THE AMERICAN FAMILY, 1992 Everyone knows how vastly it has been transformed, but we are just learning how profoundly disturbing the implications are for kids -- and for American society.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – I KNOW BY THE WORRY in their eyes that my children are not kidding when they ask, every couple of months or so, ''Are you and Mommy getting a divorce?'' And this in a close-knit family committed to solidarity. Yet so pervasive is family collapse and turmoil that virtually no American child, seeing the distress of friends whose parents are splitting apart, can escape the thought that the family structure anchoring his childhood may not prove secure. In this as in many other ways, the revolution in families that we see all around us -- the result of an epidemic of divorce, remarriage, redivorce, illegitimacy, and new strains within intact families -- has precipitated a revolution in the inner lives of our children. And a torrent of recent research makes plain that this revolution within the minds and hearts of the next generation has deeply troubling implications for the American social order. It affects companies through their workers, and some employers are wisely responding. We're so accustomed to talking about the divorce revolution and the explosion of single-parent families that we've become numbed to how vast these changes really are. The most basic unit of our social organization has undergone transformations so sweeping that changes of similar magnitude in economic or industry data over the same period -- or in the average temperature of the earth over 20 centuries -- would make us gape in amazement. Consider the numbers afresh for a moment. During the Fifties -- culturally and socially as far away as Shangri-La -- the divorce rate fell 11% to an infinitesimal 9.2 per thousand married women each year. But then in the Sixties, as the first rockets headed for outer space, the divorce rate soared straight up with them. At its height in 1979 it stood at 22.7, 147% higher than 1960's rate. At the last measurement in 1988 it had subsided to 20.7 per thousand -- hopeful, but still more than double the 1950 number. Over half of all first marriages now end in divorce. And proving Dr. Johnson's adage that remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience, a similar proportion of subsequent marriages dissolve in redivorce. The problem is that the majority of people who get divorced -- 57% -- have children under 18. Over a million kids a year have to weather the breakup of their parents' marriage. An epidemic rise of out-of-wedlock births -- from under 4% of children born in 1950 to a startling 27% in 1989 -- has further swollen the number of children in single-parent families. Two of every three black children are born out of wedlock today, and one of every five white children. As a result of their parents' inability to preserve their marriages or to marry at all, almost a quarter of American children live in single-parent, usually female-headed, households. More than half can expect to live in such households, typically for an extended period, before they turn 18. Says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a New York family-issues research outfit: ''The experience of fatherlessness is approaching a rough parity with the experience of having a father as an expectation of childhood.'' Contrary to the longstanding received opinion that children recover quickly from divorce and flourish in families of almost any shape, these changes have harrowed and damaged kids. Though of course many single-parent families work very well, lovingly nurturing children fully capable of happiness and success -- and though everyone knows intact families that exemplify Franz Kafka's dictum that the middle-class family is the closest thing to hell on earth -- in general, children from single-parent families have more trouble growing up and bear more scars than children from two-parent families. Says Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan, who studies children of divorce as they enter adulthood: ''Almost anything you can imagine not wanting to happen to your children is a consequence of divorce.'' That goes for out-of-wedlock birth too, as recent research amply, and depressingly, bears out. Experts back in the Sixties confidently predicted that child poverty would fall markedly between 1960 and 1988, assuming trends continued. Instead, the child poverty rate rose from around 15%, to 20.3%, with almost all the increase coming in the 1980s. Analyzing every variable, Penn State researchers recently concluded that the explosion of single-parent families is crucial to so dramatic and unexpected a rise. Had family breakdown not deprived many families of a male breadwinner, the child poverty rate would have declined to 13.8% in 1988. Changes in the composition of families, researchers calculate, account for one-third of the increase in child poverty among whites during the Eighties and two-thirds of it among blacks, who constitute 44% of America's poor children. Kids in single-parent families have less than one-third the median per capita income of kids from two-parent families, and half of them fall below the poverty line in any given year, compared with 10% of their counterparts in intact families. Around 75% of single-parent children will sink into a spell of poverty before they reach 18, vs. 20% of kids from two-parent families. After divorce, a Census Bureau study discovered, kids are twice as likely to be in poverty as before. As for out-of-wedlock children, a large proportion are underclass kids, their poverty and illegitimacy part of a tangle of social pathology that mars their life chances. Growing up in a single-parent family puts its mark not just on a child's external economic circumstances but on his or her innermost psyche as well. A vast National Center for Health Statistics study found that children from single-parent homes were 100% to 200% more likely than children from two- parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems and about 50% more likely to have learning disabilities. In the nation's hospitals, over 80% of adolescents admitted for psychiatric reasons come from single-parent families. A RECENT long-term study found that elementary school children from divorced families, especially boys, on average scored lower on reading and math tests, were