The Agenda

Madeleine Schwartz on Teen Mom and the Anti-Family

We often discuss marriage and kinship networks in this space, and I am on record arguing that the decline of marriage among non-college-educated Americans is a source of many of our most pressing social problems. But in the spirit of breaking out of the conservative bubble, I recommend a recent essay in the left-of-center magazine The New Inquiry which distills a perspective on changing family structure that is quite common:

There is nothing wrong with teenage or single motherhood. The things children need: economic livelihood, emotional support and an education, are not dependent on a nuclear family structure. Poverty is poverty whether it’s endured by two people or four. A couple cannot raise a child better than one can. Once we get rid of the idea that marriage is the privileged form of cohabitation and that women cannot raise children without the help of a man—ideas that the Left has been working to eradicate for decades—there is no reason that a teen should not be financially and emotionally assisted for her choice to have a family. The potential diffusion of the family (as the New York Times recently reported, it doesn’t look like the trends will stop anytime soon) is one of the most exciting things to happen to the American social pattern since sexual liberation. It means the end of what were just decades ago universal truths: every household must be headed by a breadwinning man; only when married will a woman have social value.

The problem is not teen motherhood. The problem is the legal system that makes the lives of teenage and single parents impossible. The shaming and belittling of teenage mothers is not just rhetoric: Teenage parents are actively discriminated against. Teen parents cannot receive financial assistance unless they live with their parents or marry. They cannot get welfare if they are not enrolled in an educational program.. In some cases, the state can deny all benefits to babies born to unmarried teenage parents. Welfare reform has taken money earmarked for families in need and diverted it toward programs aimed at promoting marriage and abstinence (For example: “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage”). All of this comes on top of the routine discriminations against single parents—higher insurance and tax rates, difficulties in obtaining housing and jobs—and those against the poor, who with the Hyde Amendment may not even have been able to abort if they had wanted. These policies were created with the explicit goal encouraging a two-parent model. They make any other option out of the question.

Teen Mom does not go into these developments—they are outside the scope of the camera’s lens. But it does recognize that what it is presenting is new and exciting, as do its viewers, who have not only watched the show by the millions but followed the teen mothers as if they were celebrities. 40 years ago, Maci and Ryan would have been unhappily married in a union characterized by resentment and impending break-up. Now, they barely interact. “Do you think we should stay together for Bentley?” Ryan asks Maci at the close of the second season. “No, not if we are not going to be happy.” What we as viewers must realize is this: Aside from access to contraception and abortion, crucial as they are, we need is a way to raise children without prioritizing the construct of the nuclear family. Teenage pregnancy is not the enemy. Coercing a society to conform to outdated models of family life is. “You know how hard it is to take care of you alone,” Maci tells her son while she contemplates her break-up. It shouldn’t be.

Suffice it to say, I disagree strongly with Schwartz’s broad perspective. In particular, I think that the narrowly economic advantages of co-parenting in the context of a stable two-parent family are considerable, leaving aside the non-economic advantages, and I don’t think that this advantages flow only from discrimination. Public social expenditures have expanded considerable to accommodate changing family structure, yet it is not clear that increased public social expenditures alone can alleviate the consequences of family disruption. For a somewhat dated perspective on these issues, I recommend “The Spread of Single-Parent Families” (2002) by David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks. I’d also recommend the 2011 edition of The State of Our Unions, a report from the National Marriage Project.

Moreover, I think that the experience of recent decades suggests that marriage can become a more egalitarian institution. My view is that increasing female labor force participation is a very positive development on normative as well as economic grounds, as it has allowed for a large number of people to take on social roles that they find more fulfilling and engaging. 

Regardless, I think it is worth acknowledging that Schwartz’s perspective has a long intellectual pedigree, particularly in northern Europe where “statist individualism” is a well-established public ideology, as Bagehot observed early last year. Bagehot quotes Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh:

Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly…legislation has made the Nordic countries into the least family-dependent and most individualized societies on the face of the earth. To be sure, the family remains a central social institution in the Nordic countries, but it too is infused with the same moral logic stressing autonomy and equality. The ideal family is made up of adults who work and are not financially dependent on the other, and children who are encouraged to be as independent as early as possible.

One of the ironies of Nordic family arrangements, however, is that while nonmarital child-bearing is relatively common, disrupted households are rare. That is, parents tend to stay together to raise their children. The substance of the nuclear family persists in northern Europe even as its formal trappings have faded, though of course this too is changing over time.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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