As I argued in the first part of this article, social science findings strongly suggest that Americans should encourage the formation of intact families that remain intact. David Popenoe concludes that “the proliferation of mother-headed families now constitutes something of a national economic emergency.” For decades, an overwhelming number of American political leaders have denied the relationship between family structure and a wide variety of economic outcomes. In their insistence that the effects of non-traditional family structures on children not be examined with much scrutiny, these leaders have sought to make parental divorce and living in non-marital relationships much easier. As Nicholas Wolfinger writes, “Divorce…is no longer construed as a moral failing.” Wolfinger and other social scientists view the sudden surge in divorce rates in 1963 not only as a turning point in the average well-being of American families, but also as the reason for the institutionalization of no-fault divorce in California in the 1970s. Over the next twenty years, every other state followed California’s fatuous lead.
First, in this era of political correctness, it appears that Americans are increasingly less likely to acknowledge what should be common sense—that “single parenthood and divorce make people and countries poor.” Harnish McRae continues by affirming that in order for these disconcerting trends to change, there must be an “altering of people’s attitudes.” Although we should always show compassion toward individuals who suffer from problems unique to non-traditional family structures, divorce, and pre-marital intercourse, none of these should be regarded from a morally neutral standpoint.
Second, in the name of compassion, people should acknowledge the unique challenges faced by children from non-traditional family structures. As Sara McLanahan states, “More than half of the children born…will spend some or all of their childhood apart from their biological fathers.” Unless more Americans acknowledge the unique challenges faced by many children in these family structures, the needs of so many youth will not only go unrecognized, but also unmet. In spite of these facts, American society has done little or nothing to defend the well-being of children in such a way as to reduce the liklihood of family dissolution. In fact, one can even argue that the U.S. government has instituted a tax system and implemented welfare programs that clearly undermine the strength of the family.
Third, American society should stop devaluing fathers and recognize that they are a crucial pillar of the family. Although parental divorce is far more common than it was prior to1963, research still indicates that children function best when they have both their biological parents present. Copious studies show that fathers and mothers each provide qualities that are very difficult, if not impossible, for the other gender to replicate. Not only have too many academics and leaders downplayed the effects of non-traditional family structures on children, but they also have devalued and in some cases even disparaged the roles that fathers play in the family. David Popenoe argues, “Fathers are important to their sons as role models. They are important for maintaining authority and discipline” as well as for helping sons develop “empathy” toward others. Research studies also consistently show that parents are far less likely than stepparents or other sexual partners to abuse children in the household.
Fourth, American society and particularly certain facets of society, such as Hollywood and the academic world, need to be more responsible in communicating to youth the importance of acting not only with integrity and sensitivity, but also with a prudent view of the long-term consequences of their actions. Since the 1960s, the average age of a person’s first act of sexual intercourse has lowered steadily. For youth to have their first act of sexual intercourse between the ages of eleven and thirteen is now quite common. In addition, during the 1960s until about 1970, only 2% of adults were cohabitating. Now approximately one-quarter of young adults engage in this type of relationship. Although many people identify these problems as those associated with racial differences, they are actually problems more closely connected to family structure than to race. "About 70% of African-American children are born out of wedlock, and many of the problems and challenges that people generally associate with African Americans are understood in a more complete and accurate context "when one considers this reality." Teaching responsible behavior among young adults is imperative.
Fifth, American society needs to encourage institutions that serve to strengthen the family, including the church and other groups that promote loyalty and justice. Scholars have argued for many decades that Christianity promotes economic prosperity by its direct promotion of the family and by its support for a value system that is consistent with bringing wealth both to individual families and to the nation as a whole. Clearly, the Bible encourages not only marriage, but also marital fidelity and the faithful raising of children. Scripture exhorts parents to love and serve members of their family and to form children into loving, responsible adults. The phrase “faith and family values” is commonly used largely because of the connection between the Bible and strong families.
Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary present one of the most thorough examinations of the relationship between religion and economic prosperity. Essentially, their research concludes that “religion is good for the economy.” Americans should value churches and other institutions that esteem and promote marriage, faithfulness, and raising children in the ways of integrity.
Quantitative research makes it clear that marriage is a key pillar of economic prosperity. Unfortunately, the present system of government in the United States discourages marriage, marital fidelity, and loyalty to one’s spouse. As Popenoe asserts, “Women no longer need men for provision or protection…they have access to government supported welfare programs.” To make matters worse, Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have said it right when he asserted that too many Americans were defining deviance down. An increasing number of social scientists believe that the matter of family dissolution is being taken far too lightly by American society at large. As Popenoe observes, “Because children represent the future of our society, these negative consequences are a social calamity in the making.” As long as non-traditional family structures are becoming more widespread in American society, stimulus packages, no matter how highly leveraged they are in debt, will not raise the United States out of its present malaise.
A nation clearly lacks proper priorities when the basic truths that have prevailed in its society for several centuries are mercurially discarded in favor of programs that are unproven, ineffective, and unnecessarily complicated. When such a large number of non-traditional family structures are surging, many economic policies are relegated to short-term effects. Americans would do well to substantially reduce the extent to which they rely on government for economic solutions to the nation’s struggling GDP and instead rethink their definition of a healthy family based on eternal principles that have stood the test of time.
William Jeynes is Professor of Education at California State University, Long Beach. He is a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute.