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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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Americans don’t like to think of individuals, cohorts, or generations locked into a fixed social or economic condition. But with family fragmentation making it hard for people to achieve the higher educational level demanded by worldwide changes, debates about class are becoming difficult to avoid. 

Among the few who have not shied away is the writer Kay Hymowitz. In Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, she describes “poor or working-class single mothers with little education having children who will grow up to be low-income single mothers and fathers with little education who will have children who will become low-income single parents​—​and so forth.” That perverse cycle is producing what Hymowitz calls “a self-perpetuating single-mother proletariat.” She asks, “Not exactly what America should look like, is it?”

Not that high nonmarital birth rates and high divorce rates are exclusively a low-income phenomenon. Bradford Wilcox leads the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and Elizabeth Marquardt is director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. Their 2010 study describes growing family fragmentation among the “moderately educated” middle, the 58 percent of the adult population who have graduated from high school but don’t have four-year college degrees. Today, the marital patterns of the men and women in this group increasingly resemble those of the least educated. As Wilcox and Marquardt report:

- In the early 1980s, only 2 percent of births to mothers with four-year college degrees were outside of marriage. For moderately educated mothers the figure was 13 percent, and for mothers who didn’t finish high school it was 33 percent. The recent figures on out-of-wedlock births for these three educational groups are much higher: 6 percent, 44 percent, and 54 percent respectively. 

- Between the 1970s and the 2000s, the percentage of 14-year-old girls with highly educated mothers who lived with both parents was stable, at 80 to 81 percent. The percentage of 14-year-old girls with moderately educated mothers who lived with both parents fell markedly, from 74 to 58 percent, while the corresponding number for girls with the least-educated mothers fell, but less sharply, from 65 to 52 percent. 

Wilcox and Marquardt sum up: “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.” Moderately educated Americans are decreasingly likely to embrace “bourgeois values and virtues” such as delayed gratification, temperance, and an emphasis on education​—​the “sine qua nons of personal and marital success in the contemporary United States.” Most highly educated Americans, by contrast, still “adhere devoutly” to the sequence education, work, marriage, and only then childbearing, thus maximizing their chances of “making good on the American dream and obtaining a successful family life.” 

What, then, is the conservative remedy for all of this? Free-market principles, of course, are sound and fitting whenever economic hurdles are to be jumped. And a cultural and religious revival would be welcome, if hard to summon up. But what else might reverse the family bleeding? Here is just one idea.

Under normal circumstances, boys grow up and marry the women who become the mothers of their children. If, however, they reach adulthood unable to hold a job, stay sober, or keep out of jail, they quickly find that desirable women have little interest in hitching themselves to them. In communities where marriage is vanishing, it cannot be revived unless millions of boys (and girls) get their lives in decent order. Aimless or felonious men are not the only reason for the decline of marriage, but they are a sizable one.

Many of these young men grew up without their fathers and suffered what some call “father wounds.” Would it not make sense for such boys to attend schools properly described as “paternalistic”? These would be tough-loving places, like the celebrated (but still too few) KIPP Academies, with their Knowledge Is Power Program. Would it not also make sense to allow many more boys and girls to attend religious and other private schools, which have their “biggest impact,” according to Harvard’s Paul Peterson, by keeping minority kids in “an educational environment that sustains them through graduation”? 

That idea of “sustenance” deserves pondering. Minor wounds usually heal fast. Deep ones take longer. Children scarred by father wounds and other family absences and disruptions, very much including missing mothers, need sustenance of the most personal and vital kind. Such sustenance can be provided by some kinds of schools. I once asked a nun, the principal of a Catholic elementary school, what her school’s mission was. As best I remember, her words were, “To manifest God’s love to every child.” As educational mission statements go, this is one of the briefest yet meatiest ever devised. Schools with this purpose might powerfully nourish the boys and girls​—​fathers and mothers in training​—​who are most in need of food. 

One more reason for real school choice, then, is to prevent a divided and declining postmarital America from wrecking Paul Ryan’s plan to rekindle our prosperity.


Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His book From Family Collapse to America’s Decline (Rowman & Littlefield) is due out in August.



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