LOPEZ: When we talk about marriage, why does it have to be child-centered, especially since some couples won’t or can’t have children?
PEARLSTEIN: If children, for whatever reason, are not part of a couple’s life (maybe they’re in their 80s), marriage doesn’t have to be child-centered. But insufficient child-centeredness does starkly crop up whenever husbands and wives, for example, decide to split for non-weighty reasons, thereby needlessly hurting their children.
LOPEZ: Why has welfare reform been “basically impotent in increasing marriage rates”?
PEARLSTEIN: I don’t believe that manipulating welfare rules, tax incentives, or anything else of the cold public-policy sort can consequentially shape the most personal and passionate decisions people make. At the very least, it’s just not in the power of policy making to effect anything approaching a revival of marriage, even a modest one, in inner cities and other poor communities. A major reason is the sad-as-hell fact that far too many men living in them are simply “unmarriageable,” to borrow sociologist William Julius Wilson’s iconic phrase.
The problem is not just a shortage of good-paying jobs for low-skilled men, which leads to poorly educated, mostly minority men being judged as unviable mates by many women. The word also describes men with too many arrests on their rap sheets, too many drugs and too much alcohol in their bloodstreams, and too many occasions in which they’ve been abusive and violent toward the women in their lives. To put matters bluntly, why would more than a few women — especially if they could still collect TANF, SNAP, WIC, and the rest — want to spend the rest of their days with guys like that? One might also add here that urging a man to marry the mother of his children can be a quite convoluted matter when he’s had children with two, three, or more women.
LOPEZ: Can unmarriageable men be made marriageable?
PEARLSTEIN: Yes, especially in the sense that great numbers of men of all backgrounds get their lives in order all the time. Problem is, not enough of them do.
As I’ve mentioned, it is important to help men who have committed crimes clear their names, making it possible for them to leave behind their law-breaking lives and get on with productive ones — while making absolutely certain that protecting public safety comes first in all efforts to pardon, expunge records, and the like.
Following up on something I heard the late columnist Bill Raspberry once say, I also write about the importance of interrupting bad cycles by starting with the boys growing up in particularly tough circumstances, because they become the men that women frequently don’t want to marry, again for good reasons. There’s no secret here, but almost always the best way of getting such young lives in better order is to make certain they get a decent education.
But everyone says that about every kid. So what might work best for many boys (and girls) suffering what have been described as “father wounds,” the result of growing up with scars where their fathers should be? Two ideas expanded on in the book have to do with the nurturing spirit of religious schools (which is to say the importance of vouchers) and highly structured and disciplined institutions known by the felicitous term “paternalistic” schools (usually charter schools).
LOPEZ: What do you consider the single most important fact in your book?
PEARLSTEIN: It’s less a fact and more a cautionary perspective. Reformers on both the right and left have been quick in recent years to declare “no excuses” when it comes to demanding the educational success of low-income and minority students. It goes without saying the two sides tend to recommend different approaches for improving academic performance and reducing gaps, but the germane fact is that they both argue (publicly at least) that all kids can succeed regardless of their home lives. It’s an admirable idea, but is it attainable? Much of the book argues why it isn’t, including the fact that it’s extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to bring great programs to adequate scale.