absent more often, were more anxious, hostile, and withdrawn, and were less popular with their peers than their classmates from intact families. Single-parent children are twice as likely to drop out of high school as two- parent children. In later life, adults who grew up in divorced homes are more likely than others to tell investigators that they are unhappy, in poor health, and dissatisfied with their lives. Men from divorced families are 35% more likely -- and women fully 60% more likely -- than their intact-family counterparts to get divorced or separated. Ominously, the most reliable predictor of crime is neither poverty nor race but growing up fatherless. No scale can measure the deepest wounds of divorce for children, and impressive recent research suggests they are wounds that never heal. Psychologist Judith Wallerstein, who for 15 years has intimately followed 130 children of divorce, was shocked by the extent of the harm she found, not just right after the divorce but years later. Wallerstein, co-author of Second Chances: Men, Women, & Children a Decade after Divorce, had at first assumed that an unhappy marriage must be unhappy for children too: While they would feel pain at the divorce, they would also feel relief and would be just fine as time passed and their parents grew happier. Not at all. She was taken aback by the intensity of the pain and fear that engulfed these kids when their parents split up. ''The first reaction is one of pure terror,'' Wallerstein says. Though most were middle-class children of executives and professionals, they worried who was going to feed and care for them. Preschool children feared that now that one parent had abandoned the other, both would abandon the child, leaving him unprotected in a scary world. After the divorce, many of the boys started having learning and behavior trouble in school, even though most were bright; in adolescence and young adulthood a significant number began to drift. The girls in Wallerstein's study did much better, as they do in other surveys -- even better than girls from intact families, according to one study, leading some researchers to believe that divorce leaves girls unscathed. But the girls' success, Wallerstein found, tended to be fragile. Says she: ''These girls were on super behavior, consciously trying to be good little girls -- at a high inner cost.'' Many of them couldn't keep it up. ''In adolescence and in young adulthood,'' Wallerstein says, ''girls from divorced families have a very difficult time, and there's a steep decline.'' By young adulthood, years after the divorce, boys and girls were having equal difficulty forming intimate, loving relationships. Fearful of being alone, fearful that men would abandon and betray them rather than form the lasting relationship they desperately wanted, many of the girls, as if / militantly trying to disprove their fears, flung themselves into affair after affair. They married early, often unsuitably, divorcing at a very high rate. Why? Says Wallerstein: ''To exercise a good choice takes a sense of who you are and the inner sturdiness to stand there on the threshold of adulthood and say, 'Now let me take a little bit of time.' A lot of these girls are too anxious for that.'' The boys, by contrast, typically held themselves back from relations with girls as they grew up. Says Wallerstein: ''They were really very lonely and scared to take a chance. As one of them said, 'I'm afraid that when she gets to know me, she won't love me.' '' Surprisingly, children with stepparents don't do any better than children in single-parent families, even though remarriage greatly improves the children's economic situation. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, they are at least as likely as children from single-parent families to have learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral problems. Remarkably often, girls in such families wind up locked in conflict with their mothers. As these consequences make plain, solidifying a new marriage while keeping the children from feeling excluded or discarded isn't easy. Plainly, too, as sociologist McLanahan says, for children ''remarriage is not the solution.'' But -- it's reasonable to ask -- aren't the bad consequences of divorce really caused not by the divorce itself but by the family disharmony that precipitated the split? Here too investigators have come up with clear answers, differing in degree but not in overall conclusion. A British study concludes that around half the learning difficulties that boys from divorced families have -- but almost none for girls -- are explained by preexisting family problems. But that is the biggest effect any researcher has found. The most recent study finds that preexisting problems account for none of the difficulties that beset children of divorce. What caused the enormous changes in the American family? Some attribute them to economic forces. Real wages stagnated and in some cases even declined in the Eighties, making two-earner families and longer work hours an economic necessity and thus burdening marriage and parenthood with unprecedented strains that a government lacking a family policy does nothing to alleviate, according to this view. Says Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-Colorado): ''People get into a marriage, they have children -- all of a sudden everything becomes such a tough, stressful thing that they say, 'Wait a minute, this is not what I bought into,' and one or the other runs.'' But since family breakup began in the Sixties, while wages were rising strongly, and since the Eighties' 15% or so decline in the real wages of low- skill young workers, while extremely significant, is not cataclysmic, economic change would seem to explain, if anything, only a modest fraction of earth-shattering family change. Nor is there some vast evolutionary force that over the course of history regularly shapes and reshapes family life. Quite the contrary. Says historian Christopher Lasch: ''The structure of the family has been very stable over a long period of time, and it's only over the last generation that we've had this enormous change.'' INSTEAD, if ever proof were needed of the overwhelming power of ideas to shape society, the changes in the family provide it eloquently. American culture shifted radically in the 1960s, and three key cultural changes worked powerfully