"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Why Are Progressives Comfortable Decoupling Childrearing from Marriage?

The importance of defining the two-parent, married couple as the ideal environment for raising children  has long been a conservative idea, and it isn’t hard to see why. Children raised in a family composed of a married mother and father have significant economic, social, educational and emotional advantages that extend into adulthood. And this not an empty assumption—there is much data to back it up. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, for instance, has noted how much worse American children from single-parent households perform in math and reading:

Family Composition vs. NAEP 4th Grade Reading Levels GraphSource: Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Even in a country like Sweden, where a healthy social safety net mitigates many of the material disadvantages of single-parenthood, Swedish youth from single-parent homes report higher levels of emotional distress:

Sweden Divorce GraphSource: Gähler, M., & Garriga, A. (2013). Has the association between parental divorce and young adults’ psychological problems changed over time? Evidence from Sweden, 1968-2000.”Journal of Family Issues,” 34(6), 784-808. 

Although the importance of a two-parent family is unfortunately most often the intellectual preserve of conservatives, some liberals also get the picture. In 2001, Jonathan Rauch called marriage “America’s New Class Divide,” even noting that poverty correlated more closely with marital status than it did (and still does) with race. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution reiterated Rauch’s conclusions in a 2003 study: “In 2001, 81 percent of non-poor families with children were headed by married couples. This compares to only 40 percent among poor families with children.” Sawhill has done more work on this, some of which she recently displayed at an AEI event.

In 2012, Jason De Parle of The New York Times masterfully chronicled the differences between two women with children, one married, and one not: “I see Chris’s kids—they’re in swimming and karate and baseball and Boy Scouts, and it seems like it’s always her or her husband who’s able to make it there,” the unmarried woman said of the other’s situation. “That’s something I wish I could do for my kids. But number one, that stuff costs a lot of money and, two, I just don’t have the time.” There’s not just an economic benefit for children in a two-parent home, but an emotional one as well.

The evidence for a social norm of childbearing within marriage seems overwhelming. But many progressives wrongly frame conservative insistence on a two-parent home as discrimination against single mothers.

These aspersions are nothing new. When future Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan released his now-infamous 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” (which documented the emerging breakdown of the black family due to unwed births), critics like William Ryan slammed it as “Blaming the Victim.”

When Mitt Romney attempted to articulate the connection between single-parents and crime during a Presidential debate, the Daily Kos babbled that it was indicative of his “willingness to blame women.” In reality, the Daily Kos claimed, poverty is the real cause of crime. But guess what has a high correlation with poverty? You guessed it, children in unmarried households.

The gynocentric website Jezebel similarly tarred Rick Santorum with this kind of retort when he (admittedly clumsily) tried to talk about single mothers: “So, ladies, in Santorum’s world, unless you’re heterosexual, married, and letting your husband impregnate you at will you’re doing it wrong.”

But perhaps the most unconscionable progressive opposition to establishing a social norm for childrearing has recently been found in New York City. Earlier this year, Michael Bloomberg ran an ad campaign discouraging teen pregnancy. The campaign consisted of pictures of young children, coupled with stats reflecting the truth of teenage pregnancy: “Because you had me as a teen, I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school,” said one ad. Yet, as Heather Mac Donald reported, Planned Parenthood blasted the ad as “stigmatizing” teenage parents and “perpetuat[ing] gender stereotypes.”

So what is the source of the left’s animus against the social norm of a two-parent family?

At the root, it seems to be ideology. Primarily, the philosophical character of the feminism that arose in the late 1960s was quickly absorbed into the Democratic Party platform, which means few Democrats have been eager to alienate what has become a powerful constituency by suggesting that a child is a proposition confined to a married man and woman. A goal of the left-leaning women’s empowerment movement has been to abolish traditional barriers to female self-actualization, and if that means having a child without a husband, so be it.

Secondly, much of the discussion about marriage has been focused on same-sex marriage. This has stifled a broader conversation, as there’s only so much room on airwaves and in print for discussions about the topic.

[pullquote]     To put a value judgment upon someone’s behavior, the thinking goes, calls into question one’s compassion and “open-mindedness.”[/pullquote]

Lastly, in “Coming Apart,” Charles Murray noticed that many of the cultural-intellectual elites who endorse the benefits of a two-parent family by the way they live their private lives are reluctant to “preach what they practice.” The essential feature of post-60s liberalism has been to encourage people to seek emotional self-fulfillment, even at the expense of institutions and traditions that have proved to be agents for societal good. This is especially true in matters of sexual behavior, where anything seems increasingly permissible, provided there is a principle of consent. To put a value judgment upon someone’s behavior, the thinking goes, is to be intolerant of it, and calls into question one’s compassion, or that favorite buzzword of the left, “open-mindedness.” Few want to be cast as a Rick Santorum for suggesting that raising children outside of marriage is a suboptimal idea.

But the data and the anecdotes show a decoupling of marriage from childrearing has been an overwhelmingly negative experience for those who have grown up in such an environment. James Q. Wilson, perhaps the most important conservative social scientist of the 20th century, recalled that Daniel Patrick Moynihan himself grew up in a poor, single mother family, shining shoes on the streets of New York. Moynihan knew very well what his upbringing lacked, a stable family. As a result, according to Wilson, “He never deviated from the view that the family was the core of culture.”

Moynihan was one of the few Democrats who crusaded for the preservation of the nuclear family during the late 20th century. Unfortunately, trends that Moynihan noticed in the black community in the 1960s have increasingly become the norm nationwide, a reality that does not bode well for the future of the country.