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A Silent Crisis: Changing Families in America

Something is assaulting millions of American children. It causes them to consider suicide more, stop paying attention in school, and become more likely to become an unwed mother or father. It makes them far more likely to be involved in crime and become dependent on government. What is this horrific epidemic? Somebody, somewhere, should do something. But if it were an easy thing to discuss, we’d already have presidential blue-ribbon commissions and government programs galore, and a host of worried experts flooding the airwaves. But it’s not an easy thing to discuss, precisely because this epidemic is so harmful to children and society. The epidemic is called broken homes. That’s a broader term for two big realities: Fast, common divorce and accelerating single childbearing. In his new Values & Capitalism imprint, “Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure,” my former boss Nick Schulz takes a deliberately dispassionate look at this cultural and economic crisis. The last time divorce and unwed childbearing was a big public debate, we got the Moral Majority and values voters, and the Democrat who probably started it all nearly tarred and feathered as a racist for noting higher rates of such family trouble among African-American families in the 1960s. But now, the rates for everyone are far above what stunned Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s. This means millions of children struggling to overcome massive economic and social barriers. Home Economics Figure 2.7 - Percentage of children under 18 living with two married parents Nick wants to avoid repeating the manic, often distracting culture wars, so instead he focuses largely on the numbers, and lets you draw your own conclusions about the morality involved. One of the most interesting contributions of the book is to the current debate over rising income inequality. Nick presents solid evidence this is in large part due to rising single motherhood, which drastically increases a family’s chance of being poor. Another fascinating discussion concerns how the family, more than any other institution, instills a child with habits and character he hardly knows are shaping him. These “soft skills”—a good work ethic, looking people in the eyes when you talk to them, etc.—profoundly affects a child’s ability to enter society and earn a good wage. Nick quotes Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman: “The true measure of child poverty and advantage is the quality of parenting a child receives, not just the money available to a household.” This is a compact introduction to perhaps the most guilt-inducing feature of American life: sex and its consequences. It also explains why marriages matter—not just to millions of children, but also to our entire society. This is not just a private family issue. In two hours, you can review some of the most important research on the conjunction between family and society, conveyed in a non-judgmental, explanatory tone. We must first acknowledge we have a problem. That’s where Nick’s book comes in. Then our culture still needs to start saying, “Yes, fatherlessness and broken homes hurt everyone. The fewer we have of them, the better.” Like most writers who take time to examine the marriage crisis, Nick concludes there are few government programs—despite trillions of invested dollars—that have shown they can mend these soul wounds. We, the people, need to step up and, like Nehemiah, rebuild our city walls together—through stronger families. To address this national crisis, we need people to hear both messages. First, children need and deserve a married mother and father. Common sense and research shows that this is indisputably true. We should all do our part to ensure that as many children as possible can benefit from this sort of privileged life. All of us—including those who didn’t start in two-parent families—can change the world, one child at a time, with hard work and a commitment to raise our kids in environments that make the American Dream a possibility and a reality.