Controversy: Family Trouble

Continuing the debate from "Family Feud," July-August 1997 and "Family Values: The Sequel," May-June 1997.


In a review essay that purports to include my book, The Divorce Culture, Arlene Skolnick ignores what the book actually says. Instead, she falsely ascribes to me things I have never written. Let me begin with some of her many errors and misrepresentations. Then I will draw on my own argument, since it reveals the weaknesses in her view of how liberals should think about family structure changes.

I have never written: "fatherlessness is the number one domestic problem facing the country because it drives all the rest." I do not point to the vulnerabilities of single-parent families as signs of their "moral failings." I do not argue for making alternatives to two-parent biological families socially unacceptable and practically difficult. I do not use "horror stories" about divorce. I do have files of touching letters from children of divorce, but I use none of this anecdotal evidence. I rely only on clearly identified historical, literary, legal, and social science evidence. I do not say that our culture has "abolished" marriage and the nuclear family. I do not call for policies that will disadvantage children. I do not treat family structure changes in a social and economic void or profess a "germ theory" of divorce. Indeed, I cite many background factors behind the steep increase in divorce rates, including postwar economic affluence; the growing opportunities for women in education and the workplace; women's greater relative economic independence and thus greater freedom to leave bad marriages; weakening social sanctions against parenthood outside of marriage; the relaxation of cultural prohibitions against divorces involving children; and rising expectations for adult emotional satisfactions within marriage. All figure in the growing fragility of marriage and the increased likelihood of marital breakdown and dissolution. I place the seedbed for the divorce revolution in the late 1950s, not the 1960s. Finally, I do not "mislead" by "repeatedly" using the phrase she attributes to me as a direct quotation: "average child of divorce."

Skolnick also writes, "Many of the family researchers cited in Whitehead's Atlantic article [April 1993, "Dan Quayle Was Right"] protested her misuse of their data" and then says in the next sentence, as if to illustrate: "Sara McLanahan, for example, has objected to efforts to 'demonize single mothers.'" Several researchers, including three mentioned in the article—but not McLanahan—did protest, but not over misuse of their data. (The piece went through the Atlantic's meticulous fact-checking process and such misuse would not have survived.) In a letter to the Atlantic, they contended that I "imply erroneously that most children of divorce will have lasting problems." However, in a passage that directly quotes research opinion, the article itself says the exact opposite: "while coming from a disrupted family significantly increases a young adult's risks of experiencing social, emotional or academic difficulties, it does not foreordain such difficulties. The majority [italics mine] of young people from disrupted families have successfully completed high school, do not currently display high levels of emotional distress or problem behavior and enjoy reasonable relationships with their mothers."

Moreover, Skolnick creates the impression that McLanahan has accused me of misusing her data and demonizing single mothers. I am not aware of any such accusations. Indeed, before the article was published, I read the entire passage on her work to McLanahan and made the changes she suggested. As to how we should think about single motherhood, I agree with the views expressed by McLanahan and Gary Sandefur in their book, Growing Up with a Single Parent (1994): "we reject the argument that people should not talk about the negative consequences of single motherhood for fear of stigmatizing single mothers and their children. While we appreciate the compassion that lies behind this position, we disagree with the bottom line. Indeed, we believe that not talking about these problems does more harm than good."

Another glaring error: Skolnick identifies me as the leader of a group of writers based at the Institute for American Values, referring six times to "Whitehead and her colleagues." I parted company with the Institute for American Values more than two years ago, and I wrote The Divorce Culture after I left. My work is mine alone, not the "output" of any organization.

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By generating this smokescreen of falsehoods, Skolnick avoids contending with my ideas. Most scholars agree that the divorce revolution occurred as a result of the social, economic, and cultural factors I identify above. But these factors alone do not explain its single most remarkable feature: the virtual disappearance of widespread social concern over the harmful impact of divorce on children. Earlier in the century, when the divorce rate was minuscule by today's standards, people worried about the damage it did to children. Yet at the very moment that divorce began to affect a historically unprecedented one million children each and every year, this concern vanished. Why this dramatic shift?

Simply put, there was a sea change in the American conception of divorce. The society no longer defined divorce as a social or family event, with multiple stakeholders, notably the children whose interests must be represented and served. Instead, it saw divorce as an individual and psychological event with a single stakeholder, the initiating adult. Divorce also ceased to be regarded as a last-resort remedy for an irretrievably broken marriage and began to be identified with positive outcomes for adults and especially for women: greater happiness and independence; a stronger self-image; and enhanced capacity for initiative, assertiveness, and risk taking. In this conception, children were no longer viewed as stakeholders in marriage or divorce.

