Commentary Magazine

The Family-Values Debate

There are two views about the contemporary American family, one held by the public and the other by policy elites. In his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton appeared to endorse the public’s view. It remains to be seen which view President Clinton will support.

The public’s view is this: the family is the place in which the most basic values are instilled in children. In recent years, however, these values have become less secure, in part because the family has become weaker and in part because rivals for its influence—notably television and movies—have gotten stronger. One way the family has become weaker is that more and more children are being raised in one-parent families, and often that one parent is a teenage girl. Another way is that parents, whether in one- or two-parent families, are spending less time with their children and are providing poorer discipline. Because family values are so important, political candidates should talk about them, though it is not clear that the government can do much about them. Overwhelmingly, Americans think that it is better for children if one parent stays home and does not work, even if that means having less money.1

No such consensus is found among scholars or policy-makers. That in itself is revealing. Beliefs about families that most people regard as virtually self-evident are hotly disputed among people whose job it is to study or support families.

A good example of the elite argument began last fall on the front page of the Washington Post, where a reporter quoted certain social scientists as saying that the conventional two-parent family was not as important for the healthy development of children as was once supposed. This prompted David Popenoe, a professor at Rutgers who has written extensively on family issues, to publish in the New York Times an op-ed piece challenging the scholars cited in the Post. Popenoe asserted that “dozens” of studies had come to the opposite conclusion, and that the weight of the evidence “decisively” supported the view that two-parent families are better than single-parent families.

Decisively to him, perhaps, but not to others. Judith Stacey, another professor of sociology, responded in a letter to the Times that the value of a two-parent family was merely a “widely shared prejudice” not confirmed by empirical studies; Popenoe, she said, was trying to convert “misguided nostalgia for ‘Ozzie-and-Harriet’-land into social-scientific truth.” Arlene and Jerome Skolnick, two more professors, acknowledged that although Popenoe might be correct, saying so publicly would “needlessly stigmatize children raised in families that don’t meet the ‘Ozzie-and-Harriet’ model.” After all, the Skolnicks observed, a man raised outside that model had just been elected President of the United States.



The views of Stacey and the Skolnicks are by no means unrepresentative of academic thinking on this subject. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead recently surveyed the most prominent textbooks on marriage and the family. Here is my paraphrase of her summary of what she found:

The life course is full of exciting options. These include living in a commune, having a group marriage, being a single parent, or living together. Marriage is one life-style choice, but before choosing it people weigh its costs and benefits against other options. Divorce is a part of the normal family cycle and is neither deviant nor tragic. Rather, it can serve as a foundation for individual renewal and new beginnings. Marriage itself should not be regarded as a special, privileged institution; on the contrary, it must catch up with the diverse, pluralistic society in which we live. For example, same-sex marriages often involve more sharing and equality than do heterosexual relationships. But even in the conventional family, the relationships between husband and wife need to be defined after carefully negotiating agreements that protect each person’s separate interests and rights.2

Many politicians and reporters echo these sentiments and carry the argument one step further. Not only do poor Ozzie and Harriet (surely the most maligned figures in the history of television) stand for nostalgic prejudice and stigmatizing error, they represent a kind of family that in fact scarcely exists. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder has been quoted as saying that only about 7 percent of all American families fit the Ozzie-and Harriet model. Our daily newspapers frequently assert that most children will not grow up in a two-parent family. The message is clear: not only is the two-parent family not especially good for children, but fortunately it is also fast disappearing.

Yet whether or not the two-parent family is good for children, it is plainly false that this kind of family has become a historical relic. For while there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of children, especially black children, who will spend some or even most of their youth in single-parent families, the vast majority of children—nationally, about 73 percent—live in a home with married parents. Today, the mothers in those families are more likely to work than once was the case, though most do not work full time. (I am old enough to remember that even Harriet worked, at least in real life. She was a singer.)

The proponents of the relic theory fail to use statistics accurately. The way they arrive at the discovery that only 7 percent of all families fit the Ozzie-and-Harriet model is by calculating what proportion of all families consists exactly of a father, mother, and two (not three or four) children and in which the mother never works, not even for two weeks during the year helping out with the Christmas rush at the post office.



The language in which the debate over two-parent families is carried on suggests that something more than scholarly uncertainty is at stake. If all we cared about were the effects of one- versus two-parent families on the lives of children, there would still be a debate, but it would not be conducted on op-ed pages in tones of barely controlled anger. Nor would it be couched in slogans about television characters or supported by misleading statistics.

