Politics & Policy

The Lost Ethic of Fraser Robinson

Michelle Obama’s father is a virtuous relic of a bygone era.

After all the oratory at both political conventions, one line stands out. It was from Michelle Obama, talking about her late father, Fraser Robinson, and his insistence on paying his small portion of her college-tuition bills on time. “You see, for my dad,” she said, “that’s what it meant to be a man.”

In one moving sentence, she opened a vista on a life of self-sacrifice. The narrative arc of her rendition of his life bent upward, and understandably so. He was a working-class father who raised two Princeton University graduates. But she could just as easily have invoked a sense of the country’s loss.

Because we don’t really make Fraser Robinsons anymore. He was a high-school-educated man who married and stayed married, who worked and kept working despite considerable adversity. Whatever his relative lack of education and skills, he was a hero of character, shaped by mores that have been eroding for decades.

#ad#According to Michelle’s convention speech and to published accounts, her father was a pump operator at the city water plant in Chicago. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a young man, and still got up to work every day. The first lady described how she watched him “grab his walker, prop himself against the sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform.” When he came home, he’d reach down to lift one leg after another to make it up the stairs and greet his kids.

It’s difficult to imagine a more affecting depiction of everyday dutifulness than that. With his wife of 31 years, Marian, Robinson built a family deeply invested in his children’s future.

Too few men in his position now do the same. The 2010 study “When Marriage Disappears,” a publication of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, tells the story. In the 1970s, 73 percent of adults with a high-school degree or some college were in intact first marriages. In the 2000s, 45 percent were. In the 1970s, 50 percent of blacks at that level of education were in intact first marriages. In the 2000s, 33 percent were.

As recently as 1982, just 13 percent of births to people with this level of education were out-of-wedlock. In the late 2000s, 44 percent were. Among blacks with a high-school degree or some college, the figure was 75 percent.

Males with a high-school education have been dropping out of the labor force for decades. One flip side is a drastic increase in the rolls of Social Security Disability Insurance, despite better medical care and less-strenuous jobs. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute points out that many of the additions are for vague conditions like mood disorders. Forty years ago, Fraser Robinson left for work in pain every day — walking on two canes — and now a small army of his fellow Americans schemes to get paid for doing nothing.

Through his faithfulness, Fraser Robinson gave Michelle and her brother an incalculable gift. “The parental characteristics that employers value and are willing to pay for, such as skills, diligence, honesty, good health, and reliability, also improve children’s life chances, independent of their effect on parents’ income,” Susan Mayer writes in her book What Money Can’t Buy.

“Children of parents with these attributes do well even when their parents do not have much income.”

The tectonic plates of the culture and economy shifted since the 1960s to squeeze the likes of Fraser Robinson, at the same time the government has been subsidizing a version of the family — single-mother households — that makes him superfluous. The new norm that dispenses with duty-bound fathers is not good for families, and it is not good for men.

Michelle Obama powerfully described her father’s pride. For him, to be a man was to be responsible, day after day. His quotidian courage was her windfall; that it is becoming increasingly rare is our tragedy.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2012 King Features Syndicate

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