’Tis the season for the State of the Union, State of the States, and discussion everywhere, from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times to Ari Fleischer in the Wall Street Journal, about inequality and how the breakdown of families contributes to poverty. So in the spirit of the season, here is some unsolicited advice on how a governor, or a president, or any politician, could address the thorny issue of family fragmentation from their bully pulpit.
First, I would advise reading this essay by Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist and community organizer at the University of Minnesota, and his colleague Jason Carroll. For tackling difficult social problems, the essay suggests an approach that goes beyond the “traditional provider-consumer model,” in which a professional delivers a service to a consumer who needs help. Instead, it proposes that “The greatest untapped resource for strengthening families is the knowledge, wisdom, and lived experience of families and their communities.” It advises “democratic planning and decision making” by ordinary citizens, with professionals there to help them with the initiatives they start and lead.
Second, make the point that family fragmentation is a social and structural problem, not merely an individual problem.
Because that fourteen-year-old boy in a juvenile facility who can count on one hand the number of times he has seen his real father, and who witnessed a line of boyfriends and stepfathers enter and exit his and his mother’s life—yes, he has to take full responsibility for the choices that got him into that juvenile facility, but he never asked to grow up without a loving father and stable family. Neither did the young girl who got pregnant at 16 and who got shuffled from foster home to foster home while her parents fought and abused drugs. Just as many liberals recognize the shaping power of economic structures and forces—globalization, deindustrialization, the Great Recession—so we ought to appreciate the shaping power of family structures.
Strengthening marriage is not a matter of one group of people imposing their doctrine on another, but of helping the 80 percent of young adults who say marriage is part of their life plan.
Third, note that strengthening marriage is not a matter of one group of people (Evangelicals, elites) imposing their doctrine on another group of people (unwed parents, the poor), but a matter of helping the roughly 80 percent of young adults who say that marriage is an important part of their life plan. Children of divorce and fragmented families are especially determined to give their children a better family. As Judy Wallerstein reported about the children of divorce she interviewed, “As if in unison, they said, ‘No child of mine is going to experience what I went through.’” Considering their aspirations, should we really just throw up our hands and say nothing can be done? Should we just try to hope that young people figure marriage and family out for themselves?
Fourth, build a policy agenda that reflects solidarity with the working-class person looking for dignity, as well as with the young adult from a fragmented home searching for stability. Call it the family solidarity agenda. Be upfront in saying that there is little that the government can do to directly alleviate the problems, but that there are some modest steps it can take.
For instance, at the federal level, some leaders have already proposed wage subsidies and ending marriage penalties for low-income couples who receive public assistance. Other ideas include tripling the child tax credit for children under age three and increasing the role of apprenticeship for working-class men in particular.
At the state level, leaders could consider the Second Chances Act, which would provide mandatory pre-filing education (including a segment on the option of marital reconciliation) for divorcing parents with minor children, plus a one-year waiting period for the divorce. This act builds on one study that found that in about forty percent of cases in divorce court, at least one spouse was open to reconciliation.
State politicians could also consider following Oklahoma’s example in devoting 1 to 2 percent of TANF block grant funds to marriage and relationship education for at-risk individuals and couples. And to make wise financial stewardship easier for low-income families, leaders touting a family solidarity agenda could combat “anti-thrift institutions,” like payday lenders and casinos, as well as support “pro-thrift institutions,” like credit unions.
Finally, combine an appeal to the American genius for new beginnings and innovation and problem-solving, with a solidarity-based appeal to civil society. What if we channeled some of that venerable American spirit of innovation into increasing the number of children who live with their own happily married parents? What if we all put our heads together—regardless of our party affiliation or marital status—to see how we can increase the chances that our children will have good marriages?
Echo Doherty and Carroll, and say that the greatest untapped resource in America for strengthening families is not the president or a governor or Congress or the Department of Health and Human Services; the greatest untapped resource for strengthening families in America are the lived experiences of ordinary Americans.
Family fragmentation is not primarily the government’s problem—it's our common challenge as neighbors and citizens.
Maybe you were trapped in a drug addiction, and you experienced firsthand how it can wreck marriages and separate families. What’s your idea for helping the next generation to escape the trap that you fell into?
Maybe you were in a good marriage, but tough times came and you lost your job, and you saw how the lack of productive work contributes to stress, and sometimes the breakdown of a marriage. Or maybe you’re a businessman and you see how financial instability exacerbates family instability. What’s your idea for helping people with modest means to achieve financial stability?
Maybe you have walked with your neighbor—or a friend at church, or a colleague at work, or a relative—through divorce or a difficult relationship. What’s your idea?
Ask Americans everywhere: what’s your idea to help the next generation to achieve their dreams of lasting love and a thriving family?
Yes, the government has a modest role to play. But hit home the point that family fragmentation is not primarily the government’s problem—or poor people’s problem, or juvenile offenders’ problem, or racial minorities’ problem. Family fragmentation is not just “their” problem, or “your” problem, or “my” problem. Family fragmentation is our common challenge as neighbors and citizens. And when it comes to strengthening families, the question is not what I can do for them, or what they can do to help me, but what we can do to support each other.