We spend a lot of time talking and debating about marriage, but not so much reflecting on what we need to do to support and encourage marriage and family life. Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment, is the author of From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. He talks about the state of the American family and what can be done to help it with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So are all our economic woes ultimately about family fragmentation?
MITCH PEARLSTEIN: The answer is no, as “ultimately” borders on “wholly,” and even though we’re in a holy mess, family fragmentation is not at the root of all of it. Yet does it have seriously consequential things to do with our various economic problems? Of course.
Think, for example, of how family breakdown leads inescapably to children’s (on average) doing less well in school than they otherwise might, including, and perhaps especially, in math and science. Now consider that econometricians such as Eric Hanushek at Stanford have empirically demonstrated how a nation’s capacity for innovation and economic growth are tied directly to the math and science skills of its people. Or more immediately, imagine the billions and trillions of public dollars that could be spent more productively if national, state, and local governments didn’t need to financially substitute, via a vast array of safety-net programs, for missing parents.
About 40 percent of all American babies are born outside of wedlock. This breaks down to about 30 percent for whites, 50 percent for Hispanics, and 70 percent for African Americans. As for divorce, although rates have stabilized since the 1980s, it’s estimated that about 40 percent of all first marriages end in divorce, with the ratio increasing to about 50 percent for second ones.
LOPEZ: Is just about every conversation you’ve ever heard about marriage painfully, desperately lacking?
PEARLSTEIN: Perhaps it’s simply a matter of my standards being low, or perhaps it’s because a large number of my conversations about marriage are with colleagues and friends who think about the topic a lot and brilliantly, but I can’t say I find “every” conversation about marriage “desperately lacking.” Although one thing I can say is that most people, not surprisingly, are not eager to talk about it to begin with.
Picture a dinner party, for example, with a tableful of middle-aged and older married men and women. Chances are that upwards of half of them are in second and perhaps third marriages. Outside of a self-effacing comment or sarcastic joke or two, where is there either fun or profit for such a group to entertain a serious conversation about marriage, given that such an exercise might well lead to very personal questions about why their own previous unions failed? This is not necessarily an enjoyable or safe way of spending an evening.
LOPEZ: “Boys and girls growing up in single-parent homes . . . generally speaking, do less well than young people growing up with their two biological parents by every important measure one can think of,” you write. Even if that’s true, marriage rates being what they are, shouldn’t we find better ways to make single parenthood work? Doesn’t focusing on these statistics just make single parents feel bad?
PEARLSTEIN: My guess is that for every person like me in public or publishing life who dwells on reviving marriage, there are dozens who see the quest as Quixotic and instead focus precisely on making single parenthood work better than it routinely does. How else, for instance, can you explain why government devotes infinitely more money — by way of TANF, SNAP, WIC, and the like — to making single-parenthood a viable proposition than it does to helping low-income men and women achieve healthy marriages? How else can you explain how a person can attend day-long academic conferences on families and never once hear the word “marriage” uttered? Or how else can you explain why it’s considered some kind of success whenever the importance of fatherhood is publicly acknowledged, even if accompanying words are never spoken about fathers actually being married to the mothers of their children?
As for “making single mothers feel bad,” it’s essential that both courage and grace be watchwords whenever talking or writing about single parents. But given the state of the debate, it’s clear that deference to presumed feelings has prevailed for a long time.