Former Vice President Dan Quayle is not commonly acknowledged as an insightful observer of the social condition. But in one of his most famous controversies, he gave America the closest thing we have to a silver bullet that would alleviate much of the nation’s poverty.
This observation is occasioned both by the royal wedding ten days ago that captured the attention of millions, and yesterday’s celebration of Mother’s Day, both of which draw us to consider the role of parents and their relationships in the state of our nation.
Back in 1992, Quayle created some controversy when he publicly criticized Murphy Brown, a character in a popular TV show, for having a child on her own. Quayle was critical that this role model for the modern, educated, professional woman “mock[ed] the importance of fathers,” and treated single parenthood as “just another lifestyle choice.” Of course, the stylish elite of both coasts derided Quayle as hopelessly hidebound and provincial. Hillary Clinton observed that he was typical of an administration “out of touch with America” and the growing ranks of alternative family arrangements.
But if there is one element in the human condition that is likely to carve a bright white line separating the haves and the have-nots, it is marriage. The statistics are multiple, overlapping, consistent, and staggering. For example, Kay Hymowitz found, in a report issued in 2006, that “virtually all – 92% – of children whose families make more than $75,000 live with both parents… [whereas] only 20% of kids in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents.” And it’s not just money. Hymowitz went on to say that “Children of single mothers have lower grades and educational attainment than kids who grow up with married parents, even after controlling for race, family background, and IQ.” Children of single families are far more likely to suffer from ill health, substance abuse, and to be victims of sexual abuse. And they are more likely to become single parents themselves, perpetuating the cycle.
It only makes sense. A successful professional like Murphy Brown may be able to buy quality care for her child, including tutors and chaperoned play dates. But the lot of the typical single mother is one of struggling to make ends meet, having too little time for bedtime reading, leaving the infant in a crowded, germ-ridden daycare or with relatives who are equally stressed. Without a father in the house and earning an income, the child misses important lessons about successful relationships, about responsibility, about stability.
The statistics are unambiguous, and our leaders know about them. But they seem to have done nothing to change the self-destructive arc of the collapse of marriage in our society. I remember reading Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter back in high school in the late ’60s. My English teacher gently but firmly condemned the persecutors of poor Hester Prynne, who she saw as the victim of an unyielding, callous morality.
Perhaps, but it’s easy to be sympathetic to an individual, or to be swayed by an anecdote. It’s a classic flaw in the liberal theology, and it leads to well-meaning policies that have a devastating effect. But there were reasons for the stern morality of earlier generations, and in shedding that, as we did starting in the 1960’s, we have lost something critical.
It started with an increase in the divorce rate. In 1960, divorce rates were low and out-of-wedlock motherhood even lower. But the social revolutions of that time changed all that. By 1980, college educated women were divorcing at a 12% rate, and for lower educated women as much as 15%. Those rates continued to rise before they leveled off, but a parallel development began that is still going strong – many mothers, particularly in the lower-income ranks, fail to marry at all. The problems are particularly acute among certain groups like African-Americans, where today a shocking 72% of all children are born out of wedlock.
It is no coincidence that the decade that started this also saw the beginnings of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the anti-poverty programs in which we have spent trillions to alleviate poverty, and we have wound up not only with more poor people but also more pathological behaviors such as unwed mothers, along with crime, drug abuse, and chronic joblessness. This anti-poverty crusade led to dozens of individual programs originally designed to make life less onerous for people having trouble making ends meet that have had the effect of creating an underclass dependent on the government.
Many programs actively militate against marriage. When a program provides aid for single parent families, it only serves as an inducement for parents not to marry.
But it was not just the government, although the existence of government aid to the unwed mother went a long way to remove the stigma of that condition. With the social changes that swept through society at about the same time – the sexual revolution that came with the birth control pill and with abortion, the widening of choice for women that was an attractive part of the feminist movement – the traditional family gradually came to be seen as one of a number of equally valid life arrangements. Women did not need men for financial support, or even, apparently, for parenting; men similarly did not need to submit to the marriage vows to enjoy connubial pleasures. And so marriage declined.
Sadly, this development did not predominantly occur among the professional classes, who could actually afford a Murphy Brown existence. Marriage rates at those levels stayed largely constant. It is among the lower income deciles that marriage rates have really collapsed, and those are the people least able to overcome the natural disadvantages that state imposes on their children.
So one asks, when there is such an obvious social pathology the correcting of which could work so much good, where are our leaders? Only among conservatives does one hear talk about the family and the importance of traditional norms. They have too often been sidetracked by more sensational “family values” issues like abortion and gay marriage. But at least they are talking about it. Among liberals there is little discussion of how much difference it would make if people just refrained from having children until they are married.
Programs could be changed to limit benefits to those whose life choices – and it is a choice – are not just anti-social but detrimental to those who depend upon them the most. Other programs could be set up to advise people of the clear dangers of out-of-wedlock parenting, and proliferated around at-risk neighborhoods. The message should be repeated again and again from pulpits around the country – how much did Jeremiah Wright talk about the importance of marriage instead of his condemnations of America?
The marriage of William and Catherine will not change much, because the moneyed classes already have the message. But for the sake of our next generation, we need to find ways to get people to the altar.