There was ideological consensus on this new conception. Conservatives embraced its affirmation of unfettered individualism, which gave adults the freedom to pursue their own individual interests in a socially and legally deregulated environment. Liberals were attracted to the psychological and social benefits of divorce for women. Freed from their economic and psychological dependency on marriage, women would be able to hold their own against men in the workplace and in family life.

This conception of divorce, with its disenfranchisement of children, threatens the child-saving tradition of twentieth-century liberalism. Two defining goals of the liberal project have been to secure greater rights and freedoms for women and to improve the welfare of children. In the past, these goals were compatible because liberals could assume an identity of maternal and child interests. What helped women would help their children. Consequently, if mothers were emotionally stronger and happier after divorce, presumably their children would be as well. However, the empirical evidence on the impact of divorce on children challenges this assumption. A majority of women do report improved psychological health and outlook after divorce, but their children often suffer serious economic disadvantage and emotional loss, including weaker ties to their father. Thus, the advantages of divorce for adults, especially women, are not equally or reliably shared by their children. Liberals like Skolnick try to evade this conflict by soft-pedaling the hardships of divorce for children. Thus, Skolnick argues, concerns about the harmful impact of divorce on children are exaggerated because, by one scholar's estimate, only 25 percent of children (roughly 250,000 per year for more than 25 years) suffer long-term damage. It is inconceivable that she would dismiss such a rate if it applied to unemployment or domestic violence. Her view is a remarkable and tragic retreat from the liberal tradition. Moreover, by branding concerns over marital instability and father absence as "moral panic," she abandons one compelling argument for why we must act to reverse the decline in high school-educated male wages: It shrinks the pool of marriageable men and responsible fathers.

Skolnick is at odds with another liberal tenet. Usually it is liberals who argue that the structural organization of social, economic, and political life shapes outcomes, while it is conservatives who say that individual character and agency count. Here, it is Skolnick who says structure doesn't matter. Rather, it is the quality of relationships that determines children's outcomes. Of course, consistent love, nurture, and supervision are essential to successful child rearing, and these qualities can be found in many different family structures, from single-mother households to married-parent households to foster-parent households and even in some kinds of institutional settings—a point I make in my book. But the idea that family structure has no bearing on the quality of nurture and care giving is nonsense. Structure does matter precisely because it influences the quality and duration of parental nurture and investment. Nondisrupted two-parent households simply have a greater capacity to make higher and often longer-term investments of time and money in their children than the fast-growing alternatives: one-parent, stepparent, and foster-parent families. To say this is not to promote intolerance for other family forms—all families deserve respect. Rather, it is to make an empirical statement about the capacities of different family structures to achieve good outcomes for children.

Moreover, if structure does not matter, then the liberal crusade against structural inequalities has been a wild goose chase. Given Skolnick's logic, rather than work to change structures, liberals should work to improve the quality of relationships between rich and poor, corporate moguls and low-wage workers, Donald Trump and the homeless.

More to the point, Skolnick's is a politics of sentimentality, where the goal of securing the objective conditions for child well-being is replaced by the subjective goal of feeling good about ourselves and our families. Her politics is akin to the advertising strategy of for-profit managed health care companies: They tell us warmly how much they care as they cut back ruthlessly on care itself.

Skolnick's view also makes it impossible for liberals to make a persuasive case that all American adults have a collective public duty to all American children. A society cannot sustain an ethic of public obligation to children if it also accepts a private ethic that disenfranchises them. If parents are entitled to put their needs and self-interest before those of their own children, why should they or any other adults feel an obligation to help a stranger's child? If fathers can cut back on their private support to their own flesh and blood, why would they tax themselves to provide public supports to other people's children?

Finally, Skolnick ignores traditional liberal skepticism about the application of marketplace values to family life. Earlier in this century, progressive reformers warned that divorce was the domestic equivalent of robber-baron capitalism. In this tradition, liberals held that family relationships, like relationships in labor unions, were governed by principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and binding obligation whereas the marketplace was governed by principles of individual self-interest, short-term contract, and nonbinding relationships. Yet Skolnick rejects this view of familial relationships and uncritically accepts a popular conception of divorce that advances marketplace values. Divorce is an arena for entrepreneurship and whatever costs it creates are off-loaded onto the children who, as teenagers put it, have to "suck it up and deal." This is why divorce is embraced by libertarian conservatives. It is hard to detect much difference on divorce between Arlene Skolnick and Newt Gingrich. Both take the same position: Can't help it. Can't change it. Can't get hung up on what it does to the kids.



