You can tell a lot about a society by its taboos. Several weeks ago, America reeled when Adrian Peterson—the great NFL running back of his generation—was indicted on charges of “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” Peterson is alleged to have disciplined his son by “whooping” him—these are Peterson’s words, not mine—with a “switch.” The child, a 4-year-old boy, suffered cuts on his backside and thighs. For this act, which 50 years ago was commonplace, Peterson was arrested, suspended by his employer (the Minnesota Vikings), and publicly castigated by all and sundry.
Unremarked upon was the fact that the 29-year-old Peterson does not live with this boy and reportedly has seven children—that we currently know about—with five different women. Which illustrates nicely the changing mores in America: Corporal punishment is a scandal, or even a crime, but there is no judgment about men who father children out of wedlock and then abandon the vulnerable mothers and children. Yet only one of these pathologies poses an existential threat to our society. This problem, which scientists refer to as “family fragmentation,” is the subject of Mitch Pearlstein’s new book.
Most books about family breakdown are leaden, statistics-laden exercises, but Pearlstein has taken a novel approach: He interviewed 40 interesting, well-informed experts and condensed those conversations into a short, highly readable seminar. The interviewees range from Isabel Sawhill to Kay Hymowitz to Heather Mac Donald to Chester Finn, with the overall effect being that the reader feels as though he’s sitting in a coffee shop eavesdropping on a particularly stimulating and elevated discussion.
Pearlstein begins by asking how serious the problem of family fragmentation is for America. It’s a loaded question, of course. As Pearlstein says, there is “no aspect of life in which children who grow up in broken or never-formed two-parent families do as well, on average, as boys and girls who grow up with both parents.” (He knows this because his last book, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline, was one of those statistics-laden contraptions.) And he is correct: From incarceration rates to education to income to health, children raised by both mother and father are better off than children raised in any other family configuration. If you care about outcomes, and not some moral or ideological agenda, then the traditional nuclear family is the gold standard.
The trick is that the social capital created by traditional families is what undergirds the rest of our society. Sociologists and economists now understand that when this social capital is diminished, it causes all sorts of other problems. The crises of the welfare state, wage stagnation, income inequality, unemployment, the prison-industrial complex—all of these, and much more, can be traced to the breakdown of the family.
“Family breakdown is the shadow behind all sorts of other problems that people are much more easily conversant about,” explains the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz. Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution tells Pearlstein that “on a scale of one to ten, [it’s] probably a fifteen; it’s the biggest problem we have.” Because, as Heather Mac Donald, also of the Manhattan Institute, puts it, “The family unit is the absolute basis of society. It is responsible for civilizing human beings and creating adults who are capable of engaging in the economy. With families breaking down at the rates they are, our chance of being able to take care of other large economic problems recedes.”
David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, explains sorrowfully:
I look at the more than 70 percent of children in the African American community born outside marriage as well as the more than 40 percent for America as a whole and all the damage and suffering of children they imply, and I say if I could change just two numbers in America it would be those. It would not be unemployment rates, or new business starts, or people with health care coverage, or people with adequate incomes. As important as all those things are, if I could only change two numbers, it would be 70 percent and 40 percent.
Given all this, you might wonder how there could be any disagreement on the question of whether or not family fragmentation is problematic. Yet while most of the liberal academy has reluctantly acknowledged the objective superiority of traditional families, there are some holdouts. One of them, the progressive historian Stephanie Coontz, gives Pearlstein a window into how liberal thinking has been tortured by the breakdown of the family: