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David Frum’s Book Club: From Family Collapse to America's Decline

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Family life in America is bad. You probably have some idea about this, but it’s worse than you think. How bad? The worst in the industrialized world for starters. Want a surreal indicator of this fact? Even children born to cohabiting (unmarried) parents in Sweden stand a lesser chance of experiencing their parents breaking up than children born to married parents in the US. Jaw dropping.

Dr. Mitch Pearlstein’s From Family Collapse to America’s Decline makes an unapologetic attempt to soberly address one of America’s most tragic, yet largely ignored, shortcomings over the last half of the last century: the decline and collapse of the American family. It is the erosion of marriage and family, argues Pearlstein, which can be found at the root of coinciding declines in educational performance, and subsequently economic performance of the generations of American children raised in broken or never-formed families.

Pearlstein’s narrative picks up with the Moynihan Report, which signaled the opening shot in the national discussion of a growing trend of family breakdown. The trend then was mostly limited to African American families, and that report was suppressed as an unacceptable criticism of that community at a time when it was pulling itself up from the depths of segregation and securing real civil rights for the first time. This unfortunate result, and the coinciding social movement of women from the home to the workplace drove public discussion of the issue underground for twenty years, and emerged only when the deleterious effects of broken families on the well-being of children was unequivocally confirmed in empirical data.

Pearlstein, founder and president of Center of the American Experiment, a non-partisan conservative think tank based in Minnesota, relies wholly on empirical evidence derived from the entire spectrum of the American and European university and think tank community, peppered with personal anecdotes gathered from a lifetime of academic and public policy work. The problem, he demonstrates again and again with study after study, is huge and is at its worst. For instance, as of 2008 a majority (55%) of teenagers aged 15 to 17 had not spend their entire life with both their birth mother and biological father.

After establishing the universal negative effects of family fragmentation on children, Pearlstein proceeds with in depth examinations of its effects on educational and economic performance, followed by a frank discussion of how to strengthen education and marriage in America. Enough data listing the negative effects of fragmentation is provided that an entire review could recount just that, however, I only dwell on it briefly here, as the true value of the book is the concluding chapter on strengthening marriage.

Education.

Pearlstein opens this section by first recognizing and then moving past the conservative and liberal diagnosis for America’s very ill education system. The conservatives, of course blame teacher unions, administrator organizations, colleges of education, and the education system as a whole. Liberals often inject racism, economic inequality, and the shredding of social safety nets as the root. Both however, often agree that the attitude in education must be “no excuses” for poor student performance, or it’s game over. Pearlstein goes further than these competing views. He stakes out difficult territory by offering that expecting children in neighborhoods where 80 percent of children are born outside of wedlock and the majority of marriages that do manage to exist end in divorce, not only might be unrealistic, but stunts the ability of society and policy makers to address the real problem. That is not to say that Pearlstein advocates for expecting less of these children, I believe the point he is making is that we’re not truly paying attention to the adversity these children are actually facing, and that we are failing them because of it.

Economic.

Pearlstein argues that family fragmentation not only inhibits the normal growth and education of children, but also has a deleterious effect on the broader economy. The primary danger stemming from this in his opinion is not so much the obvious factors such as unrealized potential GNP, but instead the negative feedback effect from the double whammy of fragmented families and decreased income. In short, family breakdown begets family breakdown, and poverty begets poverty. If unchecked, this negative spiral could lead to what many fear, a permanent underclass, or a society that resembles a Latin American democracy more than it does the United States we still see ourselves in.

Strengthening Education.

In addressing how to strengthen education and marriage, Pearlstein is frank in stating that there is no panacea available to solve such a complex problem, but offers what he sees as steps that have shown promise toward improving our schools. Firstly, he argues for a strong dose of paternalism, and the importance of “moral and intellectual authority” in our schools. That is, our schools should not only provide academic instruction to our children, but also instill in them what one might call middle class values. Next, Pearlstein advocates for increased school choice, although he readily admits that studies show results can be mixed. He also sees promise in the increased use of technology in the classroom, especially for young men, whom studies show often have fewer problems with distraction when engaging it. Finally, he advocates for stronger early childhood education programs.

Strengthening marriage.

The true pearl of this book is its section on strengthening marriage. Again, when exploring this topic Pearlstein is frank in stating up front that there is no silver bullet solution here. If there had been it would have been solved long ago. Instead Pearlstein opens with anecdotal tales of how popular culture has forgotten the true victims of single parent families and disintegrating marriages. Marriage, he offers, has come to be seen by Americans as primarily “a couples relationship”, instead of an institution focused primarily on parenthood and childrearing. Although Pearlstein can’t offer a universal solution to reorient American culture toward what really matters (we’ll return to that in a moment), he does offer three themes for repairing marriage, or at the very least repairing people—especially young men—so that they are fit to be married. 

