Marriage’s Decline, and Society’s
(This essay appears in the January 25, 2013, Providence Journal.)
For two years in a row now, The Journal’s article about the first baby born in the new year has contained no mention whatsoever of a father. Studies on the subject are clear that fatherlessness will be a disadvantage to these children, even if they weren’t already being born into disadvantaged communities.
We don’t hear much about it, locally, but we’re looking at a dangerous trend, and we’re ignoring the real harm to the children who will grow up to be our neighbors. In some neighborhoods of Providence and Newport, fewer than one in four black or Hispanic children live in homes with both of their parents.
It has seemed as if every article about education in Providence lately has included a teacher or student making reference to suburban Barrington as the distant, unreachable example with which city kids must strive to compete. Well, much of Barrington, East Greenwich, Exeter, and North Kingstown is notable for being on the opposite side of the spectrum in family life. Most children of every race there live with two parents.
Typically, to the extent that our society tries to address this problem, it focuses on symptoms, not causes, so we end up with a strategy of negation and perverse incentives. We try to prevent the children from ever being born by sterilizing the population through expanded access to contraception and stopping those who are conceived from ever taking their first breaths by aborting them. Then we use government programs and handouts to try to soften the hardship that the breakdown of the family causes.
One needn’t oppose such strategies, though, to admit the plain fact that, at the very least, they aren’t enough. The missing piece — I would say the necessary centerpiece — is the family structure that our society has been abandoning unwisely for a half a century.
Basically, as our culture advanced, it developed a way to control behavior with minimal coercion and with maximum freedom. It was to link men and women to each other and to the children whom they create through the institution of marriage. Marriage gives people a framework within which to behave responsibly.
It will never have perfect success, of course, because people aren’t perfect, but it is straightforward to understand that there is something inherently risky about sex outside of marriage and that the children whom men and women create together are living manifestations of the marriage that their parents should have.
Because it’s a way of conveying expectations, it doesn’t matter that some couples prove not to be fertile or choose not to have children. Their relationship involves an act that for almost all couples can bring new human life into the world, and so we have one institution for all. There’s no need for statements of intent or proof of fertility.
Such a message may sound simplistic, but that’s the point. It’s an institution meant to impart profound guidelines in a way that everybody can comprehend. Marriage, ultimately, is about the behavior and responsibilities of people who have the power to create children almost accidentally. It doesn’t take a sociology degree to use that power, and so the deep philosophies one hears in public debate about marriage are inadequate to define the culture.
We’ve drifted a long way from this understanding, to be sure, and many people have thrived outside of the marital model. But I’d point to the contrast of Providence and Barrington as a consequence. Who has been hurt by a sex-obsessed culture and no-fault divorce? Who is being harmed as state after state declares that gender doesn’t matter for marriage? Who is most affected by the idea that there’s nothing so different about the relationship between men and women that the law and compassionate people can treat it as unique?
Tragically, it’s those who have the least ability to take on any more obstacles: children who already face an uphill battle pursuing the American Dream. Children like Rhode Island’s first babies. Children whom Rhode Island should actually put first.
None of them will be testifying at the State House about the difference that it would have made to their lives if their mothers and fathers had understood the connection between them and their own adult relationships. And it definitely isn’t easy or comfortable to speak up in their place, but politeness and compassion count for little if we won’t even acknowledge such a central source of disadvantage in our community.