Saturday, February 25, 2012

Crisis in the Family

The fundamental crisis that is facing our nation--more fundamental that the economic, the fiscal, or anything that foreign nation is threatening--is the family crisis. I address this matter in my column this week ("The Family Crisis"), making reference to the much talked about New York Times article that summarized a recently released report and a Heritage Foundation report last year on the same topic.

The New York Times reports:

After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage. ... Among mothers of all ages, a majority — 59 percent in 2009 — are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.
Child Trends, the group that produced the study, adds this:

While more than half of these nonmarital births (52%) occur to women who live with the father of the baby in a cohabiting union, these unions are less stable than marriages. Children born to unmarried parents are more likely than those born to married parents to be poor and to see their parents’ union end.
Marvin Olasky's column alerted me to this report.

Last June, Chuck Donovan at The Heritage Foundation called for "A Marshall Plan for Marriage." This is the summary of his report:

Marriage and family are declining in America, following a trend well established in Europe. This breakdown of the American family has dire implications for American society and the U.S. economy. Halting and reversing the sustained trends of nearly four decades will not happen by accident. The federal, state, and local governments need to eliminate marriage penalties created by the tax code and welfare programs and instead use existing resources to better encourage and support family life.
The report included this interesting chart:

After summarizing these reports, I consider that at times of national crisis a statesman emerges to lead the country out of it. Our "crisis of a house divided" over slavery brought forth Lincoln. The Nazi shadow over the continent of Europe brought Churchill out of the wings. Our national malaise in the 1970s gave Reagan his moment. But that is when the crisis has a happy ending. I see no adequate leadership in any direction on the family front. Rick Santorum is offering himself for that role but in my judgment he has neither the stature nor the judgment for the great statesman's role. The man in the sweatervest is neither a Lincoln nor a Reagan.

In my concluding thought, I cast an eye to the current president. "President Obama has a nice family. If he were to take up this cause with energy and understanding, he could become a great president in his second term. Sadly, he seems too committed to advancing the causes of the problem, such as the paternalistic welfare state, to appreciate the nature of the problem and its remedies."

The day after I published this column, my TIME magazine arrived in the mail, carrying with it Rich Lowry's column on the same subject! ("Just Not the Marrying Kind," March 5, 2012; p.13.) He shares some more stunning figures.

The benchmark for discussions of illegitimacy is always the controversial 1965 report on the perilous state of the black family authored by the liberal intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When he wrote it, 24% of births among blacks and 3% of those among whites were out of wedlock. It turned out those were halcyon days of traditional family mores. Today out-of-wedlock births account for 73% of births among blacks, 53% among Latinos and 29% among whites.

The unraveling that began in the underclass has crept up the income ladder, although illegitimacy is still a class-based phenomenon. Almost 70% of births to high school dropouts and 51% to high school graduates are out of wedlock. Among those with some college experience, the figure is 34%, and for those with a college degree, just 8%.

With reference to the merely 8% of out-of-wedlock births that occur among college graduates, the TIME article remarks: "That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education. 'Marriage has become a luxury good,' said Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania."

Lowry calls this "our most ignored national crisis." For my part, I begin on the same note, but more expansively: "Our nation is in a crisis. Yes, all eyes are on the financial crisis and the stagnant economy, and less certain but potentially ominous is the prospect of a nuclear-armed and religiously fanatical Iran. But it is possible that we might revive the economy at home and disarm our enemies abroad while losing the nation itself. I’m talking about the disintegration of the family that is quietly reaching crisis proportions."

Lowry calls for the sort of public campaign that usually attends a national crisis. Is it environmental? We know how to flood the discussion on all levels with that concern. In (what I am told is) my upcoming article in Relevant magazine, I call for the same national mobilization.

We need a twenty year policy agenda to strengthen and protect marriage and family at least as tenaciously as we protect waterways and wildlife. Ronald Reagan appointed a Special Working Group on the Family to examine all policies for their impact on the family. That was good, but the work needs to be less reactive. Thoughtfully crafted and fully coordinated family policy at every level of government should recognize the requirements for and impediments to healthy family life. Conservatives are rightly hawkish over how a tax or regulation will affect small business and job creation. The family deserves the same protective scrutiny.
The striking difference between Lowry's column and mine is that whereas I look to the president and find him an implausible hero on account of his policy commitments, Lowry looks to Michelle.

It's not hard to think of a spokeswoman. Michelle Obama is the daughter in a traditional two-parent family and the mother in another one that even her husband's critics admire. If she took up marriage as a cause, she could ultimately have a much more meaningful impact on the lives of children than she will ever have urging them to do jumping jacks.
The First Lady cannot turn things around on her own. We need someone who can redirect tax policy, restructure welfare programs, and refashion the way government presents what it does and the way it addresses citizens in their fragile social situations. But her influence would certainly get the ball rolling for a change in cultural attitudes and perhaps for future administrations to act on that momentum. The First Lady could conceivably have a better second therm than the Europeanizer-in-Chief.

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