Mitt Romney isn’t exactly the dream candidate of social conservatives. Though no one doubts that the former Massachusetts governor is a devoted family man and a committed lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he has tended to shy away from issues such as abortion and abstinence education on the campaign trail. And of course Romney has spent most of his years in public life as a rare Republican supporter of legal abortion, a stance he abandoned only in the mid-2000s. There is, however, at least one social issue on which Romney speaks with real conviction, and that is the central importance of married two-parent families.
During the second presidential debate, for example, Romney gave a revealing answer to a question about the availability of assault weapons. Building on President Obama’s suggestion that we make an effort to “catch violent impulses before they occur,” a rather difficult feat for the bureaucratic state, Romney called for changing “the culture of violence that we have.” To do that, Romney said, “we need moms and dads, helping to raise kids.” Though he acknowledged that two-parent families are “not always possible,” and though he was careful to praise single mothers and fathers, he added, “But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone — that’s a great idea, because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.”
Romney was referring to the research findings of Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins, the co-directors of the Center on Children and Families at the center-left Brookings Institution. Sawhill and Haskins have found that adults who finish high school, work full time, and marry before they have children are less likely to be poor; the percentage who are falls from 15 percent to 2 percent. Romney has cited this research on numerous occasions during the campaign, yet his interest in the importance of marriage hasn’t quite crystallized into a policy focus. This despite the fact that the deterioration of marriage is without question more consequential for America’s economic well-being than, say, President Obama’s reluctance to issue drilling permits on federal land.
And why is that? Consider the findings of the Index of Family Belonging and Rejection, a fascinating report produced by the socially conservative Family Research Council. Remarkably, only 45.8 percent of American 15- to 17-year-olds have spent their entire childhood with married biological parents, according to the 2011 Index. The proportion of children living with married biological parents varied considerably across regions and across racial groups. Among states, Minnesota had the highest share at 57 percent, and Mississippi had the lowest share at 34 percent. While 65.8 percent of Asian-American and 54.1 percent of non-Hispanic white teenagers had been raised by married biological parents, the same was true of only 40.5 percent of Hispanic and 16.7 percent of black children.
Some will no doubt bristle at the fact that the Index treats single-parent families and stepfamilies as essentially the same, but the reasoning is defensible: Biological fathers living with their children tend to be more reliable providers than non-custodial fathers or stepfathers. If we make the more than reasonable assumption that 15- to 17-year-olds who are raised by married biological parents will have somewhat better outcomes in life than their peers who are not, the United States is in for a rude shock, since the share of children born to unmarried mothers has increased from 28 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2010. That is, the young people entering the work force today are significantly more likely to have been raised in intact families than those who enter two decades from now will be.
At least some social conservatives expressed the hope that Barack Obama, as the married African-American father of two daughters, would use the bully pulpit of the presidency to make the case for marriage and fatherhood. But though the president has made occasional references to the importance of fatherhood, it certainly hasn’t been a central theme of his tenure. One hypothesis as to why he hasn’t had much of a marriage agenda is that the transformation of the American family is so far along that any gestures toward strengthening marriage might alienate crucial constituencies. For example, Democrats increasingly rely on the votes and the financial resources of unmarried college-educated women, many of whom are keenly interested in socially liberal causes and are hostile to what they perceive as moralizing.
Just as important, President Obama has devoted considerable time and effort to increasing his support among moderately educated white voters in Rust Belt swing states such as Ohio. And as the 2010 State of Our Unions report from the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values makes clear, the most dramatic shift in the marriage landscape has been the collapse in marriage among the moderately educated, i.e., the 58 percent of American adults who have a high-school diploma but not a college degree. By the late 2000s, for example, 6 percent of children whose mothers had a college education were born outside of marriage. For the least-educated mothers, the number was 54 percent. Rather alarmingly, the number was 44 percent among moderately educated mothers. These “waitress moms” may well decide this year’s presidential election, and it is easy to see why Democrats, and indeed many Republicans, are reluctant to lecture them about the virtues of marriage.
But conservatives have more reason to be concerned. Even as the United States has grown materially richer in recent decades, families have grown more fragile. The dramatic expansion of anti-poverty programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, and CHIP over the last decade flows in no small part from the fact that single-parent families are more vulnerable to economic shocks. This in turn limits the ability of these families to contribute to civic life, as volunteering and other charitable efforts demand time, attention, and resources that single parents tend to lack. The expansion of government is a predictable consequence of this larger dynamic.
If elected president, Mitt Romney should make the encouragement of stable marriages one of his highest domestic-policy priorities. The trouble is that there is no silver bullet. Recently, though, Alan Hawkins, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, and Theodora Ooms, a couples and marriage-policy consultant at the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, surveyed the evidence on publicly sponsored marriage and relationship education (MRE) programs, and while they acknowledge that the available evidence is fragmentary, they tentatively suggest that the best-designed MRE programs have at least some beneficial effects.
According to an ambitious study conducted by the social-policy research organization MDRC, Career Academies — a group of schools launched two decades ago to help qualify young people from poor backgrounds to find good jobs — appears to have had the unintended consequence of increasing not just earnings but marriage rates for male participants. One potential implication of this finding is that policies designed to boost the earnings of young men will make them more desirable, and more reliable, marriage partners, thus encouraging the formation of stable families.
There are many ways to address the marriage problem, ranging from a focus on bread-and-butter economic policies designed to spur demand for less-skilled and mid-skilled labor to criminal-justice reforms meant to reduce crime and incarceration levels, an approach that would be particularly helpful to inner-city men. Regardless of which approach we take, what we must not do is ignore the slow-motion marriage crisis that is threatening the foundations of civil society.