One of the dramatic social developments of our time—family breakdown, now known by the term of art family fragmentation—is seldom touched on by our top politicians. Yet with the United States probably leading the industrial world in this amalgam of out-of-wedlock births, divorces, and short-lived cohabiting relationships, it would be valuable for our leaders to find a way around the political pitfalls that dissuade them from addressing a consequential subject.
It did come up toward the end of the second presidential debate in October, when Mitt Romney, responding to a question about guns, said:
“But let me mention another thing. And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. . . . [There are] a lot of great single moms, single dads. But, gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea.”
And Barack Obama addressed the issue during the 2008 campaign, in a combination Father’s Day homily and campaign speech at a black church on Chicago’s South Side. He said:
Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models.
They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it. But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that too many fathers also are missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.
While the future president never uttered the word marriage, it is to his credit that he spoke boldly about the need for fathers to take responsibility. Another president who did so is Bill Clinton. In a 1994 speech to the National Baptist Convention, he said:
[Too many babies] will be born where there was never a marriage. That is a disaster. It is wrong. And someone has to say, again, it is simply not right. You shouldn’t have a baby before you are ready, and you shouldn’t have a baby when you’re not married. You just have to stop it. We’ve got to turn it around.
Several other presidents who touched on the subject failed to follow through in a significant way. Ronald Reagan, for instance, had Gary Bauer, an energetic conservative, lead a working group on families. But Reagan himself was preoccupied with other issues. George W. Bush charged Wade Horn, an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, with making the case for “healthy marriages” but seldom dwelt on such questions himself. And as for George H.W. Bush, if his senior advisers had recognized the significance of family breakdown, they presumably wouldn’t have panicked as they did when Vice President Dan Quayle spoke his infamous—but perfectly on-target—39 words during their 1992 reelection campaign:
It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown—a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman—mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”
One obvious reason for the prevailing presidential silence and inaction on family breakdown is that government is ill suited to orchestrate social behavior. Yet there are areas where public policy can influence family culture, and prominent among them is education. Our stubborn achievement gaps are related to family fragmentation: On average, children from fragmented families do less well in school than children growing up with their married father and mother. And for children who are short one parent in their lives—which often means short of structure as well—there is promise in pedagogical approaches aptly described as paternalistic.
In Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism (2008), journalist David Whitman described six schools that “share a paternalistic ethos supporting a common school culture that prizes academic achievement.” Although differently organized—the six include charter, parochial, public boarding, and ordinary public schools—these institutions all teach students “not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. Much in the manner of a responsible parent, these schools tell students that they need an ‘attitude adjustment.’”
Paternalistic schools, Whitman emphasizes, “can value freedom, curiosity, and self-expression” as thoroughly as other schools, while also “inculcating diligence, thrift, politeness, and a strong work ethic.” As for how kids do academically, in the three inner-city high schools he writes about, 85 percent of graduates go on to college, while boys and girls in the three inner-city middle schools typically score in the 80th percentile or better on nationally normed tests.
There is, of course, plenty here for adults involved in elementary and secondary education to dislike. The very mention of “charter, parochial, and public boarding schools” is a red flag to many, even before you get to a pedagogical spirit that is poles apart from the progressive ethos of much of education. But, son of a gun, many children from single-parent homes seem to do unusually well in these schools, in Whitman’s account.
In a similar vein, the late economist and Minnesota legislator John Brandl argued that religiously affiliated schools “provide some disadvantaged children with a substitute for the care they are not receiving from family and neighborhood—something possible but very rare in public schools.” Teachers, of course, need not work in religious schools in order to view their profession as a ministry, but it is only teachers in religious schools who are free to invoke in the classroom what they see as their and their students’ obligation to God. Neither sound arguments from economists nor well-established research findings that disadvantaged children, especially African-American girls and boys, tend to do better in private and religious schools will avail for more than small numbers of such students, of course, unless some form of public support—vouchers, tax credits, or “scholarships”—is made available, and these are anathema to liberal orthodoxy. One would like to believe that a lame-duck liberal White House, with less to fear from the big teachers’ unions, would feel free to think anew. It is unlikely. More realistic may be the possibility that President Obama, in discussing the education of children in broken homes, might return to the kind of morally rich and compelling rhetoric he used over four years ago in speaking about fathers. If he did— and especially if he were also willing to speak plainly about the benefits of marriage—even that modest step would be worth applauding.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment and the author of From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation.