Marriage in America had its issues long before New York rewrote it last Friday. As Princeton’s Robert P. George discussed this week on National Review Online, when New York legalized no-fault divorce last summer, it dealt a blow to the institution and, therefore, to Empire State residents.
Knowing this, Chuck Donovan is a man with a plan. A longtime advocate of family-friendly public policy, and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, he has come up with “A Marshall Plan for Marriage: Rebuilding Our Shattered Homes.” Donovan discusses the peril to marriage — and his plan to shore up that institution — with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: A “Marshall Plan.” Is that a little overly dramatic?
Charles A. Donovan: No and yes. The problem of family disintegration is approaching that scale. The nation’s out-of-wedlock birth rate is more than 50 percent higher for all women of childbearing age than it was for the black American subset that so troubled the late Pat Moynihan when he wrote his study for the Labor Department in the 1960s. The poverty rate for children born to single parents is nearly five times higher than it is for children born into intact families.
Marriage breakdown, or failure to form families, is creeping upward into the middle class, as Brad Wilcox’s studies have pointed out, and it’s tied to diminished economic prospects for men. We don’t live in the aftermath of a war zone, but Detroit and some of our other cities, denuded of economic opportunity and mother-father families, rival post-World War II conditions.
But, yes, the phrase “Marshall Plan for Marriage” is overly dramatic. But being overly dramatic in the defense of marriage is no vice. I’m not proposing massive new investments — we are at a horrific stage of the cycle when even our bootstraps are frayed.
Lopez: Does that make the family Europe? Which would seem fitting, given how much Europe is hurting, demographically.
Donovan: For a long time, political liberals in the United States have admired European family policy — beginning with sexual mores and government-sponsored day care. We are trending in the direction of the most liberal of European states. When I reviewed the European family data, I looked among a few dozen countries for any that have succeeded in reversing the various measures of family decline — cohabitation, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, the size of their welfare states.
Not only is it very hard to find a good trend, it proved tough to find even single years where the trend lines improved. There are plenty of academics who won’t call these trends decline, but the truth on the ground is that Europe is struggling from extraordinary levels of dependency on the state. Family breakdown does not cause all of this — but it interacts with all the other factors that combine to cause it (heavy taxes, anti-population mania, lavish welfare and pensions).
Lopez: How and why is this a taxing problem that every taxpayer should care about?
Donovan: My colleague at the Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector, estimates that the annual cost of welfare benefits to support single-parent families is on the order of $300 billion. A few years ago, the Georgia Family Council and the Institute for American Values looked at the issue — the cost of divorce and unwed childbearing — and calculated an annual price tag of $112 billion. We know that the number is rising, and one in seven Americans receives food stamps today.
It’s not that the American people begrudge the neediest people this temporary help. It’s that we’re running the risk that this isn’t temporary, and we’re paying too little attention to the roots of the problem in the mistaken idea this is just a private matter. Public assistance is not a private matter. The diminution in a child’s prospects because he or she has no access to a father is not just a private matter.
Lopez: Has marriage become a class thing in a surprising way?
Donovan: I mentioned Brad Wilcox’s work for the National Marriage Project. It’s a study in cognitive dissonance when you look at it closely. His findings underscore, to put it plainly, that middle-class Americans are behaving today as the poorest Americans did a generation ago, by delinking the acts of having children and wearing a wedding band. The out-of-wedlock figures for poor Americans, meanwhile, have continued to worsen.
Ironically, however, the wealthiest and most educated Americans have actually enjoyed an uptick in marital stability. They are the most likely to favor policies like unilateral divorce and marriage redefinition and “evolving family forms,” but they’re hewing to traditional norms in their personal lives because those norms work. A nation that dislikes hypocrisy should not be pleased at this inconsistency.