Fragmented Families and Splintered Classes: Why So Much Churning? What Can be Done? What Will America Come to Look Like?: A Symposium


Mitch Pearlstein
Founder & President

This new American Experiment symposium grows out of a book of mine published just about a year ago, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation, which examined many of the problems and shortcomings resulting from very high rates of nonmarital births, very high rates of divorce, and routinely short-lived cohabiting relationships.  One of the book’s central themes is how such family churning—more specifically, the extent to which it hurts great numbers of children—is leading, and can only lead, to stunted mobility and deeper class divisions in a nation that has never viewed itself in such splintered ways.

The United States has the highest family fragmentation rates in the industrial world: Nonmarital births for the nation as a whole are about 40 percent, with proportions dramatically higher in many communities defined by race, ethnicity, or geography.  Divorce rates, while moderating in recent decades, are still estimated at about 40 percent for first marriages and 50 percent for second ones.  Cohabiting rates, moreover, have exploded, adding further to the instability of relationships.

Yet as injurious as these numbers are, entwined are the many ways in which worldwide economic changes are making it more imperative than ever for men and women to have solid, marketable skills at the very same and ongoing moment that high family breakdown rates are stunting the academic achievement of immense numbers of young people.

Yet while From Family Collapse to America’s Decline argues that all this portends a not-pretty picture for our country down not-distant roads, it doesn’t spend much time speculating in any detailed way about how such a picture might eventually look.  It doesn’t spend much time, in other words, imagining the many specific and high prices to be paid by a more demarcated America. Delving into matters like these is the objective of a new book I’m just starting, and in an unabashed attempt to get a few dozen smart men and women to help me think them through, I asked them to address questions like these:

  • How might abridged mobility and starker class divisions play out for lower-income and minority men, women, and, in particular, children?  What will it mean for their prospects?
  • What about the commonweal itself?  In what centrifugal ways might all this play out in the nation?  In Minnesota?
  • And getting to the core, what can be done to reduce out-of-wedlock births and divorce measurably in the first place?

The good news is that this symposium (we produce about one a year) is exceptionally rich in analyses of how we’ve come to this juncture.  Moreover, given how commentators in various settings are often quicker to devote more time and thought to why something is broken rather than suggesting compelling ways of fixing it, these 34 pieces (by 36 writers) are well-supplied with proposed remedies.

If there is any less-good news, it’s that most participants were hesitant to speculate with any specificity about the future, and as just noted, instead focused on our current rock- and divot-filled landscape and what should be done about it.  In fairness, I surely see how elusively difficult envisioning tomorrow can be, as witness the fact that a large purpose of this publication is borrowing and cribbing insights that I don’t have myself. Still, and by far, this is an invaluable collection, as it attacks head-on powerfully important issues that are routinely sidestepped all over our state and nation.  My thanks to all its contributors, men and women of varied viewpoints, right to left, from Minnesota and across the country.

With that as prologue, what follows is a sampling of arguments.

Two symposiasts who do, in fact, write provocatively about what the future holds are Lawrence Cooper of Carleton College and Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Professor Cooper writes of the possibility “however remote” of the “emergence of a powerful, organized, illiberal political movement.”  While such a movement has never seriously threatened to succeed in the United States, current and projected rates of family fragmentation are also unprecedented.  “America may be exceptional,” he argues, “but Americans aren’t exempt from the needs and tendencies of human nature.”  The basic point to be made, he continues, is “not that family breakdown leads to illiberal politics,” but rather that family fragmentation “does tend to lead to a pervasive sense of frustration and grievance and therewith humiliation.  These unhappy sentiments can create fertile ground for illiberal politics.”

“There is no mystery,” Professor McClay writes, “about the relationship between intact, two-parent families and academic attainment; and there is no mystery about the relationship between academic attainment and employment prospects and, therefore, upward mobility.  There really is no way to escape the consequences of these things, which have been long in coming, or to do much more than blunt their impact through social programs that themselves will prove unsustainable.”  Concluding, he writes, “If our politics seem ugly now, just wait until strapped state and local governments begin to renegotiate many of their most basic commitments, as they almost certainly will have to do.”

