‘Judge a little more, blush a little more, and all of society’s ills will be cured.”
With this deeply flippant bit of sarcasm, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell succinctly expresses the lack of seriousness pervasive on the left when it comes to issues of family stability and marriage. The target of her most recent column, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, has been attacked by liberals for passages in his 1995 book, Profiles in Character, in which he lamented the growing permissiveness and tolerance of Americans in accepting out-of-wedlock births and irresponsible sexual behavior.
Rampell caricatures Bush’s position as believing “that the main reason people are broke, unmarried, in prison or unemployed is because it’s all just too much gosh-darn fun.”
Give Rampell and the anti-empirical Left credit — such ad hominem attacks are highly effective in this new era of political correctness, of trigger warnings and microaggressions, at shutting down rational discussion of social issues. A reasoned conversation about family instability and marriage would focus on a series of empirical questions. Have the marked increases in the share of births occurring to unmarried women and the share of children living in disrupted families been harmful for children’s social mobility and emotional well-being? Have they been harmful for parents or society? If so, what accounts for these trends, and how might we reverse them? How effective would it be to restore societal disapproval of single parenthood? To be sure, basic values questions come into play too — what is the role for the federal government (if any) in trying to reverse family-structure trends, if we do deem them problematic? But Americans who worry about single parenthood are not retrograde bigots who want to “slut shame,” in the charmingly dispassionate phrasing of Rampell.
What is going on when liberals resort to ad hominem rhetorical strategies to shut down debate on family structure? For some on the left, it conceals their basic assumption — and it is an assumption — that rising single parenthood has been benign or beneficial for children and society. If this assumption were obviously true, then what other reason could someone have for worrying about family structure besides bigoted intolerance?
But the assumption is not obviously true, and the evidence is, in fact, much more supportive of the opposite stance. Hundreds of studies over half a century have consistently found that children who experience single parenthood do worse on a plethora of outcomes in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood than children who grow up with two parents.
For others on the left, attacking the motives of opponents allows them to avoid grappling with the possible costs of their own position. There is no doubt that a reversal of society’s tolerance of single parenthood would have costs — more women and men who became single parents would feel shameful about their circumstances, and some children might too. Some women, men, and children would end up in unhealthy — even dangerous — living arrangements. But the Left ignores that the benefits — to other children, to would-be single parents, and to society at large — might outweigh those costs. Liberals work like mad to avoid thinking about the costs of not reversing the growing acceptance of single parenthood. Because of our tolerance, some children are condemned to grow up in family circumstances unfavorable to upward mobility and emotional well-being, whereas in a different moral environment, their counterparts would fare much better and be happier in healthier families.
There are, to be clear, limits to how much the family-structure literature can guide us as we think about family instability and single parenthood. Family researchers are rarely explicit about what counterfactual world they have in mind if the children of single parents were instead in two-parent families. One counterfactual is that a child’s actual parents stay married or get married. But the research strategies at our disposal may not be up to the task of simulating this counterfactual. The characteristics and circumstances of married parents are different, on average, from those of single parents, and it is enormously difficult to account for all of these differences in assessing how marriage would affect children raised by single parents. Experiencing a family disruption is likely to be harmful to children in happy marriages in which parents have committed to one another and their children. Yet if one or both parents prefer not being married but are convinced or compelled to marry anyway, it is likely that their children would not fare as well as the children of voluntarily married parents.
An alternative counterfactual, though, for the children of some single parents is that they are simply not conceived, and instead different children are born when the women and men are older and more responsible, when they are in marriages with better-matched partners and healthier relationships, and when they are better prepared to support children. Simulating this counterfactual in family-structure research is also extraordinarily difficult. But it is difficult to argue that promoting delayed, planned, and marital childbearing would be anything but beneficial for the upward mobility of poor children. To my mind, the goal of reducing single parenthood should be focused on this alternative world, where there are more births within marriage because we have successfully persuaded women and men to avoid having children outside of marriage and before they are ready — children who will, on average, fare relatively badly.
Do Rampell and others who are cavalier about the decline in family stability really view charts like this one, from a Jason DeParle article about the topic, with indifference?
Alternatively, Rampell and others on the left might think family trends are worrisome but believe that the solution is to make the safety net more generous, raise the minimum wage, or reduce inequality. As I have discussed, however, there is little reason to think that the state of the economy is to blame for rising single parenthood, and there are some indications that the welfare reforms of the 1990s, by making it more difficult to receive benefits without working, may have slowed or arrested some of the increases in out-of-wedlock childbearing.
There is little reason to think that the state of the economy is to blame for rising single parenthood.
In a recent opportunity agenda I developed — paired with one from Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — I proposed significantly expanding the child tax credit for married couples as a way to influence the care with which young men and women avoid unplanned, early, and non-marital pregnancies. Would it work? I can’t say with certainty it would. But the case for planned, delayed, and marital births seems strong enough to me — as does the evidence that what we’ve tried before has failed — that I believe it is worth seeing what happens. Rather than take benefits away from single parents, this approach would simply give more benefits to married ones.
I don’t agree with everything Governor Bush said 20 years ago about how to renew disapproval of bad behavior. I’m not sure he does two decades later either. Indeed, his current views don’t always match those ascribed to him by Rampell, such as his nuanced view of no-fault divorce laws, which seems to have been shared by Hillary Clinton.
What I do know is that the liberal side in the family-structure debate has no greater claim to truth or virtue than the conservative side. Bush is right — Americans should speak up more vocally and consistently about the benefits of deliberative child-rearing within marriage, and we should more forcefully disapprove of irresponsible behavior. We should do so even as we acknowledge that many people will — irresponsibly or not — end up as single parents, that single parenthood can be compatible with positive outcomes for children, and that children are equally valuable regardless of what decisions their parents make.
Shame, as Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves says in the context of teen-pregnancy-reduction efforts, is not a four-letter word.
— Scott Winship is currently an informal adviser to the non-profit policy-advocacy organization Right to Rise Policy Solutions, Inc. He is also a half-time single parent.