Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Distinguished Family Researcher Notes: “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms”

This post continues on the theme I’ve been recently focused on regarding signals of commitment.

Isabel Sawhill, an economist and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, is one of the most distinguished family scientists of our era.  Because of her stature, people will take serious note of her editorial in the Washington Post that appeared on May 25th, 2012. As she noted, it is the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest outbreaks ever of the cultural debate about single parenthood. In her piece, she stated that Dan Quayle was, in fact, right in the assertion that there are enormous societal consequences to the dramatic increase in the number of children who are not born to married parents.

To quote from her write-up:  Twenty years later, Quayle’s words seem less controversial than prophetic. The number of single parents in America has increased dramatically: The proportion of children born outside marriage has risen from roughly 30 percent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2009. For women under age 30, more than half of babies are born out of wedlock. A lifestyle once associated with poverty has become mainstream. The only group of parents for whom marriage continues to be the norm is the college-educated.

Sawhill listed three main causes for concern, all of which I’d remind my readers can be qualified by stating, “on average”: (1) marriage is a commitment that cohabitation is not; (2) marriage is good for children; and (3) marriage brings economic benefits.

I encourage you to read her entire piece. I suspect her main motivation in putting forth her thoughts on this, right at this time, is reflected in the final line of her op-ed, where she commented that we may be approaching the point where the current trend becomes irreversible.

Before going further, I’ll say what so many people often do in this context--and this is important. No one that I know well who is seriously involved, concerned, and paying attention to these issues is saying that single parents—and/or less committed parents—are bad or inherently poor parents. In fact, many single parents are amazing if not heroic. It’s not some cheap cliché to make this point. Furthermore, many who parent alone did not plan on doing so. And some I know who did, in fact, plan exactly on that path are great parents. But Sawhill is getting at the nub of the larger, societal question, which is about the fact that we are heading toward a future where massive numbers of children are not going to have the benefit of being raised by their own two, committed parents.

I understand the motivations and data from which people will take issue with Sawhill’s arguments as well as those of many others who dare to suggest that marriage is the best context, on average, for raising children. But the real heart of this whole issue is about commitment and signals. Why does marriage matter for child-welfare? Married couples that have children together have the commitment-sequencing thing working in their favor. More the point, so do their children. These couples have a decided, clarified, and publicly given evidence  of commitment to the future prior to becoming parents together. That does not make them perfect parents but it does make them pre-qualified on commitment in some substantial degree. It’s sort of like people who are shopping for a house who have already secured their mortgage--they are pre-qualified to buy a house within a certain economic range.  Their commitment to the process is already vetted; once they find the right house, they are ready to follow-through. This type of process matters even more for homes than it does for houses--and it matters more for families than for dwellings.

What really increases the chances of children being raised by two parents who are committed to them is that, for some children, those two parents were strongly committed to each other beforehand. And that is another example of how signals about commitment can make a difference with important life outcomes.

(If you want to go down memory lane, here’s a link to my blog about our finding that having a baby together does not predict remaining together [at least up to a year later, in our national sample of unmarrieds]. Yet, things like having a shared gym membership, or shared cell plan, or vacation plans together, do predict remaining together.  Find it here.)