Michael Barone: Family fragmentation: Can anything be done?

Michael Barone

Michael Barone

How big a problem is family fragmentation? “Immense,” says Mitch Pearlstein, head of the Minnesota think tank Center of the American Experiment. “The biggest domestic problem facing this country.”

So big he went out and interviewed 40 experts of varying ideology across the nation and relayed their answers in his book “Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that none of the experts is confident he has an answer, and neither is Pearlstein.

What is family fragmentation? The facts are easy to state. About 40 percent of babies born in America these days are born outside of marriage. That’s true of about 30 percent of non-Hispanic whites, more than 50 percent of Hispanics and more than 70 percent of blacks.

Back in 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan was prompted to write his report on the black family when the out-of-wedlock birth rate of blacks was 25 percent. He believed, correctly, that this spelled trouble ahead. Half a century later that’s the figure for supposedly privileged non-Hispanic whites.

Scandinavian countries also have high out-of-marriage birth rates, but couples tend to stay together and raise their children to adulthood. In America, not so much.

Pearlstein notes that the percentage of children living with two parents in 2009 was 86 percent among Asians, 75 among non-Hispanic whites, 67 percent among Hispanics and 37 percent among blacks.

But these numbers include step-parents. And when you take into account findings that child abuse by stepfathers is substantially above average, that’s not entirely good news.

The numbers that show that children raised by their two biological (or adoptive) parents do substantially better in every respect in life than those who are not. They do better in school and in higher education, they do better at jobs and economically, they develop more stable and lasting relationships personally. They are more likely to earn success — what American Enterprise Institute Arthur Brooks identifies as the chief source of personal satisfaction and happiness.

When confronted with those facts, the impulse of most Americans is to be wary of passing judgment on single parents. Some of them indeed do raise children who do well. Many struggle through difficulties that happily married parents seldom experience.

Back in the culturally conformist America of the mid-20th century, there was a stigma against unmarried parenthood and divorce. Marriage rates were higher and divorce rates much lower.

But there is little sign that such a stigma will return. Even among cultural and religious conservatives, there is no perceptible move to repeal the no-fault divorce laws that almost every state passed in the 1970s.

Family fragmentation is unsettling nevertheless, because it seems to be creating a two-tier society. In his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” AEI scholar Charles Murray highlighted how among the wealthiest 20 percent of whites, divorce rates and single parenthood have returned to 1950s levels after a blip upward in the 1970s.

But among the poorest 30 percent of whites — and among much larger percentages of Hispanics and blacks — divorce and single parenthood have become a way of life. That is exacerbated by the recent decline in college attendance by young men and the dearth of job opportunities for less educated men. That makes them less marriageable and less prepared to take responsibility for children they may father.

Brookings Institution scholar Isabel Sawhill, echoing Murray, tells Pearlstein that we are becoming a “bifurcated society,” not just because of income inequality but because of family formation patterns. This is something like the view taken in a 2013 speech by President Obama, which described family fragmentation as a consequence of economic inequality.

One conclusion from all this is that the nation is being deprived of a substantial amount of human capital by family fragmentation. Young people are achieving less than their potential, with cumulative negative consequences for all of us.

Is there any way to reverse the trend toward family fragmentation? Some of Pearlstein’s experts call for raising taxes, and some call for lowering them. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah calls for legislative remedies to reverse “implicit marriage penalties in our tax code and welfare programs.”

Such policy changes might be useful “nudges,” to use Harvard law professor (and Obama appointee) Cass Sunstein’s term. But perhaps well-off Americans should, as Charles Murray suggests, preach what they practice. Few Americans want to stigmatize single parents. But should we be afraid to tell people there’s a better way?

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