Does family structure matter?

I will never forget when, as a Berkman Fellow at Harvard Law School, I brought up in the course of an informal weekly discussion groups, the question of family structure. The silence was deafening. It was as if I had proposed infanticide.

At first I didn’t get it. Then I realized that for the Left, family structure and family values are issues of the Right. “Family structure” is “dog whistle” politics and code for racist scorn for black people. The real issue is white racism and economic exploitation. Family is an ideological weapon, a cynical tactical device to distract the attention of the ignorant and the gullible.

This is tragic. The 50 year taboo on family structure originated with the Moynihan report of 1964. A concerned liberal Democrat, Moynihan was denounced as a victim-blaming racist for suggesting that the black family had some issues as the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks was 24%, 8X  higher than the white rate of 3%. Today the white rate is 25% and the black rate 67%.

The good news is that the taboo on the left is lifting. Kathy Edin, a professor at Harvard, and a progressive ethnographer has tried to focus attention to what she calls the problem of “complex and unstable families.” In a forum on inequality she said that to talk about inequality without talking about the inequality in family structure is lunatic. Similarly, Robert Putnam, also a progressive has chronicled the tragic consequences of family structure deterioration in his book Our Kids.

Raj Chetty, the economist,  in his study on social mobility in America has found that the most important single variable in explaining differentials in social mobility across all races is family structure.

Most encouragingly, Putnam has teamed up with Charles Murray, a conservative and gone on a joint speaking tour trying to highlight together the severity of the problem and the need for bipartisanship. This ecumenical spirit is also evident in the joint study by the Brookings and American Enterprise Institute on the subject. But in my experience these are still isolated voices of reason in a sea of partisan bickering.

Why has family structure deteriorated so dramatically in the last 50 years?

As with any big historical trend there are multiple causes: technological, economic, political, and cultural. The development of the birth control pill helped de-stigmatize extra-marital sex, welfare eligibility requirements made marriage economically irrational, income-support programs made having children a potential source of income, the women’s movement helped spread the idea that a single mother could do it all herself, technological change and globalization made it more difficult for many men to play the traditional role of breadwinner, the decline of religious faith weakened the fear of divine retribution. Whatever the causes, the result has been the emergence of a caste system: one caste with intact families, the other without.