Politics & Policy

The F Word

Republicans should be talking about marriage and family.

Here we are at debate #3, but has anyone heard a Republican besides Mitt Romney utter their one-time favorite word “family?” In fact, most of the top Republican presidential nominees are studiously avoiding the biggest social problem of our time, namely, family breakdown. There’s a good reason for this, of course; aside from Romney, the leading candidates, whether committed to running or only flirting, are divorced, and at least one of them has a marital history that verges on the baroque. It’s understandable that a presidential contender would want to avoid reminding voters about a messy personal history.

Understandable, but in the end, misguided. There is simply no way to advance the principles that have made for past Republican successes without supporting strong families. Let us count the reasons:

Reason #1: Limited Government. Personal liberty and limited government have always been Republican first principles. Despite the current administration’s dubious service to these principles, they remain important to most Republicans. The problem for the Republican divorced candidates is that the foundation of limited government lies in strong, self-governing families. You only have to consider the last half century of social-welfare trends: just as divorce and nonmarital childbearing expanded, so too did the government programs and tax dollars needed to support them.

Welfare, still a budget drag even eleven years after welfare reform, is only the most obvious example. Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution estimates that between 1970 and 1996, the growth of single parent families increased federal welfare and food stamps expenditures by $229 billion. Today, the federal government spends more than $200 billion annually on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Medicaid spending, and much of this spending is driven by family breakdown. Moreover, marital failure necessarily invites the government to meddle in personal relationships. This year, for instance, federal and state governments will spend more than $5 billion in efforts to identify, hunt down, and collect money from millions of nonresidential fathers across the nation and 17 million families.

Reason #2: Law and Order. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an outlier when he observed over 40 years ago that crime is a marriage and fatherhood issue. Today, the idea that marriage plays a key role in turning boys into law-abiding young men has become the new social scientific consensus. One recent Princeton study found that boys who grew up with their married fathers were half as likely to spend time in jail as boys who grew up in fatherless homes. Another study by Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson agreed that family breakdown was one of the strongest predictors of “urban violence across cities in the United States.” With crime rates rising again in many cities, the subject of family breakdown seems like a no-brainer.

Reason #3: The American Dream. Republicans have long seen themselves as guardians of the American dream, working to insure that individuals and businesses can prosper in a free society. It’s clear by now that prosperity depends on strong families. At the simplest level, married couples earn more money than singles. A large body of research shows married men earning between 10 and 40 percent more than men with similar levels of education and job experience, largely because they work longer, smarter, and more responsibly than their unmarried peers. Marriage is also an important source of wealth generation. On the eve of retirement, the typical married couple has accumulated about $410,000, compared to approximately $167,000 for the never-married, and about $154,000 for the divorced.

Marriage does all this by fostering a common orientation towards the future and a sense of duty among adults, qualities that are also tremendously advantageous to their children. It’s no coincidence that children of married couples, including low income couples, are more likely to graduate high school, to go to college, and to go on to earn higher incomes than kids of single parents. To put it a little differently, marriage provides the breeding ground for children’s future upward mobility.

Finally, reason #4: The Vote. If Republican candidates don’t find principle enough of a reason to put marriage policy at the top of their agenda, they might want to consider self-interest. Married Americans vote — and vote Republican — at significantly higher rates than do Unmarrieds. In the last presidential race, for instance, hitched Americans were more than 50 percent more likely to vote than their singleton fellow citizens, and when they did, they voted for George Bush by a 15-point margin (57 to 42 percent). This is probably because the married have tended to view the party — at least they used to before Republicans became tongue-tied on all things family — as more supportive of a family-centered way of life.

In other words, Republicans have every reason — self-interest, party loyalty, and the American future — to transcend the idea that your personal history has to limit your political beliefs, and to talk about policies that would strengthen and expand the ranks of the married.

Yes, accusations of hypocrisy may fill the airwaves. But chances are Americans, almost all of whom have been touched by the family unraveling of the past 40 years, would be in a forgiving mood. At any rate, they know that while hypocrisy is bad, moral cowardice is worse.

  – Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. W. Bradford Wilcox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is the lead author of Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences.

W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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