First, young men in America are in terrible shape, and the near and medium term outlook looks even worse.  Young men have serious achievement gaps in education, are more frequently diagnosed with learning disabilities, have a much higher rate of expulsion from schools, and have an astonishingly higher propensity to commit suicide. To illustrate the point Pearlstein borrows on the “For Every 100 Girls” exercise published by Tom Mortenson of the University of Minnesota. A choice few statistics from this exercise are that: for every 100 girls who repeat kindergarten, 194 boys do, for every 100 women who earn master’s degrees, 62 men do, and perhaps most alarming, for every 100 women ages 22 to 24 in correctional facilities, 1,448 men of the same ages are.  How, one might ask, can society expect its young men to stand up and take responsibility for, or at the very least be an equal partner in, a family when society is doing an abysmal job at providing them with the tools necessary to do so? Alternatively, how can America’s comparatively more stable, and better educated women expect to find a mate when there are so few young males fit to be partners in a stable relationship?  For a further examination of the sub-par field that women find themselves playing, see Kate Bolick’s All the Single Ladies in The Atlantic.

To begin to close the gap, and rebuild America’s male youth, Pearlstein references efforts in United States and Great Britain to gear curriculum for young males toward young males. That is, providing them with more tangible subject matters, and perhaps reducing material that is less so. More importantly however, Pearlstein loops back to the “moral and intellectual authority” that is lacking in our school rooms today, and the strong need to reinstate it. Schools that expect strong performance from their students, and refuse to let them fail, often see real results.

Second, and returning to the shocking statistic that for every 100 women ages 22 to 24 in correctional facilities, 1,448 men are, Pearlstein tackles a bear of an issue, especially for a political conservative. Hordes of males are seeing their lives hamstrung by getting tangled up with the law at a young age and having no clear path to restoring their good name in society thereafter. The United States has seven times the incarceration rate of Western Europe, as of the early 2000’s eleven percent of American males could expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. More alarming is the fact that for those that are arrested and/or convicted of a crime, their ability to get a quality job or education in the future is often permanently hamstrung. The wide availability of electronic criminal records, coupled with the dearth of programs available to offenders to erase convictions from their record after a period of good behavior mean that once convicted, an offender’s name is permanently tarnished in society. Pearlstein advocates for a sea change with regard to this problem. Developing programs to rehabilitate offenders, especially the huge numbers of minor drug offenders and other non-violent criminals (my note), provide an incentive for convicts to stay out of trouble, it gives them hope for a stable future free of social stigma. It should be noted that Pearlstein advocates for this to be done in the safest possible way, so that the result is not the release of those who pose a threat to society back into society. Without this, those that run afoul of the law, especially those that do so at a young age, will remain second-class citizens in the US, at a grave social cost, and needless to say, will make terrible marriage material as well.

Thirdly, and lastly, to strengthen marriage, Pearlstein advocates for social refocusing away from the adults in contemporary marriages and relationships, and toward the children who ultimately pay the heaviest price when these relationships fragment. He provides a list of organizations that have in some way or another advocated for the interests of children affected by this fallout, but ultimately recognizes that this is a cultural shift, which is beyond the scope of mere policy recommendations.  How to change a culture? Pearlstein borrows from an interview he had with Bill Bennett, then Secretary of Education under Reagan, “to say what [is] true in [your] heart ‘and say it over and over and over again’.” 

To conclude, the value of Pearlstein’s book is that it couples tomes of empirical studies from a diverse range of sources with a candid and honest discussion of what America’s marriage problem is doing to our country, and what we can actually do about it from a policy perspective and from a cultural perspective. It’s impossible not to at least briefly contrast this book with the also recently published book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. Where Murray’s book lists the symptoms of the decline of white America over the past half century, and concludes that there’s still enough opportunity to expect society to pick itself up and do better, Pearlstein looks behind the symptoms to examine the roots of the problem, and the emotional, mental, and economic harm it has wrecked upon America’s society and economy. Where Murray’s book is a wake up call to the problem our country faces, Pearlstein’s is that and a tool book for anyone serious about actually mending our country’s wounds and working toward a brighter future.

Bryce McNitt writes on public policy and politics issues for a number of sites. He was a contributor at FrumForum from 2009-2011. He lives and works in the Washington area.

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