What is at stake, of course, is the role of women. To defend the two-parent family is to defend, the critics worry, an institution in which the woman is subordinated to her husband, confined to domestic chores with no opportunity to pursue a career, and taught to indoctrinate her children with a belief in the rightness of this arrangement. To some critics, the woman here is not simply constrained, she is abused. The traditional family, in this view, is an arena in which men are free to hit, rape, and exploit women. To defend the traditional family is to defend sexism. And since single-parent families are disproportionately headed by black women, criticizing such families is not only sexist but racist.

Perhaps the most influential book on this subject to appear during the 1970’s was The Future of Marriage by Jessie Bernard, a distinguished scholar. Widely reviewed, its central message was that the first order of business for marriage must be “mitigating its hazards for women.”

Unlike more radical writers, Bernard thought that the future of marriage was assured, but this would be the case only because marriage would now take many forms. Traditional marriages would persist but other forms would gain (indeed, had already gained) favor—communes, group marriages, the ménage à trois, marital “swinging,” unmarried cohabitation, and limited-commitment marriages. (She did not discuss mother-only families as one of these “options.” Nor did she discuss race.) In principle, no one form was better than another because “there is nothing in human nature that favors one kind of marriage over another.” In practice, the forms that were best were those that were best for the woman. What might be best for children was not discussed. Children, it would seem, were incidental to marriage, except insofar as their care imposed strains on their parents, especially their mothers.

The main theme of much of the writing about marriage and families during the 1970’s and 1980’s was that of individual rights. Just as polities were only legitimate when they respected individual rights, so also marriages were worthy of respect only when they were based on a recognition of rights.

This view impressed itself on many who were not scholars, as is evident from an essay published in 1973 in the Harvard Educational Review. It urged that the “legal status of infancy . . . be abolished” so that a child would be endowed with all the rights of an adult. Even more, any law that classified people as children and treated them differently from adults “should be considered suspect.” As a result, the state “would no longer be able to assume the rationality of regulations based on age.” The author of this essay was Hillary Rodham.



A rights-based, individualistic view of marriage is questionable in its own terms, but these theoretical questions would become insuperable objections if it could be shown that children are harmed by growing up in mother-only, or communal, or swinging, or divorced households. The academic study of families during the 1970’s, however, did not produce an unchallenged body of evidence demonstrating that this was the case. There were several studies that attempted to measure the impact of mother-only families on their children’s school attainment, job success, and personal conduct, but many discovered either no effects or ones that were ambiguous or equivocal.

I first became aware of this in the early 1980’s when Richard J. Herrnstein and I were writing Crime and Human Nature. One of my tasks was to prepare the first draft of the chapter on the effects on crime rates of what were then called broken homes. I fully expected to find a raft of studies showing that growing up in a mother-only home put the child, especially the boy, at risk for criminality.

I did not find what I had expected to find. To be sure, I ran across the familiar fact that men in prison tended disproportionately to come from broken homes, but men in prison also tended to have parents who were themselves criminal and to come from poor, minority backgrounds. Since these factors—class, race, parental criminality, and family status—tended to co-vary, it was not clear that family background had any effect independent of temperament or circumstance. Similarly, Elizabeth Herzog and Cecelia Sudia reviewed eighteen studies of female-headed families carried out between 1950 and 1970. They found that in seven there was more delinquency in father-absent homes, in four there was less, and in seven the results were mixed. Some studies showed boys in father-absent homes failing to develop an appropriate masculine identity and others uncovered no such effect. (There was—and is—ample evidence that children from cold, discordant homes are likely to have plenty of problems, but there are lots of cold, discordant two-parent families.)

Since I wrote that chapter, though, the evidence that single-parent families are bad for children has mounted. There will never be anything like conclusive proof of this proposition unless we randomly assign babies at birth to single- and two-parent families of various economic and ethnic circumstances and then watch them grow up. Happily the laws and customs of this country make such an experiment unlikely. Short of that, the best evidence comes from longitudinal studies that follow children as they grow up in whatever kind of family nature has provided.

