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America's Salvation Part II: O Father, Where Art Thou?

As I’ve thought about societal problems over the last few years, I have consistently come to one conclusion: We need to focus on the family. Turns out James Dobson named his organization well. Think about education. Public schools across the country are often maligned for being ineffective—even after the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted, many kids are being left behind. In 2011, the high school graduation rate was only 59 percent in the District of Columbia. Teachers and school systems take the brunt of the blame for this, but should they? From my experience—I attended public schools through high school—the quality of a child’s education is mostly dependent on their parents. As early as my elementary school years, my parents were supportive, encouraging and demanding. I was expected to do my best, but I also received help with homework and science projects when I needed it. As a result, I got a solid education from a school that was not at all special. Other kids in my classes had behavioral problems and could not care less about learning, so they ended up struggling. By no means was I inherently superior academically to my peers, but I did have one step-up on them: the blessing of a supportive and stable family. While good teachers are important, even the most capable instructors are not miracle-workers. A healthy family life is essential to a child’s flourishing. And this is not just a partisan assumption; there is consensus across partisan lines about this truth. Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “When the family collapses, it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale, the community itself is crippled.” So, family life is important. But what makes for a healthy family? Do we need to universally enlist fathers and mothers in parenting classes? I don’t think so. Research overwhelmingly shows that what kids need above all are simply a mother and father that are married and present in their lives. As the Heritage Foundation reports, “children fare best on virtually every examined indicator when reared by their wedded biological parents.” Similarly, the Wall Street Journal found: “…instability is one of the greatest risks to children’s well-being. It greatly increases the likelihood that they will experience academic, social and emotional problems like poor grades, drug abuse and (perpetuating the cycle) unmarried childbearing.” Echoing this research, in his 2008 Father’s Day speech, President Obama stated:
We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.
Yet sadly, marriage rates are falling and the number of children growing up in broken homes is only increasing. According to the Pew Research Center, only 51 percent of marriage-eligible adults were married in 2011, compared to 72 percent in 1960. A study by the Family Research Council shows that only 45.8 percent of children still have married, biological parents when they reach the age of 17. These numbers are unsettling; and they uncover the primary source of the societal problems that our government tries to solve. Marital Status Like with most problems, however, it is better to focus on the underlying cause than the symptoms. Thus, efforts to strengthen families—partly by encouraging marriage—are essential to America’s well being. Mostly, America needs a cultural movement that reemphasizes the immense value of a stable family, reminding us that it is necessary for the proper upbringing of children, and is an essential aspect of society as we know it. The family is the primary channel through which human beings care for and support one another, especially in times of need—when we are young, sick and elderly. If families are strong, ineffective government programs won’t have to take their place. Above all though, this message must be reflected in our own lives. Those that have families must be committed to their spouses and supportive of their children. They must also be sacrificial, willing to compassionately care for their parents and grandparents. And we all must be supportive of families that we know, encouraging them when times are tough—which can be all too often in family life. In the end, this is how our society will change. This is how we can make progress on the issues of poverty, education and crime. According to data from the Brookings Institution, if the 1970 marriage rate existed today, poverty would fall by 25 percent. I know food stamps and Medicaid are important, but how’s that for a welfare program? If you are interested in this issue, look forward to “Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure,” by Nick Schulz, a Values & Capitalism monograph that will be released in the coming weeks.