July 27, 2005

Do Families Matter?

City Journal always strikes me as one of the most noxious magazines around. Mostly because its writers love to wade into decades-old debates, debates that have generated heaps and heaps of research, disregard all that research, and then flatly declare that liberals are stupid and conservatives were right all along about everything. Exhibit A is Kay Hymowitz's piece this month on how, contrary to the legions of liberal academics who have kept people poor and stupid for 40 years now with their pleas for welfare and whatnot, the one true cause of black poverty is that most black children grow up in fatherless homes. Liberals, Hymowitz declares, need to step out of their "don't blame the victim" mentality and realize this hyper-obvious fact.

Well, okay. Plenty of liberals have been thinking about the importance of family structure for quite some time: she even mentions two (William Julius Wilson and Sara MacLanahan), and then there was, um, the last Democratic president—a pretty prominent liberal, when you think about it. (Hymowitz makes it seem like Clinton was only "forced" to worry about family structure in the post-Gingrich era, but in fact, his 1992 campaign speeches included lines like, "Governments don't raise kids; parents do.") Beyond that, though, the relationship between marriage and childhood problems—let alone wider poverty—is complex and deserves a bit fuller treatment than the shallow gloss Hymowitz gives.

As it happens, the other day I was reading a collection of essays called The Future of the Family, edited by none other than Hymowitz' hero, Pat Moynihan, with a literature review of the effects of fatherlessness co-authored by... yet another one of Hymowitz' heroes, Sara MacLanahan! And lo, the results are a bit more ambiguous than the City Journal essay suggests. I can't possibly summarize the whole book here, but MacLanahan argues that, on the whole, research does indicate that fatherlessness is associated with lower test scores, greater levels of poverty, behavioral problems, delinquency, etc. for children. (For a dissenting view, however, do read Trish Wilson's post.) What's not clear, as MacLanahan points out, is why this might be the case. There could be a selection issue at work here: perhaps poverty causes both fatherlessness and negative outcomes for children, in which case single motherhood wouldn't be the root problem.

One study, for instance, found that "when pre-divorce circumstances are taken into account, the associations between family disruption and child outcomes become smaller, sometimes statistically insignificant." (Not all studies, though.) And then some of the findings are just plain odd. For instance, the academic achievement gap between kids in one- and two-parent families is moderately small in many social democracies like Sweden and Iceland—smaller than the gap in "neo-liberal" states like the U.S. or New Zealand—suggesting that a sturdy safety net can overcome the supposed disadvantages of single-parent families. On the other hand, the achievement gap is even smaller in Mediterranean countries like Greece, Portugal, and Cyprus, where child poverty is rampant and the safety net is tattered and frayed. But why? Basically, it's just not clear what works and what doesn't; it seems like losing a parent matters more in some places than others. But why? Dunno. Also, children in homes with a "resident cohabitating father" actually do worse than children in just single-mother families. But why? Dunno. The facts here aren't speaking for themselves, or else they are, but in ancient Aramaic.

One other thing: insofar as the fact of single motherhood itself is actually a "problem" (and I'm not convinced it is, but let's suppose...), there are basically two remedies. One, we can try to reduce the number of divorces by, say, making divorce harder to do, though that seems like a terrible option. Divorce is often very necessary, quite obviously, since even the best marriage counseling can't prevent every unhealthy or violent relationship. No kidding. Not only that, but placing restrictions on divorce could very well dissuade many adults from getting married in the first place, which would achieve exactly the opposite of what the family crusaders are gunning for here. Plus, changes in divorce laws would alter women's bargaining power in fairly fundamental and perhaps harmful ways—no one knows much about how this works. Policymakers might want to pursue publicly-funded marriage counseling (I believe Bush has advocated something of the sort, though I don't think anyone knows just how well it's worked yet.) At any rate, the divorce rate (per 1,000 women) has actually fallen over the past 20 years, from 22.6 in 1980 to 18.9 in 2000, according to a 2002 National Marriage Project study. Divorce just doesn't seem like a growing crisis in need of drastic action.

So let's look behind door #2. And door #2 is... reducing out-of-wedlock births in the first place. This seems like a pretty unambiguously decent policy goal, especially since 60 percent of all births are unintended, according to a 1995 Institute of Medicine study. (For her part, Hymowitz writes that back in the day "the truth was that underclass girls often wanted to have babies," but gives no evidence.) Now the tried-and-true way to reduce unintended out-of-wedlock births involves teen-pregnancy prevention programs that emphasize, yes, condoms and other "icky" items. (Hell, they can teach abstinence too, since that seems to work, though "abstinence-only" programs pretty clearly do not.) Measures to reduce subsequent pregnancy, like "second-chance homes" for teen mothers, or home visiting programs, seem to have had some success. Oh, and abortion—which, at the moment, is effectively unavailable to a good number of low-income women. But these are all pretty well-known liberal policy goals, I daresay.
-- Brad Plumer 3:02 AM || ||