Voices

Nobody's smiling

But we must understand the problem of the American family to solve it

Issue: "The 2002 vote," Nov. 2, 2002

THE FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL OF WASHINGTON, D.C., has just released an up-to-date portrait of the American family. If you take time to study the picture, you'll notice that almost nobody's smiling.

FRC's 215-page Family Portrait is not just somebody's boisterous rant about how bad things have become in modern society. It is instead a disciplined compilation of telling statistics, neatly sorted and piled for easy accessibility. Indeed, sometimes the data leap out so easily you might wish that the grim details weren't so evident, compelling, and powerful.

I've stressed repeatedly in this column how perilous is the casual experiment with the family that Americans are engaged in. Not in all the millennia of human history have the basic building blocks of human society been tinkered with so cavalierly. To fiddle so playfully with mysteries so profound as marriage, sexuality, and child-rearing is similar to a mad scientist's determination to reconstruct the chemistry of oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. The risks are enormous, even if you don't believe in any God-given standards.

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Now, of course, we've moved well beyond merely thinking about risks. The kind of mess that mad scientists create is piling up all around us. The big question today is whether it's already too late to turn around.

If you have children, if you have grandchildren, if you are interested in education, if you're involved in church activities, or if you're either in business or care about your investments and wonder therefore if there will still be a future market for what you want to sell-if any of those conditions holds, then you should take a look at FRC's Family Portrait. Part of the time, you'll respond by saying, "That's hardly surprising. That's exactly what I thought." Part of the time, you'll also say, "I can hardly believe that."

In the book's section on marriage, for example, I wasn't surprised by the finding that in 1996, 92 percent of all Americans were still saying that "having a successful marriage is very important to them." In fact, 81 percent said that "having a good marriage is absolutely necessary for them to consider their life a success." So why has the marriage rate in America dropped by almost half since 1950? Yes, young women are waiting longer to get married in the first place, and older women, by living longer, tend to lower the overall rate. But in 1950, in any given year, 90 women out of a thousand got married. Now the number is just 50. For something Americans think of as "very important," that's an alarming drop.

In the section on families, I wasn't at all surprised to see how one poll after another confirms the benefits for children of growing up in a traditional home with two parents. Such children are statistically safer, healthier, freer from risky behavior, better educated, and better off economically. So isn't it surprising-in the face of all that evidence-that the number of children given the advantage of a two-parent home has dropped from 88 percent in 1960 to just 69 percent now? (Statistical percentages are too sterile. The drop from 88 to 69 means that every single year, at least 750,000 more teenagers now than in 1960 reach adulthood having been deprived of those benefits.)

I wasn't surprised to find statistics confirming that adoption provides clear benefits for children, unwed mothers, and adoptive parents. I was very surprised to learn that whereas in 1973, 9 percent of babies born to never-married mothers were placed for adoption, that rate has now fallen to just 1 percent.

I was happily surprised to read statistics indicating that America's mothers are more and more insistent on spending time at home with their young children, and less and less ready to send those children off even to quality day care centers.

I was bewildered by the statistics about Americans' sense of moral right and wrong. For example, 60 percent see nothing wrong with a man and a woman engaging in sexual relations before marriage. But 78 percent in a 2000 poll, and 79 percent in a 2001 survey, say adultery is always wrong. Is there no sense that a casual attitude toward sex and subsequent promiscuity are learned behaviors that follow a person through a lifetime?

I was not surprised that the number of cohabiting couples in America has shot up from half a million in 1960 to 10 times that number in 2000. I was not surprised that prospects for cohabiting couples, and especially for their children, are grim on almost every front. So doesn't that make it surprising that more than half of all Americans say, on the record, that they approve of cohabitation?

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