One example: when the 5,000 children born in the United Kingdom during the first week of March 1946 were followed for three decades, those raised in families broken by divorce or desertion were more likely than those living in two-parent families to become delinquent.3

A second example: for many years, Sheppard Kellam and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University followed several hundred poor, black, first-grade children in a depressed neighborhood in Chicago. Each child lived in one of several different family types, depending on how many and what kinds of adults were present. In about one-third of families the mother was the only adult present; in another third there was both a mother and a father. (Only a tiny fraction was headed by a father with no mother present.) The remainder was made up of various combinations of mothers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, adult brothers and sisters, and various unrelated adults. By the time the children entered the third grade, those who lived with their mothers alone were the worst off in terms of their socialization. After ten years, the boys who had grown up in mother-only families (which by then made up about half the total) reported more delinquencies, regardless of family income, than those who had grown up in families with multiple adults, especially a father.4

By 1986, when Rolf and Magda Loeber of the University of Pittsburgh reviewed 23 studies assessing the relationship of parental absence (usually, father absence) to juvenile delinquency, they found an effect, though smaller than the one caused by discord within a two-parent family.5 One problem with their overall conclusion was that they lumped together families where the biological father had never been present with those in which he left, as a result of separation, divorce, or death, while the child was growing up. Inspecting their data suggests that if the latter cases are omitted, the connection between family status and criminality is strengthened a bit: fathers never present create greater hazards than fathers who depart (owing to death or divorce) later in the child’s life. The greatest hazard of all is found in families where the parents have the greatest number of problems—they are absent, discordant, rejecting, incompetent, and criminal.



The most recent important study of family structure was done in 1988 by the Department of Health and Human Services. It surveyed the family arrangements of more than 60,000 children living in households all over the country. Interviews were conducted in order to identify any childhood problems in health, schoolwork, and personal conduct. These results were tabulated according to the age, sex, and ethnicity of the child and the income and marital status of the parents.

The results were striking. At every income level save the very highest (over $50,000 per year), for both sexes and for whites, blacks, and Hispanics alike, children living with a never-married or a divorced mother were substantially worse off than those living in two-parent families. Compared to children living with both biological parents, children in single-parent families were twice as likely to have been expelled or suspended from school, to display emotional or behavioral problems, and to have problems with their peers; they were also much more likely to engage in antisocial behavior. These differences were about as wide in households earning over $35,000 a year as they were in those making less than $10,000.6

Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has been looking at the people whose lives have been followed by the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY) since they were in high school (they are now in their late twenties or early thirties). The NLSY not only keeps careful records of the schooling, jobs, and income of these young adults, it also looks at the home environment in which they are raising any children they may have. These home observations rate emotional quality, parental involvement in child care, style of discipline, and the like. The homes, thus observed, can be ranked from best to worst.

Murray has compared the home environments with the economic status of the parents and the legal status of the child. The odds of the children living in the worst home environments were powerfully affected by two things: whether the parents were married when they had the baby and whether they were regular welfare recipients. The child of an unmarried woman who was a chronic welfare recipient had one chance in six of growing up in the worst—that is, emotionally the worst—environment. The child of a married woman who never went on welfare had only one chance in 42.7

Being poor hurts children. Living in a rotten neighborhood hurts them. Having cold or neglectful parents certainly hurts them. But so also does being illegitimate and living on welfare. This is generally true for whites as well as blacks.

And so also does being a teenage mother. For many years, Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues have been following 300 teenage mothers living in Baltimore. What they have found supports the public’s view. Teenage girls who have babies fare much worse than ones who postpone child-bearing, and this is true even among girls of the same socioeconomic background and academic aptitude. They are more likely to go on welfare, and less likely to enter into a stable marriage. The children of teenage mothers, compared with those of older ones, tend to have more trouble in school, to be more aggressive, and to have less self-control. This is especially true of boys.8

We have always had teenage mothers, and in some less-developed societies that is the norm. What is new and troubling about the present situation is the vast increase in the number of teenage mothers and their concentration in the same neighborhoods. A girl with a baby presents one kind of problem when she is either a rarity or is embedded in an extended family that provides guidance and assistance from older women living with her. She presents a very different and much more serious problem when she is one of thousands of similarly situated youngsters living in the same neighborhood or public-housing project, trying to maintain an independent household on welfare.

