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Broken Families, Broken Economy

“The process of making human beings human is breaking down in America,” says social scientist James Coleman. That’s stark language—but for good reason. Massive changes in U.S. family structure over the last 50 years may be America’s biggest problem—and yet, no one is willing to talk about it.

In a recent Atlantic article, Aparna Mathur and Hao Fu discuss the grim reality about family trends in the U.S. They note that “single parents have more than tripled as a share of American households since 1960.” Likewise, the percentage of children born out-of-wedlock increased from 4 percent to more than 40 over the same period. Or, says the New York Times, “It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal.” These trends contribute to the same disheartening story: in just over a half-century, the most fundamental unit of society—and the primary means by which children become responsible and contributing citizens—has rapidly deteriorated.

Non-marital births infograph

For a variety of reasons—a shift in moral attitudes about the issue, a “squeamishness” to discuss it (inspired by an honest effort to avoid alienating certain groups), or simply blind negligence—changes in family structure have been ignored and quietly accepted for the last several decades. Yet for those concerned about America’s future prosperity, this should no longer be acceptable, if only because the consequences are so immense.

The disparity in economic and social outcomes between children raised by married versus single parents is vast. Compared to those raised by divorced parents, children raised by married parents “are more than twice as likely to move up the economic scale.” There are always exceptions to the rule, but the statistics below are compelling:

Economic consequences of family infograph

In their book “Growing Up with a Single Parent,” Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur report that:

Adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents during some period of childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be “idle”—out of school and work—in their late teens and early twenties.

Social scientists David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks offer a similar prognosis, arguing, “The spread of single-mother families has…played a major role in the persistence of poverty.” As these experts suggest, the problem is particularly devastating because it is cyclical. Young adults raised by single parents tend to repeat the lifestyle choices they observed and experienced.

Thus, any serious attempt to reverse the cycle of poverty must include changing family structure in the conversation. Policymakers have earnestly avoided this reality because it means the solution must be significantly more difficult and complex. But the root cause is everything.

[pullquote]     Any serious attempt to reverse the cycle of poverty must include changing family structure in the conversation.[/pullquote]

Of course, there is no single-bullet fix, and solutions must be multi-faceted. Well-crafted policy—especially initiatives that get incentive structures right—can help at a surface level, but their ability to fix families is sharply limited. Civil society (churches, non-profits, businesses, and charities) should play a key role in limiting the mal-effects of broken families, but they can only do so much to instill the importance of the family in people’s hearts and minds. Ultimately, the only chance for complete and sustained renewal of the family is a cultural awakening that restores the “habits of the heart” that a free society depends on.

However, as a first step, like Charles Murray argues in “Coming Apart,” “the important thing is to look unblinkingly at the nature of the problem.”

On October 10th, Values & Capitalism will do just that, hosting a discussion, entitled “The American family: How a ‘new normal’ is reshaping religion, work, and today’s economy.” The event will feature leading thinkers Mary Eberstadt of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Nick Schulz formerly of AEI and author of “Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure“, and W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project and AEI. Whether via livestream or in person, we hope you will join us.