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The breakdown of the American family leads to a sick society

Written By | Jan 27, 2015

WASHINGTON, January 27, 2015 – In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (March 16, 1927 – March 26, 2003), then assistant secretary of labor who went on to serve as the Democratic U.S. senator from New York for nearly a quarter-century, issued a report in 1965 warning of a crisis growing for America’s black families (The Negro Family: The Case For National Action-1965).

That report predicted a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births and one-parent families and warned of the “tangle of pathologies” which resulted. Among these was poor performance in school, increased drug use, and a growing rate of incarceration for crime.

“The Moynihan argument…assumed that the troubles impending for black America were unique,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. “a consequence of the singular historical burdens that black Americans had endured in our country.  That argument was not only plausible at the time, but also persuasive.  Yet today that same ‘tangle of pathology’ can no longer be described as characteristic of just one group within our country.  Quite the contrary…these pathologies are evident throughout all of America today, regardless of race or ethnicity.”

That report now looks prescient, not only for black America, but for all America.

Single motherhood has become so common in America that demographers believe that half of all children will live with a single mother at some point before age 18.

Research from Princeton University’s Sara McLanahan and Harvard University’s Christopher Jencks shows that more than 70 per cent of all black children are born to an unmarried mother, a threefold increase since the 1960s.

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In a new paper, McLanahan and Jencks assess the state of children born to single mothers, nearly fifty years after the Moynihan Report warned that the growing number of fatherless black children would struggle to avoid poverty.

Black children today are about twice as likely as the national average to live with an unmarried mother. Research is confirming Moynihan’s fears that children of unmarried mothers face more obstacles in life.

In the studies reviewed by McLanahan and Jencks, it was found that these children experience more family instability, with new partners moving in and out, and more half-siblings fathered by different men.

The growing number of studies in this field also suggest that these children have more problem behaviors and more trouble finishing school than their peers in two-parent homes.

The growing debate about income inequality ignores the evidence which shows that unwed parents raise poorer children. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institute calculates that returning marriage rates to their 1970 level would lower the child poverty rate by a fifth.

There may be a partisan political reason why this point is not made more often. The Economist suggests that,

“This omission may be deliberate.  Democrats are reluctant to offend unmarried women, 60 per cent of whom voted for the party’s candidates in 2014.”

There may be, some observers point out, a connection between government welfare programs and the breakdown of the family, as well as the declining number of men in the workforce.

READ: The stirring of racial divisions harms all Americans

As late as 1963, on the eve of the War on Poverty, more than 93 per cent of American babies were coming into the world with two married parents. According to the 1960 census, nearly 88 per cent of children under 18 were then living with two parents.

For the quarter century from 1940 to 1965, official data recorded a rise in the fraction of births to unmarried women from 3.8 per cent to 7.7 per cent. Over the following quarter century, 1965-1990, out-of-wedlock births jumped from 7.7 per cent of the nationwide total to 28 per cent.

The most recent available data are for 2012, which shows America’s over-all out-of-wedlock ratio had moved beyond 40 per cent.

Among Hispanic Americans, more than 30 per cent of children were in single-parent homes by 2013, and well over half were born out of wedlock by 2012.

Among  non-Hispanic white Americans, there were few signs of family breakdown before the massive government entitlement programs began with the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Between 1940 and 1963, the out-of-wedlock birth ratio increased, but only from 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

In 1960, just 6 per cent of white children lived with single mothers. As of 2012, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births was 29 per cent, nearly 10 times as high as it was just before the War on Poverty.

In his study, “The Great Society At Fifty: The Triumph and the Tragedy,” Nicholas Eberstadt argues:

“What is indisputable…is that the new American welfare state facilitated these new American trends by helping to finance them: by providing support for working-age men who are no longer seeking employment and for single women with children who would not be able to maintain independent households without government aid.  Regardless of the origins of the flight from work and family breakdown, the War on Poverty and successive welfare policies have made each of these modern tendencies more feasible as mass phenomena in our country today.”

The War on Poverty, of course, did not envision such a result.  hese were unintended consequences which, as we have seen, is the case with many well-intentioned government programs.

President Lyndon Johnson wanted to bring dependence on government handouts to an eventual end and did not intend to perpetuate them into the future. Three months after his Great Society speech, Johnson declared:

“We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls of welfare rolls…Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.”

In Eberhardt’s view,

“Held against this ideal, the actual unfolding of America’s antipoverty policies can be seen only as a tragic failure.  Dependence on government relief, in its many modern versions, is more widespread today, and possibly also more habitual, than at any time in our history.  To make matters much worse, such aid has become integral to financing lifestyles and behavioral patterns plainly destructive to our commonwealth—and on a scale far more vast than could have been imagined in an era before such antipoverty aid was all but unconditionally available.”

Any serious discussion of poverty and the growing gaps in income must confront the reasons why, for example, in the past 50 years, the fraction of civilian men ages 25 to 34 who were neither working nor looking for work has quadrupled and that for many women, children, and even working-age men, the entitlement state has become the breadwinner.

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said

“…the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it, but what it costs those who receive it.”

At the heart of the social and economic decline we face at the present time is the breakdown of the family.  Few in the political arena, in either party, are addressing this question.

Unless they do, their proposals to move our economy forward and lessen the gaps in income and wealth are unlikely to succeed.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.