Just when it seemed liberals were finally getting it right about the family, along comes Arlene Skolnick to prove otherwise. Her arguments set liberals back more than 30 years, to 1965, when the left made its first serious misstep in the family values debate. That was the year that President Lyndon B. Johnson, drawing on the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called "the breakdown of the American family structure" the chief threat to the well-being of black Americans. Most liberals were outraged: Family structure was not the cause of inner-city problems; poverty was. Focusing on family structure merely stigmatized and blamed the victims.

Now, it seems, we're still right where we started 30 years ago. The economy may have come a long way since then—but the family hasn't. Indeed, the structural conditions of white families today—judged in terms of rates of single parenthood and out-of-wedlock births—are about what they were for black families in 1965. Many on the left have finally come to acknowledge the family pathology—yes, pathology—of the inner-city ghetto. But when the idea is generalized to the population as a whole, liberals still don't get it. Family? they ask. What's the problem? It's the economy, stupid.

No doubt we should be doing more for the poor, more to improve the economy in every way possible. Yet it's clear that money is not the whole answer to our nation's family problem. If it is, why, in an era of unprecedented affluence, have the living conditions of children of all classes deteriorated? Why, moreover, is the distribution of family structures more or less the same in Brentwood as it is in Bedford-Stuyvesant—with many of the same social consequences in both places.

A good society depends heavily on strong families raising emotionally secure and moral children who can grow up to contribute to the commonweal. Despite Skolnick's pleadings to the contrary, the social science evidence overwhelmingly indicates that single-parent and stepparent families are flawed in a sociological sense—the children in these families are two to three times more likely to experience negative behavioral outcomes.

Sure, many non-nuclear families are successful. And there will always be children growing up without two parents who need, and should have, extra support from the community and the nation. But what kind of politics is it that denigrates support for two-parent families as an exercise in nostalgia?

Arlene Skolnick's main message is this: "Get used to it." Accept that most children will not be growing up with their two parents, and make the best of it. Do we take a get-used-to-it position on racial inequality, environmental degradation, severe poverty, or the campaign finance system?

It defies credulity that seeking to curtail the sky-high divorce rate (close to 50 percent), the nonmarital birth rate (now a third of all births), and the absence of fathers from the home (now more than a third of biological fathers) could be considered illiberal or unprogressive. These are tragedies for children, and for the nation.

They are also avoidable. Nobody is calling for the end of divorce, the end of sex, or for rescinding the gains that women have made in recent decades. But we should push for later marriages, for sound marriage preparation and marital enrichment programs, and for the end of teen pregnancies. We should extend parental leave and remove marriage penalties from the tax code. And we must get beyond the idea that fostering married, two-parent families is somehow "castigating parents in the 'wrong' family forms."

Does the left sincerely want political credibility and a national following? If so, I submit that the path put forth by Arlene Skolnick goes in precisely the wrong direction. Her family platform may appeal to the academic left, but as a way to appeal to the American electorate it is dead wrong. More important, it does not address what children really need.



There's a surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland quality to Barbara Whitehead's response to my review. First she accuses me of misquoting her, which is impossible because I never actually quoted her in the article. The sentences she cites as being attributed to her appeared in a paragraph summarizing the general arguments advanced by those currently or previously affiliated with the Institute for American Values.

Later, Whitehead states that in order to "soft-pedal" the effects of divorce on children, I cite a scholar who estimates that "only 25 percent" of children suffer long-term damage. "It is inconceivable," Whitehead writes, "that she [that is, me] would dismiss such a rate if it applied to unemployment or domestic violence.''

I searched in vain for that reference in my original article—because it wasn't there. Whitehead was referring to a comment made by Mavis Hetherington, which I quoted in my reply to David Blankenhorn and Maggie Gallagher in the July-August issue of TAP. A small point, perhaps, but indicative of a certain carelessness. Whitehead's next error, however, is more serious. Hetherington states that while between 20 and 25 percent of children from divorced families have problems, compared to 10 percent in intact ones, it means that between 75 and 80 percent are not having problems. But where Hetherington mentions "problems" Whitehead misquotes her as speaking of "long-term damage."

