyed, but which I was powerless to give.

What was this grand blessing? No, I wasn’t born into a wealthy family. My Dad spent most of his career as a blue collar worker. This greatest gift a child can have is to be born to a caring father and mother that are married and remain married to each other, and that are devoted to each other and to their children. Couple that with the blessing of being born and raised in the USA, and I am among a very small percentage of the most blessed people on the face of the earth.

But this blessing is become increasingly rare. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics recently found that out-of-wedlock births in the US have surged to 40 percent. The value of this data is that it reflects actual tracked outcomes rather than some kind of statistical modeling. AEI scholar Charles Murray gives a brief report on the report’s findings in this blog post, where he writes that “illegitimacy varies enormously by socioeconomic class.”

Murray says that he’ll be spending the next little while continuing to delve into the study so that he can develop more concrete findings. Murray’s post focuses only on “whites of European origin” to rise above the entangling “issues of race and ethnicity.” He doesn’t appear to have any racist agenda, but seems to want to get at the data that produces the clearest picture. Murray contrasts figures from “the early 1980s to the mid-1990s” with current figures.

A graph in Murray’s post from the earlier period divides women in four economic groups based on family annual income and education. The top two tiers “almost never had babies without a husband,” while “white women with no more than a high school education in low-income households were having nearly half of their babies without a husband.” The overall illegitimacy rate for this group was 11 percent.

Between the mid 90s and 2007 the rate jumped to 28 percent. That is a stunning increase over a relatively short period of time. The current rate among the overclass, however, remains almost the same as during the earlier period, while the middle class rate has jumped from 4% to 20%. The working class rate has gone from 10.2% to 40%. The underclass rate has surged from 44.5% to about 70%.

Murray is surprised “that the elite could remain this segregated for this long on something as basic as family structure.” He warns, “But while the elite may continue to live in its pleasant little world for a while, that world is not going to bear much resemblance to the rest of America. And, increasingly, the rest of America isn’t going to bear much resemblance to the America we used to celebrate.”

Picking up on this, the Editors of the National Review write that “American society could become alarmingly polarized.” This sounds eerily similar to John Edwards’ populist 2008 presidential campaign message about “two Americas.” The NR Editors note that as bad as conditions are among non-Hispanic whites, matters are much worse among blacks and Hispanics, where 2007 illegitimacy rates were 72 percent and 51 percent respectively.

Why should we care if America no longer bears “much resemblance to the America we used to celebrate?” Our forefathers celebrated an America where slavery was legal. They used to celebrate an America where women and non-whites couldn’t vote. So what if fewer children are born to married parents?

The reason that in-wedlock births are so important is that by every single measure — economically, academically, socially, mental health, physical health, etc — children born to a married father and mother generally fare better than children born out-of-wedlock or to non-traditional couples. Moreover, children born to a father and a mother that stay married to each other throughout life generally outperform in every category children whose parents end up divorcing. Researchers have found that enduring even unhappy marriages (as long as abuse isn’t occurring) produce better outcomes for children than do so-called happy divorces.

Marriage patterns are largely a function of culture. The NR Editors invoke Pat Moynihan, who said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” These editors are calling for government action to influence the culture to shore up the failing traditional family.

Tipping their collective hat to the traditional liberal concern of inequality, the NR Editors write, “The most important social shift has been the deterioration of middle- and lower-income families. Over the long term, strengthening those families is the best way to reduce inequality.” Various programs that take from the haves in order to give to the have-nots are paltry excuses for striking at the real heart of the problem.

But what is it that government should do? Very few states are willing to consider scaling back decades-old liberalized divorce laws. Many states have passed constitutional amendments that define marriage as being between one man and one woman, but a similar federal amendment failed spectacularly. Besides, other states have broadened the definition of marriage to the point that it begins to lose meaning and other states are assaying to do so.

The NRO Editors say “that programs designed to help disadvantaged children should respect the primacy of the family.” That sounds good, but what does it mean? Locally, this has sometimes led to family courts putting children into what have been suspected — and later proven — to be unsafe environments in the name of preserving of the natural family. For all of the NR Editors’ concern, they articulate only a muddled message about what should be done.

My life has been immeasurably blessed by my parents’ choice to get married and to continue a devoted relationship with each other and their children throughout the rest of their lives. My wife has been similarly blessed by her parents’ choices (and so have I). My children are garnering similar blessings now. I’d love for everyone to enjoy these kinds of blessings. But it looks like our culture is currently headed in the opposite direction at a fairly rapid pace, despite some examples of people saying, “Enough is enough,” and getting it passed as public policy.

After decades of tolerating widespread destruction of the family, advocates have finally started putting up serious resistance in recent years. But the battle plan looks more like the last-ditch defense of weakened lines than a strategy to win hearts and minds, and thus, win the war. I can only imagine what studies about family patterns will show a decade from now. And believe me, it’s not a pretty picture. Can the situation be salvaged?


Jesse Harris said...

The number one determinant for if a young boy of 7 will grow up to be a criminal is whether or not he grew up with his father. No other metric, be it education, income, or geographical location, has such a strong correlation. If that isn't reason enough to push harder for stronger families and getting couples to stick through the tough times, I don't know what is.

Democracy Lover said...

I think we need to examine the possibility that the increase in out-of-wedlock births and the "deterioration of of middle- and lower-income families" has been caused not by increased divorce or another cultural issue, but by the conservative economic policies of the last 30 years that have put middle and lower income families under increased stress.

- From 1977 - 1989, the wealthiest 660,000 families gained 75% of "average pretax income" increases, while most middle income families saw only a 4% increase -- and those in the bottom 40% of income had real declines.
- The cost of medical care and household costs of medical care rose 50%, 1970 - 1990, in constant dollars.

