The Center of the American Experiment in Minnesota recently sponsored a symposium titled, “Was Trump and Clinton’s Campaign Silence Regarding Family Fragmentation Golden?”
The symposium was occasioned by the observation that “neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton [said] anything about family fragmentation — at all — during their respective presidential campaigns last year.”
This silence is notable because evidence strongly suggests that, notwithstanding other important efforts, the factor most likely to move the needle on things like stagnant upward mobility, intergenerational poverty, crime and educational failure would be strengthened families.
As long as families continue to fragment, or even fail to form at all, these indicators are unlikely to show much improvement. The Equality of Opportunity project involving researchers at Harvard and Berkeley have made the case most clearly: “the strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in the area.”
In a January 2016 presentation at Sutherland Institute, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox noted that if Utah were to return to 1980 levels of marriage parenthood, the state’s GDP would be 3.6 percent higher and its child poverty rate could be expected to decrease by 18 percent.
Given all of this, why would there be so little political discussion of family structure issues at the national and state level?
Perhaps the most significant reason is that many don’t believe that anything can be done to change the trajectory of family fragmentation.
It is true that there is probably not a lot that direct government intervention can, or should, do to cause families to form or to stay together, but silence about the issue is not the answer.
One reason is that merely talking about the issue could be very helpful. It seems clear from the choices of growing numbers of people, that many don’t recognize the value of the stable, secure family life they could give their children through their choices about family formation. It’s more common for this issue not to get much thought, and raising the issue makes it more likely that adults who are at the age to form families would be more intentional about it.
Second, since family strength is such a powerful factor in alleviating persistent social problems, even a little improvement could be leveraged into significant gains for individuals and families, especially for children. Professor Wilcox and his colleagues have explained that there are some incentives that could help foster family strength. There are also plenty of disincentives that could be removed, such as the legal treatment of divorce as essentially unimportant, as evidenced in short or nonexistent waiting periods, anemic (or again, nonexistent) divorce education, etc.
We also should not confine our thinking about solutions to potential legal changes. The private sector is likely to be far more impactful in encouraging family strengthening attitudes and practices. Churches are particularly important and have a track record of success in fostering integrity in marriages and families.
We know that married-parent families are foundational to a child’s well-being and to the amelioration of troubling social trends. More than two decades ago, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur explained:
"If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. Such a design … would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it also would provide a system of checks and balances that promoted quality parenting. The fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child, and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child."
At the very least, we know that silence is not helping the situation. Could a concerted effort make a difference? It certainly is worth a try.
William C. Duncan, J.D., is senior fellow and director of the Sutherland Institute Center for Family and Society.