Family Structure is Main Source of Inequality

March 18, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve written a good bit lately on the relationship between family structure and the issues of poverty and increasing inequality. But this fine column by George Will requires another visit to the topic (Washington Post, 3/15/15). It’s the 50th anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s work detailing the coming dysfunction in the African-American community occasioned by welfare policies that encouraged the removal of fathers from their families. Moynihan saw what was coming, said so and was excoriated for his trouble.

Fifty years ago this month, Moynihan, then a 37-year-old social scientist working in the Labor Department, wrote a report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” that was leaked in July. The crisis he discerned was that 23.6 percent of African American births were to unmarried women. Among the “tangle” of pathologies he associated with the absence of fathers was a continually renewed cohort of inadequately socialized adolescent males. This meant dangerous neighborhoods and schools where disciplining displaced teaching. He would later write: “A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority… that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Of course today we’d fall on our knees thanking a benevolent providence that reduced our out-of-wedlock birth rate to 23.6%. In the black community, it’s 72%, among whites it’s 36% and overall it’s 41%. Will produces a couple of bits of data previously unknown to me.

…48 percent of first births of all races and ethnicities are to unmarried women, and more than 3 million mothers under 30 are not living with the fathers of their children.

Yes, almost half of all first births are to unmarried women. To those with eyes to see and ears to hear, this is courting disaster. Doing everything we can to reverse this process should be Job One for this and every subsequent presidential administration. State and local governments should be involved, laws and policies changed. If we are at all serious about our society’s future, we will start reform immediately and not let up until we see the positive changes we can make.

Conservative voice that he is, Will of course lays the genesis of the problem at the feet of liberals, and he’s not wrong to do so. Liberal Nicholas Kristof did the same just a few days ago.

In the mid-1960s, a social scientist noted something ominous that came to be called “Moynihan’s Scissors”: Two lines on a graph crossed, replicating the blades of a scissors. The descending line charted the decline in the minority male unemployment rate. The ascending line charted the simultaneous rise of new welfare cases.

The broken correlation of improvements in unemployment and decreased welfare dependency shattered confidence in social salvation through economic growth and reduced barriers to individual striving. Perhaps the decisive factors in combating poverty and enabling upward mobility were not economic but cultural — the habits, mores and dispositions that equip individuals to take advantage of opportunities.

This was dismaying because governments know how to alter incentives and remove barriers but not how to manipulate culture. The assumption that the condition of the poor must improve as macroeconomic conditions improve was to be refuted by a deepened understanding of the crucial role of the family as the primary transmitter of the social capital essential for self-reliance and betterment. Family structure is the primary predictor of social outcomes, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew in 1965…

The election of Kennedy was celebrated in academia as the empowerment of the professoriate. Moynihan ruefully remembered the euphoric expectation of “the direct transmission of social science into governmental policy.” We still are far from fully fathoming all that has caused the social regression about which Moynihan was prescient. There has been what he called “iatrogenic government,” an iatrogenic ailment being one caused by a physician or medicine: Some welfare policies provided perverse incentives for absent fathers.

The direct transmission of social science into governmental policy? Ha! If there’s one thing about which I’ve been pounding the table for the past several years, it’s our failure to do just that. Social science now tells us unequivocally that equal parenting is best for children, but to date, no state legislature, with the possible exception of Arizona has amended its laws on parenting time post-divorce to reflect what we know. Judges aren’t trained in the social science either, so, even in states that permit more equal divisions of parenting time, the same old child-unfriendly custody orders continue to be issued.

And Will should be aware that, as “iatrogenic” as our problem of fatherlessness is, there are things the government can do to fix it. As I’ve said before, all children should learn from early ages that the decision by two adults to have a child is the decision to raise it together. That means women aren’t free to have children on their own and cut the father out of the child’s life. It means men aren’t free to sire children and walk away. It means parents need to put children first and their own needs second in all but the direst situations. It means family courts must order equal parenting whenever possible.

Of course no law or government policy can force any parent – mother or father – to be caring, loving or capable. If one wants to walk away from a child, there’s not a lot we can do. Inevitably, some parents will be irresponsible. But what we can do is remove the barriers to parents who would play a meaningful role in their children’s lives if only perverse laws and unwise judges would allow them to.

We can do this. And if we do, we’ll put a big dent in the large array of problems produced by poverty and fatherless children. That will make us less dysfunctional as a society and free up tax money for other purposes, be that cutting taxes, improving social security or a hundred other possibilities. But it won’t get done by itself. We must do it.

That could mean listening to political scientist Lawrence Mead whom Will quotes to good effect.

Today, a nation dismayed by inequality and the intergenerational transmission of poverty must face the truth that political scientist Lawrence Mead enunciated nearly 25 years ago: “The inequalities that stem from the workplace are now trivial in comparison to those stemming from family structure. What matters for success is less whether your father was rich or poor than whether you knew your father at all.”

On the part of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, there’s now much hand-wringing about inequality. We know its causes and we know at least one of its solutions. Indeed, we’ve known them for 50 years. Will we pay attention to what we know? Will we do the obvious?


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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