AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
The recent electoral victories in Virginia and school boards around the country are extraordinarily heartening. Pushback against politicians and administrators who have hindered and corrupted learning for American children in our public schools is a good sign that Americans are now seeing the dangers presented to the next generation. But American children have some stiff winds coming from decades of inattention or, in some cases sabotage of, the state of family structure in America. Analysis over the last few decades, including a 2019 study from Pew Research, has shown the extent of America’s problem of fractured and incompletely formed families and the result—that too many children grow up in single-parent households. Sadly, the Democrats are still pushing legislation that will bring on more bad news—and they’ve had help from House Republicans. On Friday, the Democrats were aided by thirteen House Republicans in advancing the Build Back Better bill, which pushes incentives that will harm the American family again.
American family problems aren’t exactly new. As Stephanie Kramer wrote in her introduction to the 2019 Pew report, “For decades, the share of U.S. children living with a single parent has been rising, accompanied by a decline in marriage rates and a rise in births outside of marriage.” In an important 2018 essay titled “Two Nations Revisited,” looking back on James Q. Wilson’s 1997 speech upon receiving the Francis Boyer Award from the American Enterprise Institute, Eberstadt cited the famous Harvard political scientist’s understanding of what was creating “two nations” in our own nation. It was not income or social class, but instead family structure that was creating the rift.
“Children in one-parent families,” Wilson said, “compared to those in two-parent ones, are twice as likely to drop out of school. Boys in one-parent families are much more likely than those in two-parent ones to be both out of school and out of work. Girls in one-parent families are twice as likely as those in two-parent ones to have an out-of-wedlock birth. These differences are not explained by income….children raised in single-parent homes [are] more likely to be suspended from school, to have emotional problems, and to behave badly.” Wilson joked, Eberstadt recounted, that there was so much evidence for this reality that “even some sociologists believe it.”
In the years since, scholars including Carol Hymowitz, Mitch Pearlstein, and Charles Murray, among many others have vindicated this judgment. While some have tried to say that many of the problems in black and other minority communities are caused by racism, personal and “systemic,” thus getting away from the questions of family structure, Murray’s 2012 Coming Apart showed that this thesis doesn’t work. His subtitle, “The State of White America, 1960-2010,” indicated what he was looking at. It doesn’t matter what color the people are, single parenting is a risky proposition for children.
Yet in the 2019 report, as Kramer summarized, the U. S. had the highest percentage of children living in single-parent homes of any country in the world. According to Pew, the American rate is 23% while the world average is 7%. It’s true that the developed countries of Europe seem to be the worst generally: the next highest rate was the U.K.’s 21%, while Russia sits at 18% and Denmark at 17%. China, meanwhile, had a rate of 3%. Whatever weaknesses they have in terms of population derived from their one-child policy, they still have children in families.
Of course, some statistics find that the U.S.’s numbers are even higher. In Mitch Pearlstein’s 2011 book, From Family Fragmentation to America’s Decline, the author put the number at 33%. The discrepancy is due to differences in determining what qualifies as a single-parent home. Pew’s work only counted those children who lived with a single adult as living in a single-parent home. Others count also those children living with a parent and another adult (often a grandparent or a cohabiting adult unrelated to the child) while a few studies will count even those children living with two unmarried cohabiting parents.
Why would a study count children living with multiple adults, even their cohabiting biological parents, as children living in single-parent homes? There’s a good reason for counting in a more expansive way, at least with regard to cohabiting partners. As Murray observed in Coming Apart, “If you are interested in the welfare of children, knowing that the child was born to a cohabiting woman instead of a lone unmarried woman should have little effect on your appraisal of the child’s chances in life.” If we’re looking at outcomes for children, cohabitation does little on average for children’s chances at physical, mental, and emotional health—or lifetime success.
And yet despite the fact that some sociologists believe even this, the Build Back Better bill creaking its way through Congress again is on track to add incentives to make sure that children are not raised by married moms and dads. In an October 31 commentary in the Wall Street Journal by Casey B. Mulligan, the University of Chicago economist noted that a new federal child care program of “regulated” facilities created as part of the bill includes a provision incentivizing single-parenthood for the youngest of our citizens. “For each year that a couple has children under 5,” Mulligan notes, “being unmarried could easily save them over $10,000 annually in child-care costs compared with being married.” Not only that, but affordable housing benefits in the bill will also include a marriage penalty.
Add to this the incentives in the bill against working and you have a disaster in the making. Such regulated childcare programs have the prospect of being as humane and useful as any government bureaucracy. Mulligan notes that a similar “regulated” system in Quebec was recently evaluated, with the reported results of “increases in early childhood anxiety and aggression” and “little measured impact on cognitive skills.” The end result for the kids in this regulated system were: “worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.” Mulligan concludes that the bill, if passed, would incentivize the loss of about five million jobs over the next four years. “Meanwhile, more kids will come home from a regulated child-care facility to an unmarried parent who is out of work. More families will be willing to tolerate this kind of care, regardless of the quality of cognitive or social development, since the price is ‘free.’” Yes, an unmarried dad might be in the picture somewhere, but that, as we noted, is not enough for families to thrive.
The law is a teacher and also a persuader. Charles Murray’s older work, such as his book Losing Ground, argued that the incentives of the Great Society led to catastrophic results in family structure. Build Back Better is just more of the same and it’s now on the docket. Just Friday the House passed the $1.2 trillion “infrastructure” bill with thirteen House Republican votes and in the same day passed a procedural motion allowing them to consider the Build Back Better bill.
Republicans had better be a bit more disciplined this time in defeating the second of these disastrous bills. If not, it will be a lot harder to build back America’s families as our government pays them not to act as families.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.
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