A lot more light will be shed on these issues when Sara McLanahan at Princeton and Gary Sandefur at the University of Wisconsin publish their careful analysis of the best available longitudinal data bases.9 There are at least four of these files—the already-mentioned National Longitudinal Study of Youth; the Panel Study of Income Dynamics; the High School and Beyond Study; and the National Survey of Families and Households. McLanahan and Sandefur are looking at the effect of family structure, after controlling for income, race, and education, on such things as a child’s chances of graduating from high school, a girl’s chances of becoming a teenage mother, and a boy’s chances of being idle (that is, neither working nor in school). Their results so far suggest that children who grow up in single-parent families do less well than those who grow up in intact families, and that this is true whether they are white or black, rich or poor, boys or girls. These other factors make a difference—it is better to be white than black, rich than poor—but so does family status.



I think that the American people are right in their view of families. When they look at the dramatic increase in divorce, single-parent families, and illegitimate children that has taken place over the last 30 years, they see families in decline. They do not need studies to tell them that these outcomes are generally bad, because they have had these outcomes happen to them or to people they know. Divorce may sometimes be the right and necessary remedy for fundamentally flawed marriages and for the conditions created by an abusive or neglectful spouse, but in general divorce makes people worse off: the woman becomes poorer and the children more distressed. Properly raising a child is an enormous responsibility that often taxes the efforts and energies of two parents; one parent is likely to be overwhelmed. Children born out of wedlock are in the great majority of cases children born into poverty. Millions of people are living testimony to these bleak facts. If scholars say that the evidence is not conclusive, so much the worse for scholars. But now, I believe, scholars are starting to find hard facts to support popular impressions.

The debate over the effects of family structure continues, albeit with some prospect of a consensus emerging some time in the near future. But there is not even a glimmer of such an accord with respect to the other hot topic in family studies—day care. The dominant view among child psychologists is that day care is not harmful. For a long time Professor Jay Belsky of Pennsylvania State University shared that view. When he changed his mind, he was excoriated. He is now of the opinion that day care, especially in the first year of life, is harmful in some respects to some children.

In a widely-reported 1988 article, Belsky reviewed all the studies measuring the effect of nonmaternal care on attachment and social development and concluded that, subject to many caveats,

entry into [day] care in the first year of life for twenty hours or more per week is a “risk factor” for the development of insecure attachment in infancy and heightened aggressiveness, noncompliance, and withdrawal in the preschool and early school years.10

By “risk factor” Belsky meant that the child in day care was somewhat more likely to experience these adverse outcomes than would a similar child under parental care, especially if the day care was not of high quality.

Some critics argued with Belsky on scientific grounds, saying that the evidence was less clear-cut than he suggested, that the measure of emotional well-being he used (observing how a child reacts after it is separated from its mother) was flawed, that children turn out well in cultures where nonparental care is commonplace, and that whatever ill effects exist (if any) do not last.

But many attacked him politically, and even the scholarly critiques had a sharp edge to them. As with family structure, what is at stake in this controversy are not just facts and interpretations but philosophy and policy: if day care has bad effects, then women ought to care for their children in their own homes. And that is a politically-incorrect conclusion. Many scholars feel, I believe, that to support the claim of family decline is to give aid and comfort to conservative politicians and religious leaders who bemoan that decline and call for the reassertion of “traditional values.” In short, what is at stake is Murphy Brown.



The Changing Culture

Both teenage pregnancies and single-parent families have increased dramatically since the 1950’s. Changes in the economy and in the provision of welfare benefits explain some of this growth but not all or even most of it. There are no doubt some features peculiar to American society that explain some of it, but since the decline of the family—that is, in lasting marriages and legitimate births—has happened in many nations, it cannot be entirely the result of American policies or peculiarities.

We are witnessing a profound, worldwide, long-term change in the family that is likely to continue for a long time. The causes of that change are not entirely understood, but probably involve two main forces: a shift in the family’s economic function and a shift in the culture in which it is embedded. The family no longer is the unit that manages economic production, as it was when agriculture was the dominant form of production, nor is it any longer the principal provider of support for the elderly or education for the young.

At the same time, the family no longer exercises as much control over its members as it once did, and broader kinship groupings (clans, tribes, and extended families) no longer exercise as much control over nuclear families. Since the Enlightenment, the dominant tendency in legal and philosophical thought has been to emancipate the individual from all forms of tutelage—the state, revealed religion, ancient custom—including the tutelage of kin. This emancipation has proceeded episodically and unevenly, but relentlessly. Liberal political theory has celebrated the individual and constrained the state, but it has been silent about the family.

