Why We Should Nourish Strong Families


Every social, economic, and public policy issue can be seen, at its base, as a family issue. The data and evidence are overwhelming, and have been for decades: family structure is the principal variable in the entire list of economic and social indicators. Voluminous academic research confirms that strong family environments correlate highly with positive educational, economic and social outcomes, and inversely with negative outcomes: incidence of crime and imprisonment; inability to obtain and retain employment; the incidence and persistence of poverty; out-of-wedlock births; entitlement dependence; substance abuse and dependence; domestic violence; and others. Even income and wealth inequality — inequality of life’s outcomes — correlates closely with family structure.

Strong family structure is the single most powerful explanatory correlate in social science; stronger, even, than race. Two-parent black American families, for example, outscore single-parent white families by all measures of well-being. That’s why it is distressing that less than half of US kids live in a traditional family.

Where does inequality start? - Much has been made of income inequality in the US; it might even be one of the biggest issues in next year’s presidential election. But the biggest reason for income inequality is single parenthood. Research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues concludes that the single strongest correlate of upward economic mobility across geographic regions of America is the fraction of children that do not live in single-parent families.

Earlier this year, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam, attracted much attention. Putnam argues that access to the core institutions that foster the development of children – strong families, strong schools, strong communities – is increasingly separate and unequal. How did this happen? Putnam points to the usual suspects (the first being loss of manufacturing jobs), but his descriptions of life paths actually tell the American story of the past 50 years: great rewards go to those with human capital (skills, education, and determination), but not to those without. As it happens, those traits correlate closely with strong family structure. Hence, as family cohesion deteriorates, outcomes diminish for kids in those households.

When looking at social, cultural, and economic phenomena it is difficult to separate cause from effect. The retreat from marriage and the decline in men’s labor force participation rates have occurred simultaneously. But numerous studies have found that employment and participation rates have remained consistently higher for married fathers than for married men with no children and unmarried men with no children. Sadly, these effects persist across generations.

Family Fragmentation - Family fragmentation is the biggest domestic problem facing this country. So writes Mitch Pearlstein, head of the Center of the American Experiment and author of Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America's Future.

According to Pearlstein, 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. Why does it matter? Because data 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; and they develop more stable and lasting relationships personally. In other words, they are more likely to earn success, personal satisfaction and happiness.

According to Brookings Institution scholar Isabel Sawhill, family fragmentation is propelling a bifurcated society. Among the wealthiest 20 percent of whites, divorce rates and single parenthood have declined to 1950s levels. 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.

What to do? - Strong, healthy families are conducive to a rich, safe, healthy, productive society, one with wide opportunities, social and geographic mobility, and cultural, moral and civic strength. Families lead to and are supported by an independent, self-reliant population. Do we not all agree these are worthwhile goals? And does that not suggest we should be promoting strong, healthy families?

The promotion of family is a cultural cause. What can we do? For one, those of us who see empirical evidence of the importance of family can disseminate the facts. For another, those of us who, through personal experience, are aware of the social and economic benefits of strong families, could preach what we practice, as suggested by Charles Murray in his book, Coming Apart.

Does this view devalue or stigmatize non-traditional families — single, same-sex, unrelated households, for example? No, the modern conception of family now includes those formations. And to those who say “check your privilege,” I say, share and spread the privilege.

Dr. Roger Selbert is a trend analyst, researcher, writer and speaker. Growth Strategies is his newsletter on economic, social and demographic trends. Roger is economic analyst, North American representative and Principal for the US Consumer Demand Index, a monthly survey of American households’ buying intentions.

Flickr photo by Sarah R: Moroccan-inspired vegetable soup