The American dream can be achieved if we spend more time building strong, stable families

·5 min read

When it comes to confronting some of our country’s most serious problems – from child poverty to school failure to mass incarceration to the fading of the American dream – one of the biggest factors driving these problems cannot be uttered in our national conversation.

It’s verboten.

This is a factor that predicts school suspensions, neighborhood trends in incarceration, state patterns in child poverty and the health of the American dream in communities across the country better than many of the factors that dominate that conversation.

In mainstream media outlets, on college campuses, in public schools and the halls of Congress, we hear that race is the critical issue, or poverty, or income inequality or inadequate public spending on issue after issue.

Strengthening the family unit could help reduce disparities.
Strengthening the family unit could help reduce disparities.

All the while, the social factor that often supercedes these other factors is left unmentioned.

Family stability is a better predictor

We’re talking about the F-word. Family. For all of the problems mentioned above, for instance, family stability is a better predictor than factors like race, government spending and education. In other words, whether or not children grow up with two stably married parents or live in neighborhoods dominated by lone-parent families often ends up being more important than many of the factors that occupy the attention of our ruling class.

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Take the state of the American dream. When Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues looked at the factors driving economic mobility for poor children in communities across the United States, they found that “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.”

In other words, poor children raised in communities with lots of two parents – like the Salt Lake City metro area – are much more likely to experience rags-to-riches mobility than children growing up in communities with lots of single parents – like the metro area of Charlotte, North Carolina. And the family factor mattered more than race, income inequality and school quality in predicting poor kids’ odds of realizing the dream.

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Yet the journalists, the academics, the congressional policymakers and the foundation executives who dominate the national conversation rarely if ever confront the family factor lurking beneath many of our country’s biggest problems.

That’s because these circles are dominated by the left. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote, “My half of the political spectrum – the left half – too often dismisses the importance of family structure. Partly out of a worthy desire to celebrate the heroism of single parents, progressives too often downplay family structure." But Leonhardt noted that although social science is "messy" with "correlation and causation difficult to separate," evidence points to the value of two-parent households.

This is a problem, for two reasons. First, it prevents us from focusing on the family divide that has opened up in America over the past half-century. As late as 1970, there were no major differences in marriage and family life by class. Rich or poor, working class or middle class – most Americans lived in married families. But, as we note in a new report, "Family Stability: Bridging America’s Social Capital Divide," an enormous family chasm has emerged in the United States in the decades since then.

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Today, the two-parent family is comparatively strong among the upper middle class, where – for instance – more than 90% of children live with two married parents. But among the poor and working class, only about, respectively, 35% and 55% of children have the privilege of living in a married home.

The consequences

A marriage divide that was virtually nonexistent in the 1970s risks entrenching a permanent social and economic divide in society. Working-class and poor Americans – and their kids – are increasingly locked out of the best America has to offer because they don’t have the benefits that flow from stable marriage – from a lot more assets heading into retirement to a lot fewer problems at school.

By contrast, the ultimate privilege, a family headed by two stably married parents, goes to those who are already the most advantaged, the affluent and well-educated.

The second problem with not being able to talk about the family factor is that we feel no pressure to generate solutions to bridge the family divide. Nothing, for instance, is being done at the state and federal levels to address the decline in “male marriageability,” which is the falling share of men in their prime who are employed full-time, a decline concentrated among men without college degrees, as well as minority men.

This decline matters for marriage, because women are much more likely to marry men who have decent jobs and to divorce men who are not working.

The same goes for the cultural currents steering elites toward stable families and everyone else away from them.

A recent study found that, compared with the less-educated, California’s college-educated were much more likely to embrace a public ethic that “family diversity should be celebrated” while, at the same time, reporting a desire for themselves “personally, to be married before having children.”

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Showrunners, Silicon Valley titans and media executives – those at the commanding heights of our culture – promote values they don’t practice privately. Because they know that family instability is bad for them and their kids.

The problem, of course, is that the messages they produce for our small screens and big screens, not to mention the media, undercut the values and virtues required to forge strong and stable families.

Strong and stable families should not be the privilege of an elite club. Rather, the benefits of such a family life should be available to all Americans, without regard to whether they are rich or poor, working-class or middle class.

That’s why our ruling class, from Capitol Hill to the Hollywood Hills, should address the family factor fairly and start the work of bridging America’s family divide.

Brad Wilcox is professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Chris Bullivant is the director of the Social Capital Campaign. "Family stability - Bridging America’s Social Capital Divide" is published this week by the Social Capital Campaign.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: American family strength is key to stopping social inequality

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