When I picked up Mitch Pearlstein’s Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future, I half-expected it to read like some kind of apocalyptic literature, in which the end of the world is ignited by family breakdown. But Pearlstein manages to undertake the audacious task of fortune telling with humility and reasonableness.
Broken Bonds is a follow-up to Pearlstein’s 2011 book, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. Pearlstein there makes the case that family fragmentation in the United States leads to weakened educational and job skills among young people which in turn leads to “deepening class divisions in a nation that has never viewed or understood itself in such splintered ways.” In Broken Bonds, Pearlstein sets out to describe more fully what this new America might come to look like.
Probably the greatest strength of Broken Bonds is the unique method Pearlstein used to write it. He interviewed forty leading family experts across the political spectrum. Pearlstein’s posture as author is not so much that of didactician as it is of listener and synthesizer.
The chapters are organized by question (How Big of a Problem? Why Are Family Fragmentation Rages So High? et cetera) and chapters read like a conversation between his respondents, even though interviews took place individually and over the course of a year. Pearlstein’s thoughts are woven into this conversation, and the result reminded me of the discussion nights my husband and I used to host in our 500 square foot apartment in New York City. We’d pack twenty people into our living room—fellow classmates, professors, friends—each with barely enough elbow room to hold their glasses of wine or bottles of beer, but always space enough for good conversation.
Pearlstein’s chapters are likewise packed with quotes from a dizzying array of respondents, mostly scholars and public figures, from Heather MacDonald to Stephanie Coontz to Ron Haskins (I should add that I know several of the respondents well—IAV’s David Blankenhorn and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead are mentors and colleagues of mine). I found the whole thing invigorating, but I imagine that some readers might find that covering such distance in relatively few pages might leave them whiplashed.
Pearlstein acknowledges that when it comes to America’s future, there are many factors to consider besides family fragmentation. But he focuses on family fragmentation as a “principal cause” of “what’s leading to hardening distances between and among classes” not because it is the only cause, but because it is a cause often overlooked. I appreciate this aim. “Putting aside the hyperactive fears many have when it comes to possibly giving offense, it’s hard to understand how so many writers are incapable of typing words such as ‘marriage’ or ‘fathers,’” he writes.
Pearlstein adds that this is especially surprising “since eloquent and forceful ideas about families are by no means wholly owned by scholars and other thought leaders on the Right.” Take the example of political philosopher Bill Galston, one of President Clinton’s most important advisers, who has written that, “The weakening of families” is “fraught with danger for liberal societies.”
Of course, there are differences of approach when it comes to the relationship between family fragmentation and America’s social problems. While all respondents agreed that family fragmentation is a problem, those on the Left tended to see it as more symptom than cause, while those on the Right were more likely to agree with Kay Hymowitz who said, “Family breakdown is the shadow behind all sorts of other problems that people are much more easily conversant about.”
University of Minnesota historian Elaine Tyler May articulated these differences nicely, when she said to Pearlstein: “In a classic way, you respond as a conservative and I respond as a liberal; which is to say I see fragmentation as a symptom of economic hardship, oppression, and lack of opportunity.” Pearlstein, on the other hand, had been “stressing matters of culture.”
My perennial question is why the heck do we not just stress all of the above? As my husband David wrote in a previous IFS post:
[I]f we want to strengthen marriage, we have to take into account the complex relationship between person and community, between soul and body. We have to think about the force field that helps to hold together or tear apart a marriage. The Wall Street Journal crowd should consider how a living wage can help to build strong families, and the New York Times crowd should consider how family-friendly cultural messages matter. It’s not a question of mind versus matter, but about the head-spinning interaction of the two.
Pearlstein seems to recognize as much. He does emphasize the cultural. When, for example, he lists the causes of family breakdown at the end of Chapter 2, he omits economic explanations even though they are discussed within the chapter. Pearlstein is not dismissive of the role of the economy and business practices elsewhere in the book so perhaps this was just an oversight. Regardless, it does seem that Pearlstein finds the cultural explanations most compelling.
And on that point, I don’t necessarily disagree. Perhaps because of my husband’s experience growing up Amish, or my own experience growing up in a tightly-knit Evangelical church community, it is easy for me to see the power of culture. In communities like these, norms about sex and marriage shape behavior more powerfully than economic conditions like poverty. One might point to negative sides of these norms—a blind eye to abuse within marriage, the shaming of unwed mothers and their children—but it is hard to argue with the proposition that cultural norms often have a decisive influence on our behavior, even in the most intimate areas of our lives. Our desire to be accepted seems to dominate other desires, making culture a powerful agent of change.