As one might imagine, differences between liberals and conservatives regarding the very origins and nature of the issues we’re talking about can be large.

Writing from the left side of the aisle, Edward Ehlinger,  Minnesota’s commissioner of health, argues that the “essential question is, how can we alter the social and economic circumstances that limit the choices of people of   color and lower-income individuals to unhealthy alternatives? Once we acknowledge that it is poverty, hunger, homelessness, joblessness, income inequality, illiteracy, poor schools, violence, decaying neighborhoods, segregation, and various forms of injustice, including bigotry and racism, that limit the choices of individuals, we will be closer to the right questions.”

DFL State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who has contributed to a number of American Experiment symposia, for which I’m grateful, writes that since Minnesota’s “economic future needs a large component of intellectual activity-based industry,” and that of the “increasing cost of higher education and the problem of paying the resultant debt are additional causes of stress for families and individuals,” totally free higher education for all might well be a good idea.  This would cost, she estimates, about $1.5 billion annually, or about nine percent of the total state annual general fund budget of $17.3 billion.  Less expensively, she also suggests just stopping all tuition increases at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.  Or, less costly still, she has introduced legislation to let “students pay college debt by a tax credit on income earned by working in Minnesota after graduation.”

Interpretations by conservatives are much more likely to focus on culture.  “Politics,” Chuck Chalberg writes, “isn’t everything,” but “culture often is,” with culture, in turn, trumping politics and buttressing economics.  In similar spirit (in both senses of the term), Chalberg, who teaches history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, suggests how it would be a salutary thing, when it comes to matters of family breakdown, if a modern-day John Wesley were to sweep through much of the country, not just through our inner city and poorest communities.

Diagnoses and prescriptions from the right also regularly include strictures about government doing too much, and in so doing, making things worse. Along with Representative Kahn, Mike Benson is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.  His take, though, on what government can do and should do takes a different turn.  “During my short time in the legislature,” he writes, “I have come to realize that the consequences of the policies legislated over the last 50 years, albeit with good intent, have in many ways contributed to the demise of the family structure.  We have enabled people to dismiss what were previously accepted norms of responsibility.  In far too many homes, the state’s programs have come to replace the male father as the source of income and male role modeling and to dismiss the importance of male leadership, emotional support, and faith modeling needed for a healthy family structure.”

Focusing on and celebrating the invaluable role of the private sector, as conservatives have been known to do, Terrence Scanlon of the Washington-based Capitol Research Center, writes of on-the-ground nonprofits and the against-the-grain philanthropies that support them.  “Perhaps the most successful example of such work,” he writes, “was ‘First Things First,’ a Chattanooga nonprofit created after a group of Tennessee businessmen decided that they had to do something about the city’s high rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, and fatherlessness.”

Then there are contributors who challenge notions of both right and left in regards to fragmentation.  What’s needed, George Liebmann of the Calvert Institute in Maryland writes, are “Premarital counseling, child tax credits, other tax policies that do not penalize part-time employment, work programs and payroll tax preferences for the young, distance learning, ceilings on student loans, a preference for domestic rather than foreign adoptions, and the removal of all aspects of family policy from the naïve and easily influenced federal courts.”  This, he notes, is “not the agenda of liberals, the Tea Party, or the so-called Religious Right.”

As one might imagine, weaving through many of the essays are assertions about the importance of education for breaking free.  Nelson Smith, formerly president of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, writes, “I line up with people who think education solves poverty, rather than being precluded by it.  As an advocate for charter schools, I’ve seen plenty of evidence that intense, mission-driven schools can improve achievement dramatically among low-income students, many from disintegrated households.  Those kids should be the focus.”

Several writers had intriguing things to say about thrift, an essential notion, albeit not one often mentioned in discussions of fragmentation. David Lapp of the New York-based Institute for American Values and W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia-based National Marriage Project refer to research by Utah State’s Jeffrey Dew when they jointly write about how newlyweds with “substantial consumer debt are less happy in their marriages over time.”  Contrastingly, newly married couples “who paid off consumer debt early in their marriages were more likely to report happy marriages years down the road.”  Other research, they note, shows that only infidelity, along with alcohol and drug abuse, are “more powerful predictors of divorce than the perception that one’s spouse has spent money foolishly.”

