Recently I had the privilege to witness the graduation ceremonies at two social institutions under continuous attack and where citizens are clamoring for reform – a charter school where I serve as the board president and the police academy where my son was a cadet. My conversations with leaders at those ceremonies made frequent mention of a more fundamental social institution whose health, or lack thereof, has a profound impact on student success and the rate of criminal activity – the family. Given the growing fragile state of the American family – experts say it’s a crisis – they wondered why there aren’t loud voices clamoring for family reform as well.
The answer appears simple: My family is none of your business. Or is it? Studies show that children from good families are more likely to succeed at school, be healthier mentally and physically, and avoid criminal activity. Healthy families are the immune system in our society. Given these facts, shouldn’t our leaders be asking the question “how can we promote a culturally competent model of healthy families?”
State lawmakers tried to formulate an answer when they passed the Family Preservation Act, which articulated state policy as promoting each family’s responsibility to raise its children and to halt the breakup of the nuclear family. Earlier, when Congress enacted welfare reform, it acknowledged marriage and family formation as one of the pathways from poverty.
In a nuclear family married heterosexual couples raise their biological children. Herein lies a major roadblock – the family is changing and the needle has moved from the nuclear family as the only model of family health. According to the Pew Research Center only 46 percent of children today live in a nuclear family compared to 73 percent in 1960. One in three children are raised in single-parent homes. Growing numbers of families have adopted children and stepchildren. Divorce is no longer stigmatized, freeing women from unhappy or abusive marriages. Women have new economic power, and some question whether they need men to raise children. And only a minority of two-parent families can afford the luxury of a stay-at-home parent. …
So, for the next generation, there appears to be little agreement about the value of marriage and a model of family health. Financial needs are stressing families, rates of marriage are decreasing and more families outsource child rearing to third parties. Families are becoming more fragile, and increasingly our institutions carry the burden.
A related problem was raised by New Mexico economic developer Mark Lautman in his book “When the Boomers Bail,” where he writes that baby boomers didn’t have enough kids. Lautman says this is a greater challenge than climate change and Islamic terrorism because there won’t be enough qualified workers to grow the economy and pay taxes to support basic government services.
America is a nation of immigrants, and we’ve assimilated the most diverse population in human history, providing millions with hope of the American Dream. What will our institutions look like in future generations where citizens have fewer children, parents spend less quality time with their children and more children are deprived the benefit of intimate extended family relationships because of divorce?
Research from the bipartisan Marriage Project tells us what values underlie healthy families. Married couples raising their biological children remains the gold standard. Father-involvement programs are crucial for many single-parent families, as are TANF block grants to support parenting and family strengthening initiatives. And, learning communication and conflict-resolution skills create preventive measures that help ensure stable and healthy relationships and reduce unnecessary divorces.
We must recognize this crisis and, setting aside our politics, begin intelligent discourse about solutions to the challenges facing our families. Providing future generations with the American Dream is dependent on the continued success of our institutions. The primary social institution – the family – will always play an essential role in that success.
Mark Boitano co-chaired the Governor’s Summit on Marriage, Parenting and Family Strengthening in 1999 and 2001.