What is remarkable is how well the family has survived this process. Were the family the mere social convention that some scholars imagine, it would long since have gone the way of cottage industries and the owner-occupied farm, the inevitable victim of the individualizing and rationalizing tendencies of modern life. But, of course, the family is not a human contrivance invented to accomplish some goal and capable of being reinvented or reformulated to achieve different goals.

Family—and kinship generally—are the fundamental organizing facts of all human societies, primitive or advanced, and have been such for tens of thousands of years. The family is the product of evolutionary processes that have selected against people who are inclined to abandon their offspring and for people who are prepared to care for them, and to provide this caring within kinship systems defined primarily along genetic lines. If kinship were a cultural artifact, we could as easily define it on the basis of height, athletic skill, or political status, and children would be raised in all manner of collectives, ranging from state-run orphanages to market-supplied foster homes. Orphanages and foster homes do of course exist, but only as matters of last resort designed (with great public anxiety) to provide care when the biological family does not exist or cannot function.

If the family were merely a convenience and if it responded entirely to economic circumstances, the current debate over family policy would be far less rancorous than it is. Liberals would urge that we professionalize child-rearing through day care; conservatives would urge that we subsidize it through earned-income tax credits. Liberals would define the welfare problem as entirely a matter of poverty and recommend more generous benefits as the solution; conservatives would define it as entirely a matter of dependency and recommend slashing benefits as the solution. Liberals would assume that the problem is that families have too little money, conservatives that families get such money as they have from the state. There would still be a battle, but in the end it would come down to some negotiated compromise involving trade-offs among benefit levels, eligibility rules, and the public-private mix of child-care providers.

But once one conceives of the family problem as involving to a significant degree the conflict between a universal feature of human society and a profound cultural challenge to the power of that institution, the issue takes on a different character. To the extent that one believes in the cultural challenge—that is, in individual emancipation and individual choice—one tends to question the legitimacy and influence of the family. To the extent that one believes in the family, one is led to question some or all parts of the cultural challenge.

That is why the debate over “family values” has been so strident. On both sides people feel that it is the central battle in the culture war that now grips Americans (or at least American elites). They are absolutely right. To many liberals, family values means a reassertion of male authority, a reduction in the hard-earned rights of women, and a license for abusive or neglectful parents to mistreat their children free of prompt and decisive social intervention. For some liberals, family values means something even more troubling: that human nature is less malleable than is implied by the doctrine of environmental determinism and cultural relativism—that it is to some significant degree fixed, immutable. To many conservatives, family values is the main line of resistance against homosexual marriages, bureaucratized child care, and compulsory sex education in the schools. For some conservatives, the family means a defense against the very idea of a planned society.



Now, reasonable people—say, the typical mother or father—will take a less stark view of the alternatives. They will agree with conservatives that the family is the central institution of society, incapable of being replaced or even much modified without disastrous consequences. They will be troubled by same-sex marriages, upset by teenage girls becoming mothers, angered by public subsidies for illegitimate births, and outraged by the distribution of condoms and explicit sex-education manuals to elementary-school children. But they will agree with many liberals that we ought not to confine women to domestic roles or make them subservient to male power and that we ought to recognize and cope with the financial hardships that young couples have today when they try to live on one income in a big city.

On one issue most parents will squarely identify with the conservative side, and it is, in my view, the central issue. They will want our leaders, the media, television programs, and motion pictures to take their side in the war over what the family is. It is not one of several alternative lifestyles; it is not an arena in which rights are negotiated; it is not an old-fashioned and reactionary barrier to a promiscuous sex life; it is not a set of cost-benefit calculations. It is a commitment.

It is a commitment required for child-rearing and thus for any realistic prospect of human happiness. It is a commitment that may be entered into after romantic experimentation and with some misgivings about lost freedoms, but once entered into it is a commitment that persists for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. It is a commitment for which there is no feasible substitute, and hence no child ought lightly to be brought into a world where that commitment—from both parents—is absent. It is a commitment that often is joyfully enlivened by mutual love and deepening friendship, but it is a commitment even when these things are absent.

There is no way to prepare for the commitment other than to make it. The idea that a man and a woman can live together without a commitment in order to see if they would like each other after they make the commitment is preposterous. Living together may inform you as to whether your partner snores or is an alcoholic or sleeps late; it may be fun and exciting; it may even be the best you can manage in an imperfect world. But it is not a way of finding out how married life will be, because married life is shaped by the fact that the couple has made a solemn vow before their family and friends that this is for keeps and that any children will be their joint and permanent responsibility. It changes everything.

