The Next Question: How Can We Improve the Lives of America’s Children?

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, briefly lays out the history of marriage to understand its present and future. “Today, when a marriage works,” Coontz argues, “it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before.” However, “the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation.” Instead of trying to resurrect a bygone ideal of marriage, those of us interested in encouraging healthy families now need to focus on what makes unmarried co-parents, single parents, cohabiting couples, as well as contemporary marriages successful on their own terms.

Response Essays

  • Kay S. Hymowitz, the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that Stephanie Coontz’s sketch of the state of marriage is badly incomplete, failing to acknowledge the class divide in marriage and childrearing. “This marriage gap,” she writes, “has profound implications for our political, social and economic prospects for one simple reason: overall, children do better in life if they are raised by their own married parents.” According to Hymowitz, “The de-linking of marriage and childrearing is a particular dilemma in the Unites States … [W]hat you have is a recipe for entrenched, trans-generational poverty, inequality, racial disparities …, reduced social and economic mobility, and — libertarians take note! — demands for government taxes to fund programs to correct the mess.”

  • Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the Univesity of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “re-frame Coontz’s careful history of the family in the language of economics,” exploring the economic forces underlying changes in marriage. Modern marriage, Stevenson and Wolfers argue, is marked by “a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption.” Modern marriage, which they call “hedonic marriage,” is more centered on love and companionship. Marriage as such isn’t doomed, they claim, but “marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed,” especially as women’s educational levels begin to surpass men’s. Attempts to “re-regulate” the family to fit a classic ideal, they argue “may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family.”

  • In his reply, University of Texas sociologist Norval D. Glenn, identifies Stephanie Coontz as a member of the “family-change-is-irreversible school of thought,” which he says “includes the view that attempts to retard, stop, or reverse any major aspect of recent family change are futile and thus are at best a waste of effort and at worst downright harmful…” But, Glenn asks, don’t liberals generally think policy can mitigate the consequences of economic change? Moreover, is anyone really asking to return to some Golden Age of marriage? There is evidence, Glenn submits, that marriage trends will further improve and that policy interventions, like marriage education, can help.