Reading parts of Whitehead's polemic, however, I lost sight of what the argument is all about. She states that she does not think that fatherlessness is the major domestic problem facing the country; that she does not think that single-parent families reflect the moral failings of the adults involved; and that she agrees that the majority of young people from disrupted families do not suffer academically or emotionally. Furthermore, she says, she does not favor policies that stigmatize single-parent families or make their lives harder and she is not in favor of policies that disadvantage children—by which, I assume, she means she opposes the recently enacted welfare bill.

In the second half of her response, however, Whitehead does a complete about-face. She equates divorce with "robber-baron capitalism," claiming that it tramples on nonmarket values like solidarity and obligation, and inflicts all the costs and damages on children. Whitehead argues that by selfishly putting their own needs and self-interest ahead of their children, parents who divorce thereby undermine any sense of public obligation to children.

Curiouser still is the logic of Whitehead's discussion of "structure." It is true that sociologists describe the parental make-up of a household as a "family structure," and that they also speak of "social structure" in describing the broader arrangements (such as the class system) of a particular society. Somehow, Whitehead imagines this to mean that whatever one says about the number of parents in the home determines what one can say about large-scale social structures—that whatever one says about family structure must apply equally and in the same way to whatever one says about larger structures. "If structure does not matter," she writes, "then the liberal crusade against structural inequalities has been a wild goose chase." Aside from pointing out that I never wrote that family structure doesn't matter, there is little one can say in response to such absurd reasoning.

David Popenoe takes a moderate tone in part of his response: "Nobody," he writes, "is calling for the end of divorce, the end of sex, or for rescinding the enormous gains that women have made in recent decades." Yet Popenoe, like Blankenhorn and Gallagher, prefers to frame the argument in stark black-and-white terms, when the reality is far more subtle.

There are indeed lessons in the history that Popenoe recounts, but they are not what he thinks they are. The controversial Moynihan report that Popenoe refers to, famous for its description of the black family as "a tangle of pathology," was intended more to spur an assault on poverty than to criticize family composition. As Moynihan explained in a 1967 Commentary article, he introduced the topic of family structure in an effort to arouse public attention and to win the support of conservatives who would otherwise have opposed federal programs to provide full employment and guaranteed family incomes.

The notion that poverty and unemployment can lead to family instability and socially destructive behavior was neither novel nor necessarily conservative. But the mixture of morality, pathology, race, and economics turned out to be explosive. In the resulting uproar, both left and right focused on the theme of family pathology—and Moynihan's economic message was lost. Both left and right misunderstood Moynihan to be blaming the poor for their own difficulties. Indeed, contrary to Popenoe's version of events, conservatives won, succeeding over time in shifting the focus from poverty and economic dislocation to the behavior of the poor.

Since 1965, two major developments have had a profound impact on families. One was the shift at the end of the postwar boom to a lean-and-mean postindustrial economy that stripped family-sustaining career opportunities from many blacks and noncollege-educated adults of all demographic groups. Young adults in the family-forming stage of life have been hit especially hard by an insecure and uncertain job market. Popenoe may not be aware of it, but marriage has always been a matter of both love and money—something a man had to be able to "afford." This is still true today, when a man is expected to help cook the bacon as well as bring it home. Further, there is a literature reaching back to the Great Depression showing that economic conditions play a large role not only in the decision to marry, but in the quality of marital life. In recent years, as Frank Furstenberg has pointed out in American Demographics, marriage has become a "luxury item," something that most low-income people would prefer, but find beyond their reach.

Of course, economics is not the whole story. The other major shift was a revolution in women's roles and in middle-class attitudes toward them. The increasing economic independence of women has made divorce and even out-of-wedlock childbearing—a la Murphy Brown—socially permissible, not only among outspoken feminists, but also, surveys show, more generally. But it is impossible to debate seriously someone like Popenoe who equates stepparenting with teenage pregnancy, and calls the life conditions of children in Brentwood and Bed-Stuy comparably "deteriorated."

Popenoe's proposals for premarital counseling and marital enrichment programs make sense. Still, anyone with common sense and a modicum of experience realizes that in this day and age, there will always be children whose family structure does not conform to the idealized standard of two nondivorced parents. Those children need society's concern, regard, and respect. The narrow and fundamentally corrosive vision of Popenoe and his colleagues will contribute little to the well-being of children across the breadth of American society.

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