Family Ties
They bind us together and help us flourish.

Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center for the American Experiment



LOPEZ: “‘Family fragmentation’ has come to be the favored term of art for out-of-wedlock births, churning relationships, separations, and divorce.” Some of these things, in some cases, are good things, though, aren’t they? As even you admit, sometimes the teenager marrying the guy who got her pregnant isn’t the best thing for anyone.

: Needless to say, I agree, with the obvious case being the imperative of women getting out of physically abusive relationships.

: How do we talk about building marriage without offending people? And without being unrealistic?

PEARLSTEIN: It’s impossible to talk about anything as personal and intimate as marriage and the bringing of babies into the world without offending some people sometimes or even many people many times. We simply have no choice but to publicly talk about family fragmentation, immense as the problem is. Of course, we should avoid being clumsy and obtuse when dealing with the issue. As for reality, everything’s not going to neatly turn around like the end of a bad movie. Plugging along in faith might prove to be unrealistic, but what better option do we have?   

: What did Daniel Patrick Moynihan mean when he talked about “defining deviancy down” in a 1993 essay? How might he view the family situation today, particularly for those without college degrees?

: Moynihan wrote about how various behaviors in the United States once considered “deviant” and wrong had come, over time, to accepted as commonplace. Or, more precisely, he wrote: “I proffer the thesis that . . . the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is not abnormal by any earlier standard. This redefining has evoked fierce resistance from defenders of ‘old’ standards, and accounts for much of the present ‘cultural war’ such as proclaimed by many at the 1992 Republican National Convention.”

Words like “deviancy” and “abnormal” can seem deeply and needlessly insulting when they’re applied to families. Nevertheless, it’s inescapably true that when Moynihan wrote the aforementioned “Moynihan Report” in 1965 (using 1963 census data) the out-of-wedlock birth rate for whites was 3 percent. It’s now 10 times higher. It was 23.6 percent for African Americans in 1963; it’s now more than 70 percent. As for people without college degrees — in this instance “moderately educated” men and women with high-school diplomas — their marriage and nonmarital-birth rates a couple of decades ago closely resembled better educated and more affluent Americans. Now they more closely resemble those of low-income citizens.

If Moynihan were still alive, and if he had not veered back to the left after his invaluable residence in the neoconservative Right, it’s more than safe to say he would view behavior and data like these as symptomatic of defining deviancy down.

LOPEZ: Why is one-man-and-one-woman marriage important? Why won’t increased access to the institution, by letting men and men, and maybe other combinations of people, get married strengthen the institution? And if this is all about children, two men committed to one another is better than some of the other scenarios out there, isn’t it?

: My aim in From Family Collapse to America’s Decline has been to focus on what I see as the biggest threat to marriage, family stability, and child well-being in the United States: nonmarital birth rates and divorce rates that are much too high.

Having said that, I do write in the book that men and women are not interchangeable parts, and that one of the unfortunate products of the same-sex marriage debate has been the seemingly growing preference by academics and others to talk generically about “parents” rather than specifically about men as fathers and women as mothers. My assumption is that many people who write about such things, consciously or not, don’t want to give offense to gay and lesbian relatives, friends, and colleagues, or suggest they’re hostile to same-sex marriage, so they wind up blurring language. Let’s just say this is not conducive to recognizing the distinctive contributions made by men and the distinctive contributions made by women in raising children.

So, do I think that children, generally speaking, are best served by growing up with their biological mother and biological father, with everyone living under the same roof for 18 years or so? Yes, clearly. But do I also believe it’s possible for children to do well growing up in a same-sex household — more successfully than they might, say, in long-term foster care? Of course, for no other reason than that it’s regularly happening even as we speak. At any rate, same-sex parenting arrangements are an increasingly solidified fact of American life that’s not going away. And whether one thinks same-sex marriage itself is a great idea or a positively dreadful one, it’s clearer by the day that it, too, is here to stay. Reasons for this include the fact that large numbers of young people simply don’t see what all the commotion is about, as well as the fact that for every television series that celebrates and has fun with same-sex parenting and same-sex marriage, there are approximately zero that frown on them. And as we know, he who tells the stories wins.