On the other hand, I do think that people who have never been poor do not realize how stressful life can be for those Americans who have to rely on government aid to get by. The paperwork alone is daunting, the process humiliating, the benefits often insufficient. Respondent Glenn Loury mentions research by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan suggesting that low-income people spend about 20 percent of their money “paying late fees, getting telephone lines reestablished after they’ve been cut off, and high interest on short-term loans they’ve taken out because they’re in a debt cycle from which they never quite get out.”
I noticed something similar when I was shopping today at Costco with a friend of mine who is an unemployed single mother. She didn’t want to drop $22 to buy ten pounds of frozen chicken, so instead she would spend $11 to buy three pounds of it at Kroger—never mind that that meant she was paying quite a bit more per chicken breast than someone who could afford the $22 package. Loury adds that most of us don’t understand “how poverty becomes a self-reinforcing thing, because it carries with it a lot of other stuff.” Respondent Stephanie Coontz echoes Loury’s point: “There have been a lot of studies showing that the ability of poor people to say ‘no’ one more time gets worn down. I think that’s what people don’t get about poverty in America. The extent to which it wears down people’s ability to make the kinds of decisions they start out wanting to make.”
I’ve come closer to understanding this—and to empathy—since moving to a working-class town in Ohio. Which brings us to the part of Pearlstein’s book that most interested me: Chapter Three, “How Well Do We Know and Feel for Each Other?” In it Pearlstein postulates that “the ignorance that an enormous number of ‘average’ Americans are assumed to have about the daily realities of poor Americans—a great many of whose lives are made even more difficult because of criminal records—is both cause and effect of class divisions that often are sharp already.”
Respondents like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discussed the depletion of bridging social capital today: One group shops at Whole Foods while the other goes to the food pantry, the affluent go to private health clubs instead of the YMCA. “All these local institutions that brought people together—lower-middle class, middle class, and upper-middle class—have sorted themselves into separate categories.” I’ve noticed that in my town even the public playgrounds are places of separation, rather than mingling. In one part of town there is graffiti and young parents smoking cigarettes while their kids play, in the other part houses have their own swing sets.
Kristin Robbins of the Economic Club of Minnesota gave what I thought to be a profound response when Pearlstein asked her about solutions to this kind of division. The only way to be “three dimensional about a person’s life and appreciate their struggles and heroism” is (in Pearlstein’s words) “actually interacting and getting to know them.” Given this, Robbins concluded that, “The secret to success is simple but costly—entering into long-term relationships with kids and families and guiding them as a true friend. It works, but investing the time and energy requires something most people in our fast-paced society can’t or don’t want to give: time.”
I was disappointed with the penultimate chapter, “What to Do?” precisely because there seems so little to do. This, of course, is no fault of the author, who agrees that “[o]ne might be amazed by how few compelling ideas are out there for strengthening marriage and reducing family fragmentation in the United States.” Among ideas that he does cite are this 2011 Brookings publication and The President’s Marriage Agenda, and among the most interesting projects highlighted is Marital First Responders, a new initiative by the Doherty Relationship Institute to empower ordinary people to respond effectively when a friend confides in them about a marriage problem. This seems a potentially effective strategy considering that 73 percent of American adults , and 63 percent have confided in someone other than a professional about their relationship.
Pearlstein suggests that given the achievement gap between girls and boys and the problem of unmarriageable men, it makes sense to start with the boys: “increasing their chances of getting a good education is ultimately the best strategy for helping millions of men and women wind up in good and healthy marriages.” Pearlstein acknowledges that this “might sound elementary to the point of trite.” “But,” he asks, “what more promising route is there?”
While this approach seems logical—prevention in childhood makes more strategic sense than healing psychological wounds in young adulthood—there does remain the question of what to do with boys and girls who are now troubled adults, often in part because of family breakdown. Is there any hope for them? To this question I found Bob Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise most inspiring. Grassroots leaders who “redeem people everyone else has given up on” have a common underlying principle: “Loving someone to death. Loving them in spite of themselves. In order to do that, it means emptying the self. It means choosing to be downwardly mobile.” And, of course, this involves “revolutionary patience.” Though I know this is an answer dissatisfying to many funders and to those of us who like some semblance of control and efficiency, it is also an answer that resonates—precisely because it is so much more human than programmatic. Kristin Robbins’ earlier comment is in the same spirit, as are Pope Francis’s words in Evangelii Gaudium about “patience and disregard for constraints of time.”
Broken Bonds makes this much clear: Family fragmentation is a problem of serious magnitude, one that is not going away anytime soon, and thus one that will require great patience and persistence to tackle. If the first step to addressing family fragmentation is acknowledging that it is a problem, then Pearlstein laudably takes us closer to that public consensus. He does this effectively because of the spectrum of his respondents and the gold mine of material that resulted. And yet there is so much more to do.