Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Family Matters

William Galston is by far the most liberal/progressive writer whose work regularly appears in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. So it was with no small amount of surprise that I opened today’s paper to find him talking about the undeniable benefits of marriage and the importance of families.

The Poverty Cure: Get Married:

Of the many barriers to equal opportunity for African-Americans, differences of family background may well be the most consequential—and the least likely to yield to public policy. This is the gravamen of research made public in recent weeks, much of it collected in the fall 2015 issue of the academic journal the Future of Children.

Although there were signs of trouble to come in the 1960s, racial differences in marriage rates remained modest until 1970, when 95% of white women and 92% of black women had been married at least once. By 2012, however, a large gap had emerged: 88% of white women age 40-44 were or had been married, compared with only 63% of black women.

Education makes a difference: Among black women with a bachelor’s degree or more, the ever-married rate is 71%; for those with no more than a high-school diploma, it is only 56%. But race also matters. The ever-married rate for college-educated black women is 17 percentage points lower than for white women, while the black/white gap among the least-educated women is a stunning 31 points.

As a result, other differences are stark. Consider that 71% of African-American infants are born to unmarried women, compared with 29% for white women. The birth of a child doesn’t motivate many African-American couples to get married: 66% of black children are not living with married parents. Nor does it keep their unmarried biological parents together. About seven in 10 white children, from newborn to 18 years of age, are living with their biological parents, compared with one in three black children.

This matters because—as family-structure researchers Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill note in the Future of Children, “most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide variety of outcomes.”

The statement in bold is basic common sense and should be something that everyone can agree on regardless of political leanings. However, for at least the last twenty years our society has been deluged with messages arguing exactly the opposite. It doesn’t matter if kids have one mother or one father or two mothers or two fathers or any other combination other than the traditional family. All families are the same. Except that they’re not.

It turns out that the effects of family instability are measurably worse for boys than for girls—and worst of all for African-American boys. In a landmark new study, a research team headed by MIT’s David Autor and Northwestern University’s David Figlio find that relative to their sisters, boys born to poorly educated unmarried mothers have higher levels of truancy and behavioral problems throughout elementary and middle school, are less likely to graduate from high school, and are more likely as juveniles to commit serious crimes. Many of the gaps between brothers and sisters are larger for blacks than for whites.

The researchers study—and reject—the hypotheses that these differences reflect higher prenatal sensitivity to factors such as stress and poor nutrition or that they are entirely attributable to dangerous neighborhoods and poor schools. There are independent effects of family background that contribute to the large gaps between boys and girls. In fact, the researchers conclude, neighborhoods and schools are less important than the “direct effect of family structure itself.”

Why is this? The research team finds that boys’ problems are far more behavioral than cognitive. For example, truancy and classroom disciplinary issues lead to suspensions, which play the largest role in explaining the boy-girl high-school graduation gap. But the presence of fathers in the household substantially reduces the gaps between boys and girls in absences and suspensions. It turns out that boys need fathers as well as mothers even more than girls do, and suffer even more when fathers are absent from their lives.

Again, the damage done to boys by not having fathers involved in their lives should be obvious for all to see and beyond dispute. But again, we’ve been told over and over again that this basic fact of life is wrong and that even mentioning it as one of the underlying causes of the problems facing African-Americans is racist.

One of my biggest (of many) disappointments with President Obama is that he not focused nearly enough attention on this matter. It’s not that he hasn’t mentioned it at all, it’s just that he had an opportunity to make it a priority for his administration along with the bully pulpit to ensure the message was heard. Now that would have been a legacy worth celebrating and remembering.