Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Family Crisis

I stepped out into the early Sunday morning gloom, already ominous with the threat of the impending humid heat that I could feel coming up from the blacktop driveway, to pick up the paper, and immediately retreated to the cool of the kitchen.  I made myself a mug of tea and sat at the kitchen table with the front page spread before me.  The large article that caught my eye was “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’.”  The article is about two mothers of young children in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The women are work colleagues and friends.  The author, Jason de Parle, has written very ably about issues of poverty in this country.  In this article he uses the two women to exemplify some general patterns of contemporary society.

            The gist of the piece is easily summarized in the following two points: (1) stably married mothers of young children tend to enjoy marked financial and social advantages over unmarried mothers of young children, and (2) the children of stably married parents have many advantages that the children of single mothers often lack.  Now as a “news” story this one strikes me as ranking somewhere between the revelations that the Pope is Catholic and that bears have hair.  Nonetheless, the Times seems to present it as a kind of discovery that parallels, on the sociological level, the isolation of the Higgs boson particle.  Its central claims are attested to by “studies”, and blessed with the confirming opinion of a credentialed academic—a colleague in the Princeton Sociology Department, as it happens.

            There is very little that is amusing about the crisis of the contemporary American family or in the hardships inflicted on so many of our children and no small number of our women.  And certainly there is nothing amusing about the difficulties faced by the unmarried mother in this story.  But I do find it a little funny, or at least quirkily odd, that the most obvious kind of moral and economic common sense should be treated as a sociological “discovery”.

            Modern society is complex, and many of the grave problems we face in this country are interrelated in complicated and sometimes subtle ways.  Blanket suggestions for their remedy are often justly criticized for their simplism.  But there is another kind of simplism practiced by many of our policy gurus and academic intellectuals when they refuse to recognize home truths that have been the common wisdom of generations.  The old home truth that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage has not been abrogated by the disappearance of equine transportation.

            According to Mr. DeParle the illegitimacy rate in this country is now 41%.  He does not use the word “illegitimacy,” of course, which has been banned from the vocabulary as politically incorrect and “judgmental”.  In fact, it is simply an old legal term reflecting the fact that marriage has traditionally been one of society’s most fundamental legal contracts.  If you prefer “out-of-wedlock”, that’s fine.  The rate of out-of-wedlock births for black Americans in 2010 was 71%!  That is staggering, but according to the article the white lower middle class is rapidly catching up.  The unmarried (white) woman in the Times story had three children with her unmarried partner before they split.  The author laconically reports that she “has trouble explaining, even to herself, why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned little, berated her often and did no parenting”.  Well, the question does occur to one.

            To judge and to criticize are actually cognate terms, as we see in the phrase “literary criticism”.  A very great deal of our moral and mental lives consists in judging one thing to be better or worse than another.  Whatever reluctance there may be to discuss unwed motherhood and deadbeat paternity in a moral context, let alone in a context illuminated by traditional religious values—that is, to be (dreaded word!) judgmental--certain other judgments are inevitably being made.  The one chiefly advanced by the Times article is economic.  Single mothers and their offspring are often comparatively, or even absolutely, poor.   We say that two heads are better than one; two incomes certainly are.  So the widening national “income gap,” already extremely troubling, is closely related to the phenomenon of single motherhood.

            What is frequently called “cultural capital” is scarcely less important for a young child’s nurture than is material sufficiency.  The huge advantage that comes from spending one’s early years in a stable family, with two parents cooperatively engaged in the parenting enterprise, is almost impossible to exaggerate.  Such parents read to and with their children, eat with them, take them on cultural expeditions small and grand.  Comparatively few of us have trust funds.  Most people face financial necessity to greater or lesser degree, but a stable married couple has the option of dividing the labors of breadwinning and of homemaking in the ways most effective for their personal circumstances.  All of this takes time, imagination, and a sacrificial effort motivated by love.  The challenge of addressing the ravages of what amounts to early cultural bankruptcy is one that has so far been hardly recognized, let alone engaged.  A serious national discussion of such topics as the moral and social responsibilities of having children is so inimical to our reigning me-firstism that it is difficult to imagine how it might so much as be set in motion.  But I regard it as one of the great social follies or delusions of our time to think that any government program or any public school curricular innovation can provide an effective solution.