Perhaps the most frequently cited portion of Charles Murray’s latest, once-again seminal book, Coming Apart, comes a page from the end when he says a large part of the issues at hand “consists of nothing more complicated than our unwillingness to say out loud what we believe.  A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice.”  Several symposiasts write in a similar vein, including Paul Allick, an Episcopal parish priest in the Twin Cities, who had recently attended a church meeting in which a social service agency had shown a video about a family it had helped get settled in a new home.

“The family,” Allick writes, “consisted of a very young mother and two children.  There was never any mention of a father.  There was nothing said about the mother’s employment status.  We were told that these families end up this way because the poverty rate is increasing.  They were in this situation because others are greedy and uncaring.  This did not make sense to me.”

Nevertheless, Allick found himself “keeping silent out of fear of sounding mean or being accused of blaming the victim,” thereby not asking (though he wanted to) about the father, or about whether the family was part of a faith community, or about the woman’s extended family. “Those of us,” he sums up, “who see the problems existing and worsening have a responsibility to say something.”

Then there are intriguing conceptions and important proposals that don’t fit neatly into any particular category, at least none of those above.  Here are but three.

Bruce Peterson, a Hennepin County District judge, argues, “Cultural norms have long recognized that a young man who marries and fathers children has an entirely new lifestyle expected of him.  That has not necessarily been the case for unmarried fathers . . . . I have been discussing with some fathers’ advocates the development of a ‘Commitment to Parenting’ ritual for unmarried parents that would have the same solemnity as a marriage ceremony and would give new parents a chance to pledge publicly their total support to their child and their parenting relationship.”

Granted, this idea does not speak directly to re-institutionalizing marriage and might even be interpreted as acquiescing to its demise in many communities.  Yet I can see how it could help many children.

Larry Purdy, a Vietnam war veteran and Minneapolis attorney, proposes compulsory national service for every qualified citizen.  He acknowledges that his is “not a popular idea with colleagues across the ideological spectrum, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.”

How might it actually help?  According to Purdy, just one way would be in exposing citizens to America’s consensus core values.  “To the extent any of these virtues—say, industriousness and honesty, along with strong marriages reinforced by positive religious practices—are seen as leading to more successful societal outcomes, every participant would more than likely be influenced by them.”

One of the bottom lines of Rhonda Kruse Nordin’s recommendations and admonitions is that “parents do a better job masterminding the imprint from which our children base their own love stories.”  By this she means, “Each of us has a marriage imprint built upon the marriage of our parents.  We, as parents, are our children’s imprint for intimacy.  Based on what children see in the marriage relationship, they draw conclusions and form permanent beliefs and expectations about marriage.”

This imprint, as one might expect, “shapes a child’s personality, choices, relationships, and lifetime experiences and does more to influence a child’s long-term well-being than any other one factor.”  More broadly, decisions made by mothers and fathers, be they married or not, don’t reside only at home but instead ripple through society, sculpting the love lives of not just their own kids.  Ms. Nordin is a writer in the Twin Cities and a resource for parents and others in strengthening families.

A few final points, if I may.

You may notice that different writers use different statistics when it comes to marriage, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and the like.  This is to be expected, as there are a lot of data out there from a lot of different sources.  Suffice it to say, what’s important for our purposes are not necessarily their perfect consistency but rather their rounded girth.

In addition to saluting our three dozen writers once more, my great thanks to Senior Fellow Kent Kaiser, who doubles and triples in the academic and other roles he plays, including having copy-edited (I do believe) every annual installment of this symposium series.  And doing so particularly beautifully this time around (which would have been a sentence fragment he certainly would have caught if I hadn’t added this appendage).  Big thanks also to Peter Zeller, Britt Drake, and other American Experiment colleagues, as one way or another, just about everyone winds up involved in projects like these.

Especially because problems of family fragmentation and often disintegration are less than conducive to sunny or expectant takes on matters, an encouraging way to close is with the help of G. K. Chesterton, the Englishman of many letters, as quoted by Chuck Chalberg in his essay.  “Hope,” Chesterton wrote, “means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”

With that, and as always, we welcome your comments.

October 2012