The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
There is much to warrant optimism about the future of the United States, given the nation’s history of resilience in the face of adversity. But one social trend, the supplanting of the American family by government as the major source of economic security from cradle to grave, may prove more destructive to America’s future than any previous threat, foreign or domestic.
The problem begins with the dramatic change that has taken place in the family. An estimated 60 percent of all American children will spend at least some of their childhood in a single-parent household primarily as a result of divorce and rising out-of-wedlock births. The most recent figures show that, overall, 4 in 10 children in America are now born to single mothers. But among blacks the number is more than 7 in 10; and among Hispanics, fully half of all births occur out of wedlock.
In 1965, the late scholar and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that the rate of illegitimate births among blacks was responsible for “a tangle of pathology” that included high crime rates, poor performance in school, and high unemployment, especially among black men. At the time, 24 percent of black births were to single women, a rate lower than the current 28 percent illegitimacy rate for white women. “There is one unmistakable lesson in American history,” he said. “A community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.” But as trenchant as his analysis of the problem was, his solution—more government programs—did not alleviate the disaster taking place in the black family but accelerated it. Worse, dependence on government assistance spread to ever-larger segments of the American population.
Uncle Sam has largely replaced fathers in poor, single-mother-headed households, providing the food on the table, the roof over the family’s head, and the income to put clothes on their backs. And the expansion of the welfare state is no longer confined to the indigent but has now extended to the middle class as well. Middle-class parents have less incentive to save for their children’s college education when the federal government makes low-interest loans and grants available. Adult children, even those who are well off, are less likely to help support their elderly parents when government programs take on that responsibility. A study from the University of California, Davis, looking at welfare use among elderly Chinese immigrants in California in the 1990s, for example, showed that, despite cultural traditions that encourage children to provide for elderly parents, 55 percent of elderly Chinese were receiving welfare; and the great majority of these lived in households whose income was above the national average, often substantially so.
Even Social Security and Medicare, which most Americans think they’ve paid for through payroll taxes during their working years, have become a form of government subsidy. On average, even wealthier Americans will receive substantially more in benefits than they have contributed through payroll taxes. And the list goes on, including federal guarantees for home mortgages, interest rates that have been kept artificially low by the Federal Reserve, and mandated universal health care.
We are fast becoming a nation of takers, increasingly dependent on government through income transfers from the wealthy. Families made up of responsible, self-sufficient individuals who pay their own way and save for the future are fast disappearing. Unless we can reverse this cultural shift, the future of America is at risk.
Linda Chavez is the chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Her most recent contribution to Commentary, the short story “Afterbirth,” appeared in the May issue.