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?