Despite high divorce rates and a good deal of sleeping around, most people understand this. Certainly women understand it, since one of their most common complaints about the men they know is that they will not make a commitment. You bet they won’t, not if they can get sex, cooking, and companionship on a trial basis, all the while keeping their eyes peeled for a better opportunity elsewhere. Marriage is in large measure a device for reining in the predatory sexuality of males. It works quite imperfectly, as is evident from the fact that men are more likely than women to have extramarital affairs and to abandon their spouses because a younger or more exciting possibility has presented herself. But it works better than anything else mankind has been able to invent.

Because most people understand this, the pressures, economic and cultural, on the modern family have not destroyed it. And this is remarkable, considering the spread of no-fault divorce laws. The legal system has, in effect, said, “Marriage is not a commitment; it is a convenience. If you feel yours is inconvenient, we will make it easy for you to get out of it.” This radical transformation of family law occurred, as Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School has shown, in many industrialized countries at about the same time. It may or may not have caused the rise in the divorce rate, but it certainly did nothing to slow it down.

The legal system has also altered child-custody rules so that, instead of being automatically assigned to the father (as was the case in the 19th century, when the father was thought to “own” all the family’s property including the child), the child is now assigned by the judge on the basis of its “best interests.” In the vast majority of cases, that means with the mother. I sometimes wonder what would happen to family stability if every father knew for certain that, should the marriage end, he would have to take custody of the children. My guess is: more committed fathers.

These cultural and legal changes, all aimed at individualizing and empowering family members, have had an effect. In 1951, 51 percent of all Americans agreed with the statement that “parents who don’t get along should not stay together because there are children in the family.” By 1985, 86 percent agreed.11 Still, these changes have not devastated modern families. The shopping malls, baseball stadiums, and movie theaters are filled with them doing what families have always done. That fact is a measure of the innate power of the family bond.

Yet the capacity for resisting these changes is unequally distributed in society. Christopher Jencks of Northwestern University puts it this way:

Now that the mass media, the schools, and even the churches have begun to treat single parenthood as a regrettable but inescapable part of modern life, we can hardly expect the respectable poor to carry on the struggle against illegitimacy and desertion with their old fervor. They still deplore such behavior, but they cannot make it morally taboo. Once the two-parent norm loses its moral sanctity, the selfish considerations that always pulled poor parents apart often become overwhelming.12



Culture and Politics

The central issue in family policy is whether or not it will be animated entirely by an economic view of family functions and consist entirely of economic solutions to family needs. The principal source of domestic social-policy advice to Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign was the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), and in particular Elaine Kamarck and William Galston. “The best antipoverty program for children is a stable, intact family,” they wrote in their report, Mandate for Change. Though not neglecting economic measures, such as a tax credit for each child and an earned-income tax credit to supplement the wages of the working poor, the PPI urged that the divorce laws be changed to protect children better, that efforts be intensified to promote parental responsibility for child care, that pregnant women who use drugs be required to undergo periodic drug testing, and that the earnings of absent parents be taxed to pay for their children. And the report called for the President to use his bully pulpit to reinforce the importance of intact and caring families.

As of this writing, only Galston of all those connected with the PPI has been appointed to even a moderately significant position in the Clinton administration (he joined the White House domestic-policy staff). Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, had virtually nothing to say about these matters in her confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. There will in time be a debate on welfare policy; Clinton has promised to appoint a task force to make recommendations. Perhaps something will happen, though the history of past efforts at welfare reform suggests that few in Congress have the stomach for it and few scholars expect that such reforms as pass will make much of a difference.

The truth of the matter is that the most important features of family life are beyond the reach of policy. The recently passed family-leave bill in large measure merely ratifies opportunities that large firms have been granting to their employees for some time; it will make things a bit easier for middle-class mothers but will do little for poor, teenage ones. The far more contentious issue of welfare reform will not be so easily resolved, but it is hard to imagine any feasible change in the existing rules that will make much of a difference in the chances of a child being born out of wedlock. Expanding the earned-income tax credit may help poor working parents, but do we really want single mothers of two-year-old children to work? Tightening the divorce laws may be a good idea, but it will not make much difference to parents who never got married in the first place. Improving the system for collecting child-support payments is a good idea, but many fathers who desert their children have little money to be collected and, in any event, this is not likely to convert uncommitted impregnators into committed fathers.

