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.
LOPEZ: “My ultimate bias and fear are that the educational and related problems our nation faces are worse than most people in and out of both education and public life generally acknowledge — at least publicly,” you write. So what do they say privately that they won’t publicly?
PEARLSTEIN: After laying out at least a portion of my argument, I hardly ever hear anyone, regardless of vocation or sphere, privately disagree when I say it will be impossible — not just hard, but impossible — to eliminate achievement gaps except in isolated instances as long as differences in nonmarital birth rates between whites on the one hand and African Americans and Hispanics on the other remain as huge as they are. We nevertheless hear daily suggestions by “reformers” that achievement gaps could, indeed, be closed if only we somehow found the wisdom and will to increase school budgets, excise racism, or otherwise get “serious.”
Note, by the way, the elasticity of the commonly used “close” when talking about achievement gaps. To some it means eliminating them completely, while others define it as simply reducing them. If the word and concept are accepted as having the latter definition, success can be claimed too easily.
LOPEZ: You also write: “The more I’ve learned and pondered about the breakdown of marriage, both in America and elsewhere, the more I’ve come to increasingly appreciate just how deeply embedded and complex its causes are and how unlikely more than marginal progress in turning matters around will be made in any near term. More than a sobering thought, it’s a depressing one.” So why do you bother writing about it? What, honestly, can be done?
PEARLSTEIN: When I first read (about 35 years ago) the 1965 “Moynihan Report” about what were then considered high rates of out-of-wedlock births in African-American families, the problem he described seemed manifestly obvious and severe to me. And when I learned how Moynihan had been pilloried as a racist, largely by the Left, and how questions of family breakdown were essentially removed from public discussion for many years — which, of course, exacerbated the calamity — my anti-P.C. juices took over, and I’ve been occupied by such matters ever since. It needs to be understood that, far from being a racist and a victim-blamer, Moynihan attributed family breakdown in the black community entirely to white racism. There wasn’t a racist punctuation mark in the report, which was written while Moynihan was an official in LBJ’s Department of Labor.
As for what can be done, the quickest and shortest answer is, let’s see where things stand a generation from now. Will we have made any progress? I can conceive of making a fair number of men, for instance, more marriageable by helping them clear their names after arrests and incarcerations, therefore helping them get good jobs and build decent careers. But will we be able to get the toothpaste back in the tube, as some people like to put it? I really don’t know. But it’s not as if our culture hasn’t changed in fundamental ways over the last two generations, often for the better. Think of racial and religious tolerance.
LOPEZ: Does family fragmentation really hurt kids’ academic performance, or is that contention part of a kitchen-sink strategy by social-issue-clinging activists?
PEARLSTEIN: Yes, family fragmentation really does hurt kids academically and in many other ways, as research has made clear for decades. For a 20-year-old popular synopsis, consider historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s brilliant and game-changing article, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” from the April, 1993, issue of The Atlantic.
An important caveat: Millions of American kids growing up in fatherless families are doing great, and millions of American kids growing up in seemingly perfect homes are doing poorly. The problem is that, generally speaking and on average, young people coming of age in fragmented families do less well than other young people by every conceivable measure.
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.
PEARLSTEIN: Needless to say, I agree, with the obvious case being the imperative of women getting out of physically abusive relationships.
LOPEZ: 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?
LOPEZ: 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?
PEARLSTEIN: 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?
PEARLSTEIN: 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.
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.
And whether it’s due to ADHD as strictly defined, or another state of mind that has fewer, if any, explanatory pages in any psychiatric or psychological textbook, a sizable number of children growing up in single-parent families have an extra hard time concentrating on their school work as well as on other things in their lives, in substantial measure because of tensions at home.
Do I recognize that such contentions invite any number of objections, the most agitated ones grounded in allegations that I am just making excuses? Keenly, I do. But I can’t recall any educator, or anyone else for that matter, ever disagreeing when I’ve expanded on the case with the care and nuance it demands. As Professor Yogi Berra would say, they all have observed a lot by just watching.
LOPEZ: What is the most encouraging fact about the state of the family in the U.S.? Please tell me there is something.
PEARLSTEIN: Short and sweet: For all the lousy data, it’s easy to lose sight of what a glorious institution marriage is for all those who are lucky and blessed to be in a good one (like me).
LOPEZ: Could the pastoral work in prisons by Prison Fellowship and others do some of the most important, under-appreciated cultural work there is?
PEARLSTEIN: That’s true without question, and my happy sense is that fewer obstructionists now see groups such as Prison Fellowship, founded by Chuck Colson, as representing mortal assaults to the wall separating church from state and cell.
LOPEZ: You once asked Bill Bennett, when he was education secretary, “How does one go about changing the very culture?” And he said, as you relay, that one should “say what was true in his heart and say it over and over and over again.” But what does that mean in a culture with changing assumptions about truth?
PEARLSTEIN: When has the United States ever had locked-in-place cultural assumptions about truth? The best we can do is the best we can do, animated by courage and alive to grace.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.