As I have argued in this forum and in my recent book, good marriages today are fairer, more intimate, and more likely to improve the well-being of their members (husbands, wives and children) than ever before — indeed, part of today’s gap between child outcomes in one and two-parent families may be due to the improvement of two-parent-family functioning in marriages that last. But the same things that make marriage more potentially beneficial make it more optional, and less bearable when it doesn’t deliver the benefits that people have come to expect. And they have also made singlehood a more rewarding alternative than ever before. It appears that we mostly agree that the increase in choice and gender equity has, on average, been a good thing for adults, despite the difficulties for some populations, which we have all acknowledged.
We also agree that some of America’s children are in trouble, and while we disagree on the causal role of divorce and single-parenthood, no one denies that such family situations often magnify children’s problems, especially in highly-stressed communities where it is hard for even the most well-functioning family alliance to protect a child. Of course, two dedicated parents with a good parental alliance are good for kids. But since we all seem to agree that this isn’t always what you get, and that we are unlikely to be able to restore marriage to its former role in organizing the lives of all Americans, young or old, maybe it’s time to have a more specific, data-driven discussion of how we can improve the lives of America’s children.
The United States has higher child poverty rates — even among two-parent families — than almost any other advanced industrial society. Our teens are no more likely to have premarital sex, but some of them start earlier, and fewer of them engage in safe sex, than teens in other advanced countries. While it is mostly impoverished American teens who take a pregnancy to term, even affluent Americans teens are more likely to have abortions and to get STD’s than teens in countries with more permissive attitudes toward teenage sexuality and alternative family forms. So family values and forms cannot be the exclusive cause of these problems. And we know for sure that divorce and single parenthood are not necessarily sentences of doom. Between 1992 and 2002, for example, even as marriage continued to recede in the U.S., teen birth rates fell by 30 percent and teen violence rates and homicide rates hit their lowest level since the late 1960s (a time when there were many more two-parent families).
The last two years, however, have seen an uptick in some indicators of child and youth problems. Our common concern about that should allow us to move toward a serious and concrete discussion of the various options we have to address these issues.