The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.
The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Senator Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.
I’ve been ragging on the cultural Left on this weblog recently because of the delusions that those of this bent simply won’t let go of in the quest for utopian egalitarianism. But one aspect of the American cultural and political scene is that Left and Right often operate with similar presuppositions, only weighting the emphasis differently. While the cultural Left puts the focus on nearly infinite possibilities of individual self-actualization, the cultural Right has backed itself into a corner of individual moral perfectionism which borders on the farcical.
But speaking of natural impulses, modern social conservatives are asking people to maintain monogamous commitment for 50+ years. This is a profoundly extreme expectation, as pre-modern mortality rates were such that the likelihood of such a long pair-bond was low in any case. This does not mean that such long-term monogamy is not a laudable goal (I have such a goal myself), but many social conservatives haven’t grappled with the daunting hand which they’ve been dealt. This isn’t 1600 any longer.
Perhaps the most striking disjunction between the world which social conservatives assume exists and the world as it is comes to the role of the nuclear family: it doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it matters. Here’s a major reason why:
Dividing the children of the NSFH into four groups – those with no family disruption, those who lost a parent to death, those whose parents divorced, and those born to never-married mothers – we find significant differences in educational outcomes. Those whose mothers divorced or never married clearly suffer the most negative effects. Adjusting for the factors that predate father absence and are known to influence school failure, we find that children in these two categories are several times more likely to drop out of school than their peers with intact families. The dropout risk is 37 percent for those with never-married mothers and 31 percent for those with divorced parents, in contrast with the 13 percent risk of those from families with no disruption. Significantly, the risk for children who lost a parent to death is 15 percent, virtually the same as that for children from intact homes. Clearly, children of a widowed mother enjoy economic and other advantages over their peers from households headed by divorced or never-married parents.
Those “other advantages” includes particular genes. The null hypothesis which the media and the public intellectual complex sell us is that destabilized households lead to late life destabilization in individuals. What this misses is that destabilized individuals lead to destabilized households, and destabilized individuals also produce other destabilized individuals. In other words, one reason that kids whose parents didn’t stay together and are messed up is because they have the same crappy dispositions as their parents. They share genes with their parents.
This isn’t to deny that all things equal being in an intact nuclear family is preferable to being raised by a single parent. Ask anyone who grew up in a situation where they lost one of their parents to cancer or some such thing. But naive assumptions that simply increasing the marriage rate will reverse social dysfunction are going to be dashed against the reality that putting together explosive impulsive people under the same roof is not going to turn them into Ward and June Cleaver.
Addendum: Rule-of-thumb, parental environment/social influence explains about ~10 percent of the variation in behavioral or cognitive characteristics. The balance is split about evenly between genetic influence, and other random unaccounted for environmental/stochastic factors.