Preaching what we practice

Great Michael Barone piece today in The Washington Examiner about the “two-tier pattern of family structure” that emerged in the 70s & 80s and continues to prevail today.  (Based on Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s just-published Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.)

Starting in the late 1960s, rates of divorce, unmarried births and single parenthood rose sharply among all segments of society. About a decade later they fell and leveled off among the college-educated, who almost entirely raise their kids in Ozzie-and-Harriet style families today (except that mom usually works outside the home).

Among the bottom third of Americans in education and income, however, the negative trend accelerated…

They’re careful to concede that single parents have a hard job and that some do well at it. But the data says those are the exception rather than the rule. On average and by a wide margin, children raised in such households do worse in school, have more trouble with the law and make less money and gain less satisfaction in life than those from the stable families of the upper third…

The nation as a whole has to do something to help them. But what?

Send them money is one answer. But as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott WInship points out, low-level wages and incomes, taking into account proper inflation measures and fringe benefits, have not fallen over the last 40 years. Food and clothing has become less expensive (thanks, Wal-Mart) and most households classified as poor have smartphones, microwaves and big-screen TVs that did not exist in the 1960s

Putnam’s faith that child care centers and mandatory pre-school can make a difference haven’t been supported by research, except for two experiments more than 40 years ago whose results haven’t been replicated.

Putnam doubts the chances of “a reversal of long-established trends in private norms,” though they’re common in history: The gin-soaked mobs of 18th-century London became the orderly Victorian masses. Like most high-education Americans, he doesn’t want to denounce people for breaking old moral rules even when that hurts their kids.

The libertarian Murray doubts that government can do much. But he thinks that high-education elites, with their strong family structures, can. They need to “preach what they practice.” Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle, agreeing, nominates Hollywood for a lead role. Midcentury America’s universal media — radio, movies, television — celebrated the old rules.

There are signs this is happening. Teenage birth and violent crime rates have been falling. Younger millennials may be learning delayed gratification and self-restraint. Maybe, as they grow older, divorce and single parenthood will become less common too. Few kids in broken homes will read Our Kids or Coming Apart. But they already know the story.

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One Response to Preaching what we practice

  1. Paul Marks says:

    It is the American Welfare State that has undermined the culture – and it will continue to do so. In the end (and it will not be many years) either it, the Welfare State, goes or America will be destroyed.

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