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Broken Families, Broken Economy

The real obstacle to growth

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By MITCH PEARLSTEIN
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Don’t look now, but the fiscal mountain blocking our path is rockier than usually advertised. Why? Because even if House Budget chairman Paul Ryan prevails on every contentious detail of his long-term plan for prosperity, family fragmentation​—​more severe in the United States than in any other industrialized nation​—​will make it more difficult than generally assumed to balance our books. 

Just Divorced

Very high rates of family breakdown, as it used to be known, are subtracting from what many American students learn in school and so holding them back economically. That harms the country by making millions of citizens less competitive than they should be in the worldwide marketplace​—​which, in turn, is dividing a nation that has never viewed itself as segmented by class. Governments, already stretched, are expected to offer remedies while social cohesion frays and increasing numbers of men and women, especially in the lower half of the income scale, grow more and more discouraged or angry. 

It’s easy to imagine, for instance, millions becoming less accepting than in the past of top CEOs’ making hundreds of times more money than they do. Conservatives’ attempts to debunk, say, tax increases on the rich as reflecting “class envy” and “class warfare” may be less effective than they have been till now. 

The sheer numbers are staggering. In round terms, about 40 percent of all births in the United States are out of wedlock. That figure for the entire population conceals wide variation: Thirty percent of white children, 50 percent of Hispanic children, and 70 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried parents. As for divorce, 40 percent or more of first marriages break up, with the odds increasing to about 50 percent for second and subsequent marriages. How could rates like these not be a major drag on the country? 

The linkages between family collapse and various forms of social failure were established decades ago. (A fine roundup of solid social science is The Case for Marriage, by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher.) Reams of sophisticated research have documented what everyday experience confirms: that family fragmentation damages enormous numbers of boys and girls. Not all children in tough family situations do poorly, but more than enough do. “It is very hard,” two sober scholars concluded in a 2010 Educational Testing Service report, “to imagine progress resuming in reducing the education attainment and achievement gap without turning these family trends around.” The very idea, they said, of a “substitute for the institution [of marriage] for raising children is almost unthinkable.” 

Others have developed ways of measuring the most obvious economic and social effects of family fragmentation. Perhaps the most elementary is to calculate how much money government spends to keep single mothers and their children out of dire poverty. In 2008, Georgia College & State University economist Benjamin Scafidi calculated that family fragmentation cost U.S. taxpayers $112 billion annually. And Scafidi purposely left out some quite substantial costs: 

- The study considered only female-headed households, although male-headed households represent about one-sixth of single-parent homes.  

- Scafidi disregarded a number of major government programs, notably the Earned Income Tax Credit, insofar as “existing data” didn’t allow his team to “quantify them with confidence.” 

- He disregarded the not-trivial sums public schools wind up spending on social problems tied to out-of-wedlock births and divorce.

- He did not attempt to monetize the human and social capital that stably married parents provide their children, though the increase in young people’s well-being reduces the likelihood of their requiring pricey governmental services when they repeat grades, burden the juvenile-justice and child-protective systems, and so on. 

- Scafidi assumed no benign effects of marriage on fathers’ earning power, although it is well established that stable marriages tend to increase men’s earnings while decreasing the likelihood of their committing crimes and being incarcerated.

- Scafidi assumed that married households avail themselves of governmental services to which they are entitled at the same rate as single-mother households, though in fact lower-income married couples are only about half as likely as single mothers to take advantage of such benefits. 

- Scafidi disregarded the Medicare expenses associated with unmarried adults and the elderly even though, as he noted, “high rates of divorce and failure to marry mean that many more Americans enter late middle-age (and beyond) without a spouse to help them manage chronic illnesses, or to help care for them if they become disabled.” 

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