to restructure family life. First, the Sixties' quest for personal liberation and gratification, the decade's rebelliousness against authority and convention, took the glamour away from the family life personified by upright, uptight Mom and Dad, with their stultifying rules and routine. Says George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni: ''The Sixties attacked all authority and institutions, including families and fathers.'' The spirit of the age also devalued commitments to others made for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer -- diametrically opposed to the new, radically individualist ethic of, ''If it feels good, do it,'' as a Sixties slogan put it. Second, once the sexual revolution licensed promiscuity, the domestication of sex within marriage could seem less of a fulfillment and more of a restriction. The whole culture's glorification of the joy of sex without reference to marriage allowed married people to feel an unprecedented self- justification in the pursuit of sexual adventure, even if it broke up their marriages. Third, the most vocal contingent of the women's movement devalued what feminist Betty Friedan called the ''comfortable concentration camp'' of traditional family life. This attitude encouraged some women to see family life's inevitable constraints as an oppression from which they needed liberation. Moreover, it encouraged women to value themselves for their career achievements but not for motherhood. These new beliefs about what happiness was, coupled with the belief that children's happiness was a function of their parents' happiness or unhappiness, set the stage for three decades of family disintegration. Says Vanderbilt University political scientist Jean Elshtain: ''Kids have been the unwitting volunteers for all sorts of experiments in uncharted territory. If the standard is how well the kids are doing, the changes are not for the better.'' Unexpectedly, these attitudes had disproportionate consequences for those at the bottom of society, undermining their family life in a particularly destructive way. For these attitudes not only helped shape America's pernicious welfare system but also helped encourage many of the poor to embrace that system. After all, only a culture both sexually permissive and cavalier about the traditional family could create a welfare system that makes no distinction between legitimate and out-of-wedlock children, and that virtually on demand gives an income with more buying power than a minimum wage job to unwed teenage girls who have a baby before even finishing high school. And only in a culture that both vibrates with the celebration of sexual thrills and also has removed the stigma from having out-of-wedlock children will significant numbers of women permit themselves to get enmeshed in that system. Enabled by these conditions, welfare has become a malign mechanism for perpetuating the dysfunctional families that make up America's underclass. Such families have all the economic and psychological disadvantages that go with fatherlessness. In addition, they are typically headed by unschooled mothers unprepared to support children economically or guide their moral and cognitive development with the almost heroic competence needed to make single- parent families work well. Consequently, such families often end up hopelessly imprisoned in poverty and failure. The cultural changes of the last generation transformed intact families too, notably by sending battalions of moms into the work force. This is a giant gain for America's economy, but it can be a loss for America's children if mothers are not at home to bond with their babies in the crucial early months, or if no one is around to look after schoolchildren when they come home in the afternoon. As a recent study of junior high school kids has shown, the prime determinant of drinking or drug use is how long the child is left alone during the week, and whether a child does his homework correlates strongly with whether an adult is home to supervise. This predicament hits FORTUNE readers directly, since many of us have, or are, or are married to employees facing it. Says Cornell University family expert Urie Bronfenbrenner: ''After those at the bottom of society, the second most threatened group are those at the top, those who are supposed to be the leaders of the world -- the college graduates who are having children at the start of their careers.'' Men with executive or professional careers notoriously don't have enough time for family. And women in high-powered professions similarly put in more than 40-hour workweeks, travel, take office work and worries home with them, and don't dare slacken the pace or take time out for their children for fear of getting left by the wayside in the race for advancement. And so children are left with ''quality time,'' which means little time, from parents, and with what Amitai Etzioni calls ''quality phone calls: 'Honey, I won't be home. I love you.' '' Though not neglect in intent, this can turn out to be neglect in effect. The worry is, what does this do to the children? It of course means that children can feel unvalued and insecure. Says Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon: ''It's easy to dress up as duty things that you don't really have to do. 'Why didn't you come to my school play? Oh, you had a client? Do we really need that much money?' '' It means that the parents are not around to participate in the thousands of daily interactions that make up a child's intellectual, moral, and emotional education, and so, unless the child is a latchkey kid, babysitters are left to do it, as well or ill as they are able and willing. Socializing children, restraining their impulses, awakening their faculties, encouraging their talents, forming their values -- all take time. And parents who don't give it run the risk that their kids won't achieve all they can achieve, even that they'll go wrong. What's more, says Mary Ann Glendon, ''middle- and upper- income people who don't spend a lot of time with their kids are not teaching how members of a community live together and respect each other's rights. When parents put personal goals ahead of family goals, how will kids learn the opposite?'' Families are the institution in which character is formed, and what kinds of characters are being forged, what kinds of citizens are being molded to