Add to these facts the huge increase in housing prices over the last decades, the destruction of labor unions, off-shoring of jobs and other measures that affect job security and you have a tremendous pressure on families that simply did not exist a few decades ago.

These changes were not just coincidence. Conservative economic policy has funneled wealth to the wealthy and cut services that support middle and lower class families. These are political problems and they will require political solutions: increased social security benefits, single-payer universal health care, a coherent industrial policy, strong financial regulation, and a return to a progressive tax structure that requires those who benefit most to pay most.

Jesse Harris said...

And they say that Republicans are doubling down on bat-crap crazy...

Reach Upward said...

Conservatives do not think that there has been much movement toward conservative principles during the period cited. (Unless some kind of evil caricature of conservatism is used as a measuring stick.) They see quite the opposite trend.

The states that follow the progressive policies suggested have the greatest rates of income disparity. The states with the least income disparity are those that lean the furthest away from these policies. It's kind of like how real income disparity in the good old USSR was as great as (and perhaps greater than) in the most capitalist nations of the time. Go figure.

The entrance of women into the income producing work force -- something that was long sought by both business interests and supporters of women's rights -- has paralleled the increase in the liberalizing of divorce laws and the increase in divorce rates. For the first time in history, many women could afford to survive without a husband. But this has not come without a cost to society.

I'm not arguing against women working or equal pay or any such thing. I'm merely stating a known correlation: a condition, not an accusation or the preface to a solution. I am suggesting that it might be helpful to realize the correlation, understand that we're never going back to the way it once was, and to think about positive ways to go forward and to deal with the consequences.

Children should be taught what conditions produce the best outcomes for children and they should be encouraged to follow those patterns. They should be taught that while they are free to make a broad variety of lifestyle choices, those choices produce real and long lasting consequences for their own offspring and for society as a whole.

Frank Staheli said...

Jesse's statement about "the number one determinant" is the reason that I go out and play catch with my boys just about anytime they ask me to, even if I'm wiped out because it's been a bad day at work.

I really didn't want to take them to the amusement park last Saturday, but I'm glad I did! It's those kinds of memories that last boys a lifetime.

Democracy Lover said...

Well, you can call the policies of Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush whatever you want, but the fact is that the particular agenda of reducing government spending for human needs, lowering taxes on the wealthy, and removing the social safety net have done a great deal to make life more stressful for middle and lower income Americans.

As for your state-by-state analysis, yes the largest states that have the largest number of financial companies and the largest immigrant populations have the greatest income disparity and they are somewhat more liberal than the low population states.

Women entered the work force because they were forced to do so. In the 1950's a man making the equivalent of $40,000 could support a family of 4 on his income alone. There were no worries about high health care costs, housing prices were low, most employers had fixed benefit pension plans, and there were high-quality public schools, low or no-tuition public universities and the GI bill. As we moved into a boom-and-bust economy driven by neo-liberal economic policy, pensions disappeared, health care and housing prices skyrocketed, aid to education dropped, and the only way to maintain a decent standard of living was for both parents to work.

We can't fix this by teaching children that it would be better for one parent to stay home with the children while supporting government policies that make it impossible to have a home on one income. It's not personal choices that got us into this mess or that can get us out of it. It is a political problem caused by unquestioning devotion to idiotic economic and social policy.

Reach Upward said...

Decreasing the social safety net?! In what world did that happen? The boom and bust cycle started in the 50s?! What was all of that stuff that went on starting in 1929 and well into WWII?

A man could once support a family of four on $40K because overall tax burden took much less of his income and people were generally satisfied with less stuff. The excess in real dollars that it now costs to support a family of four is directly proportionate to the increase in the number of square feet of living space per person. We have decided to live in bigger houses and in houses that have fewer occupants. Divorce and single parent households lend to this trend as well.

There are lots of reasons for the state in which we find ourselves today and not all of them are politically driven.

Hyrum said...

1) Social safety nets are, and have historically been, much stronger when not run by governments.

2) Even today, a family which plans early and makes sacrifices can have only one parent work for money. No woman is forced to work outside the home. (This is not a commentary on the difficulty of working in the home - one of the hardest jobs there is, btw.)

3) The cost of medical care is driven by government medical meddling, not the other way around. Medicare/Medicaid (and related fraud) have done more to drive up the cost of health care than any other factor.

4) Citing average pretax income makes no sense. Cite take-home income if you want to compare standards of living.

5) Labor unions forgot their mandate and killed themselves. My step-father belongs to a union. Simply from what I've seen his union do, I would never join one.

6) Off-shoring of jobs does not eqate to fewer jobs for Americans. Job count is not a zero-sum game.

7 - and most important) The federal government is a _constrained_ agreement - it is not a one-size fits all answer to any community problem that comes along. To attempt to use the Federal Government to solve society's problems is akin to using a pickaxe to drive a nail - it's the wrong tool, and somebody's going to get hurt. "Government spending for human needs" and a "social safety net" are not part of the charter (i.e. constitution) and violate the intent of the agreement between the states. They constitute a bad faith use of the good will represented in the constitution.

- "We can't fix this by teaching children that it would be better for one parent to stay home with the children while supporting government policies that make it impossible to have a home on one income."
It's not impossible, and it's not government policies that made it hard where it is hard.

-"It's not personal choices that got us into this mess or that can get us out of it."
What? The article cited is about family and children. How is having sex/having a child anything BUT a personal choice?

-"It is a political problem caused by unquestioning devotion to idiotic economic and social policy."
Idiocy is in the eye of the beholder. I personally believe the currently proposed economic and social policies are the idiotic ones.