In 1992 then Vice President Dan Quayle was wildly excoriated for saying that single-motherhood was not a good thing.
Speaking in San Francisco, Quayle said:
It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.
The outcry was vigorous and immediate. Sophisticated intellectuals denounced Quayle for being a Republican yahoo.
Clearly, television sitcoms do not set cultural standards. At least, I like to think they don’t.
Yet, the debate surrounding the issue allows the general public to see what opinion makers and other deep thinkers value. The debate about Dan Quayle made very clear that single motherhood was just another lifestyle choice.
The result: while college educated Americans still cling to the old model of the nuclear family, those who have less education have embraced singlehood motherhood with gusto.
Obviously, all those passionate defenses of Murphy Brown had an effect. And not a good one.
As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for….
Today, journalists who are studying the outcome of this policy are beginning to see more clearly.
The New York Times reported yesterday:
While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.
Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed.
The Times compared the lives of two Michigan families. In one family three children were being brought up by a single mother. In the other children were being brought up by their biological parents.
Clearly, two working parents bring in a far greater income than a single mother. The Times emphasized the point. Yet, it also pointed out the inescapable truth that children are hurt when a father is not present.
In its words:
While many studies have found that children of single parents are more likely to grow up poor, less is known about their chances of advancement as adults. But there are suggestions that the absence of a father in the house makes it harder for children to climb the economic ladder.
Writing in the Washington Post Isabel Sawhill argued that Quayle was correct. For the record, Sawhill is a fellow at liberal think tank, the Brookings Institution.
In her words:
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.
Strangely, this suggests that middle Americans no long take their cultural cues from those who are doing better; they are emulating those who are doing worse.
Refreshingly, Sawhill also defends marriage against the popular custom of cohabitation.
Rarely do we read such a strong defense of traditional marriage, so hers is worth pondering:
…marriage is a commitment that cohabitation is not. Taking a vow before friends and family to support another person “until death do us part” signals a mutual sense of shared responsibility that cannot be lightly dismissed. Cohabitation is more fragile — cohabiting parents split up before their fifth anniversary at about twice the rate of married parents. Often, this is because the father moves on, leaving the mother not just with less support but with fewer marriage prospects. For her, marriage requires finding a partner willing to take responsibility for someone else’s kids.
She is absolutely right. Making a public commitment by taking a vow before friends and family makes you more serious, more responsible, and more likely to stay together.
As long as dimwitted celebrities are still telling the world that marriage is just a piece of paper, Sawhill’s words are must reading.
Second, she reports that research has shown that a child brought up by both biological parents will have many advantages in life.
…a wealth of research strongly suggests that marriage is good for children. Those who live with their biological parents do better in school and are less likely to get pregnant or arrested. They have lower rates of suicide, achieve higher levels of education and earn more as adults. Meanwhile, children who spend time in single-parent families are more likely to misbehave, get sick, drop out of high school and be unemployed.
Why should this be so?
People in stable marriages may have better relationship skills, for instance, or a greater philosophical or religious commitment to union that improves parenting. Still, raising children is a daunting responsibility. Two committed parents typically have more time and resources to do it well.
Whatever the reason, the evidence is clear: children do better when they are raised by their two married biological parents.
Clearly, there are exceptions to the rule, but those who decided, as a matter of cultural politics, to make the exceptions into the rule should take responsibility for the damage done to people who took their ideas as words to live by.