carry on our society, when our principal socializing institution has had so much parental time withdrawn from it and so many Americans bear such scars from what has happened in their families? The answer is dismayingly clear for dysfunctional underclass families, whose children so often turn out flagrantly antisocial, with such high rates of delinquency and criminality. But several studies have also found disquieting character distortions in children from well-educated, middle-class divorced families. Many are withdrawn and lonely; many others, while gregarious and popular, choose their friends for the status they confer, manipulate them, and can't keep them for long. It is worrisome, too, to wonder about the ultimate consequences of fatherhood's decline. Says Glendon: ''Will a man who hasn't had a father know how to be a father?'' And it is disturbing that the family life of so many otherwise privileged children is so thin and unnourishing a medium for the cultivation of sturdy souls. There are two classes of solution to America's family problem. One class contains specific solutions to each aspect of the problem; the other addresses our family situation in its entirety. First, the specifics:
-- Reform the nation's child-support laws. These should be federalized, the levels of support greatly increased, and contempt-of-court procedures should be streamlined to strengthen enforcement. Says Glendon: ''Suppose they were to tell you in school, 'This is how much you'll make at your job, and this is what you'll make if you have two children and get a divorce.' '' Let everyone know before conceiving a child that he or she can't escape at least the economic responsibility for that child. That will enforce the notion that parenthood is not something to be entered into lightly. It goes for unmarried parents too. Michigan has found it's not hard to establish the paternity of out-of-wedlock children and to make the fathers pay support.
-- Reform the welfare system to strengthen families and not encourage the proliferation of dysfunctional ones. It's said that America has no family policy, and that's why 40% of America's poor are children. The reality is that the nation has a vast, powerful family policy: welfare. That policy helps explain why millions of those poor children are underclass children whose mothers have been enabled to have them because welfare will provide an income to support both mother and child -- in poverty, if you don't count such noncash benefits as food stamps and Medicaid. If underclass children turned out to be mainly productive citizens -- if they didn't have such epidemic rates of crime, school dropout, drug use, unwed teenage pregnancy, and poverty -- welfare might be considered a boon. But it isn't. In the current ferment of reformist spirit, policymakers should try to make welfare what it was established in the Depression to be: a safety net for children who have lost their fathers through death or, more rarely, divorce, not a subsidy to unmarried mothers. At the least, policymakers should remember that children, not mothers, should be the primary focus of a welfare program. A first step might be to stop setting up unwed teenaged mothers in their own apartments but instead to require them to live in group residences, where they can be taught the skills of mothering and children can be enrolled in Head Start-type programs.
-- Government should adopt family-strengthening policies. The inflation-eroded value of the dependent exemption on income tax returns should be restored (to around $6,000 per child), or the same effect should be achieved in other ways, such as the $1,000-per-child refundable tax credit in the Downey/Hyde bill described in the previous article. Says Harvard's Glendon: ''It's legitimate for the law to accord special preference to child-rearing households, for all of us have a stake in the socialization of each new generation.''
-- Industry should adopt enlightened child care policies. Businesses have a big stake in retaining the talented young women they have hired and in keeping their productivity high: Helping them be good mothers as well as good employees is a key ingredient in doing that. IBM believes its enlightened child care policies -- including unpaid leave of up to three years -- save money by cutting employee turnover. The company also lets employees work part- time while caring for young children. Aetna allows employees caring for young children to work part of the week at home or arrange their working hours at the office with great flexibility. If families can afford it, it's much better for mothers to take at least a year off to tend very young children than to put them in all-day institutional day care. Says Yale psychologist Edward Zigler: ''The most important family value is: When a woman has a baby, let her stay home to bond properly with the child. That determines his future.'' Unfortunately not everyone has this option, and for them, as well as for parents of older children, Patagonia, a clothing company in Ventura, California, has devised as good a day care system as there is. Its day care center is at headquarters, so parents are right next door and can drop in during the day. Patagonia trains child care workers and subsidizes their wages, keeping the quality of staff high and turnover low. The company sends buses to pick up older children from school and bring them to the center for afternoon activities, and it runs a day camp for such kids in summer. But beyond these particular solutions is the more general cultural problem: how to make children and families, if not as glamorous as in the Ozzie and Harriet era, at least not as devalued as they have been in the Donald and Ivana decade. Fortunately, the wilder excesses of all the liberations of the past 30 years have begun to pall for most Americans. Says Institute for American Values researcher Barbara Whitehead: ''The experimentalist generation is beginning to understand the costs of that period of experimentation.'' NOW WE NEED to reflect on what we've learned: that children are important, that they don't grow up well unless we bring them up, that they need two parents, that our needs can't shoulder theirs aside, that commitments and responsibilities to others have to take precedence over personal gratification, that nothing is more gratifying than to see children flourish. What is our life for, if not for that?