I suspect that the culture of the family will have to be rebuilt from the bottom up. Certainly Robert Woodson, head of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, thinks so. He and his associates have been energetically pursuing this goal by supporting local church-related groups that try to encourage men to take responsibility for their children. There are many other local efforts to get men to marry their pregnant lovers and to sign the birth certificates of their children.

But these efforts proceed against the cultural grain, or at least against the grain of the high culture. When the people who deliver mocking attacks on “traditional family values” are the same ones who endorse condom distribution among elementary-school children, the average parent is led to wonder whether he or she is being a sucker for trying to stay together and raise the kids. Most Americans, I would guess, understand very clearly the difference between a traditional family and an oppressive one; they want the former but not the latter. Most women, I would guess, can distinguish very easily between the rights they have won and the obligations they retain; they cherish both and see no fundamental conflict between them, except the inescapable problem that there is not enough time for everything and so everyone must make choices.

It is extraordinary how well most husbands and wives have held up in the face of constant taunts comparing them to Ozzie and Harriet. The family life that most Americans want is regarded by the eminences of the media and the academy as a cartoon life, fit only for ridicule and rejection. When the history of our times is written, this raging cultural war will deserve careful attention, for it is far more consequential than any of the other cleavages that divide us.

Many Americans hope that President Clinton will stand up for “traditional family values,” by which they mean, not male supremacy, spouse abuse, or docile wives, but the overriding importance of two-parent families that make child care their central responsibility. Clinton wants to stay in touch with the people at town meetings; fine, but let him say at those meetings that nobody should conceive a child that he and she are not emotionally ready to care for. The best, albeit an imperfect, sign of that readiness is the marriage vow. Let him say that it is wrong—not just imprudent, but wrong—to bear children out of wedlock. Let him meet with local ministers and neighborhood groups that are trying to encourage marriage and discourage predatory male sexuality. Such statements may earn Clinton dismayed groans from sitcom producers and ideological accusations from sociology professors, but at least the people would know that he is on their side.


1 Evidence for these beliefs can be found in the poll data gathered in the American Enterprise, September/October 1992, pp. 85-86.

2 Paraphrased from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Expert’s Story of Marriage, Institute for American Values, Publication No. WP14 (August 1992), pp. 11-12. Whitehead supplies references to the texts she summarizes. She does not endorse—just the opposite!—the views she has compiled.

3 M.E.J. Wadsworth, Roots of Delinquency, Barnes & Noble (1979).

4 Sheppard Kellam et al., “The Long-Term Evolution of the Family Structure of Teenage and Older Mothers,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 44 (1982), pp. 539-554; Kellam et al., “Family Structure and the Mental Health of Children,” Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 34 (1977), pp. 1012-1022; Margaret Ensminger et al., “School and Family Origins of Delinquency: Comparisons By Sex,” in Katherine T. Van Dusen and Sarnoff A. Mednick, eds., Prospective Studies of Crime and Delinquency, Kluwer-Nijhoff (1983).

5 “Family Factors as Correlates and Predictors of Juvenile Conduct Problems and Delinquency,” in Michael Tonry and Norval Morris, eds., Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research, University of Chicago Press (1986), pp. 29-149.

6 Deborah A. Dawson, “Family Structure and Children’s Health: United States, 1988,” Vital and Health Statistics, Series 10, No. 178 (June 1991).

7 “Reducing Poverty and Reducing the Underclass: Different Problems, Different Solutions,” paper presented to the Conference on Reducing Poverty in America, January 15, 1993, at the Anderson Graduate School of Management, UCLA.

8 Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, “Teenage Pregnancy and Childbearing,” American Psychologist, vol. 44 (1989), pp. 313-320.

9 Uncertain Childhood, Uncertain Future (Harvard University Press, forthcoming).

10 “The ‘Effects’ of Infant Day Care Reconsidered,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 3 (1988), pp. 235-272. For a response, see Tiffany Field, Infancy, Harvard University Press (1990), pp. 90-93.

11 David Popenoe, “The Family Condition of America,” paper prepared for a Brookings Institution seminar on values and public policy (March 1992), citing a study by Norval Glenn.

12 “Deadly Neighborhoods,” the New Republic, June 13, 1988, pp. 23-32.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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