Frank Discussion Needed about the Impact of Family Breakdown

Over the past several weeks, Education Next’s Mike Petrilli has been debating Deborah Meier on her Bridging Differences blog about the relationship between poverty and education. One topic that’s come up is the impact of family breakdown. This guest post by Center of the American Experiment president Mitch Pearlstein explores what might be done about it.

Presuming one thinks it’s generally not great for children to live with only one parent, and that it’s not great for the commonweal either, what might you be tempted to say to a young woman or man who was blasé, perhaps even eager, to bring a child into the world in which it was understood, from Day One, that one of his or her parents was essentially out of the family portrait and would remain that way? This is what I might say with as much empathy and grace as I could:

I assure you I know that life can be terribly unpredictable and difficult. In fact, it usually is. This is especially case when it comes to the most personal and treasured things going on in our lives, starting with our children and other people we love. It also can be especially the case when it comes to people we may not love very much anymore at all, if we ever really did. And I very much assure you as well that I’m far from the best or right person in the world to talk to you about these matters, as my own life has been jammed with mistakes and disappointments.

You might say what we’re discussing are holy matters, but my interest in being holier than thou or anyone else is zero, and to the extent I may come across as presumptuous or arrogant, I’m truly sorry. But whatever the risk of intrusion on my part and discomfort on yours, we each owe it to everyone we love and are obliged protect to consider several uncomfortable facts about current American life, most of all those facing and holding back young people.

In simplest and starkest terms, the United States has one of the very highest out-of-wedlock birth rates in the world. We also have one of the very highest divorce rates in the world. These stubborn patterns and trends are the opposite of good news for any group, but they’re particularly bad news for boys and girls, as they diminish their wellbeing now and undercut their futures, as scholarly research on this has grown absolutely clear. Does single parenthood always hurt kids educationally and in other ways? Of course not. But the fuller and unavoidable truth is that children’s odds of doing well are measurably better if they grow up under the same roof with two parents than if they grow up in any other setting.

Children are the most joyous of blessings. And I deeply appreciate how enormous numbers of Americans believe that siring and bearing them are the most meaningful things they ever will do in their lives. But I’m afraid we’ve reached a stage in which we must recognize that while the happiness and hopes of adults are surely important, the health and prospects of children must be considered more so, as far too many of them are doing poorly on their often unduly rocky road to adulthood.

For millions of kids, more specifically, trying to grow up with gaps and absences where both their parents should be is a very big reason why this is the case.  Or more specifically still, unless we change and start bringing far fewer babies into this world outside of marriage, and likewise, unless we divorce and separate far less often, our children will not do nearly as well as they otherwise might and as we all hope and pray.

Mothers and fathers have always sacrificed for their children. It’s what they’re supposed to do. But we’ve come to a time and place in which parents, as well as people who are not yet parents, must think first and foremost about boys and girls they’re responsible for or someday may come to be. One way or another, both men and women—and especially teenagers—must better commit to not having children without first being married. And if and when married, they must better commit to building unions that are loving and respectful and lasting.

If I were to frame a mission statement for my proposition (until we can come up with something more felicitous, let’s call it “The National Campaign to Talk Candidly about Family Fragmentation”), it might read something like this: “The Campaign seeks to significantly increase the number of American children growing up in stable, two-parent families by drawing attention to the many ways in which out-of-wedlock births and divorce hurt and limit the life chances of boys and girls. We do this by encouraging and publicly conducting unusually frank discussions about the entwined well-being of children and responsibilities of adults, as well as about how rampant family fragmentation damages and holds back our nation.”

In other words, I’m suggesting the kinds of discussions in which cameras usually don’t roll, recorders don’t record, and participants (especially those in public life) don’t clam up in fear of being pilloried either immediately or years later when a tape surfaces on some blog.

Might a project as cursorily outlined here possibly work, with “work” defined as resulting in some measure of consequential progress in reducing nonmarital birth rates and divorce rates while simultaneously increasing marriage rates? Might it counteract, even very modestly, all the powerful cultural, economic and other forces that have been undermining marriage—and not just in the United States—over the last half-century?  Putting matters in that tough way, a person’s confidence has to be slim. Moreover, would any progress that could possibly made by such a campaign be worth the offense and pain it inescapably would cause some people, probably many? These are unavoidable questions, though I’m unwilling to abandon the idea just moments after raising it. I’m curious, for example, what a team of experts in public opinion, communications, and other relevant fields might think about it. Could such a possibility be framed and implemented in such a way as to help more than hurt? I say it’s worth exploring.

-Mitch Pearlstein

Adapted from From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation by Mitch Pearlstein (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Founder and President of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, Pearlstein is currently writing a follow-up book tentatively titled Drawn & Quartiled: What Will America Look Like if Massive Family Fragmentation Continues?

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