Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Decline of the American Family: An Economic Catastrophe

Ted Williams III


July 27, 2012

By Ted Williams III

The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled. So, unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together, all the rest-schools, playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern-will never be enough.” --President Lyndon Johnson

Neither American political party has taken seriously the destruction of this bedrock institution. According to political pundits and the mainstream media, the greatest threats to the American way of life are rising gas prices, suicide bombers and a housing market that is recovering from a mortgage crisis. Yet, the family, as Lyndon Johnson realized, is the cornerstone of our society.

The United States has the world’s highest divorce rate at slightly over 50 percent. Close to 40 percent of all American children are born out of wedlock, and nearly 70 percent of all African- American children grow up without a father. Poverty rates among two-parent families are five times lower than in single-parent families, and 82 percent of all prison inmates come from fatherless homes. In fact, when comparing all racial and ethnic groups, poverty rates are identical (6 percent) in two-parent families.

In the current political wars over the funding of government programs, the relationship between the breakdown of the family and poverty is given little attention, but its significance is so great that it bears repeating: When families remain intact, poverty is low among all groups, regardless of ethnicity.

Furthermore, consider this telling fact: After all of the research into education reform, after all of the dollars spent on technology and accountability, parental influence is still the number one factor determining a student’s academic success of a student—just as it was 200 years ago.

Given this trenchant reality, one would think that the unrivaled resources and energy of the American government would be channeled to strengthen the family. In the 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama pledged to expand the child-care tax credit, support flexible work scheduling initiatives and expand the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). While he has accomplished some of these goals, his work around this critical issue has fallen short of the kind of visionary and comprehensive action necessary for the crisis we currently face.  Furthermore, Obama’s recent statements in favor of redefining marriage will have untold, deleterious social consequences.

We need bold leadership that will push marriage- and family-centered curricula in public schools, and will expand marriage and parenting initiatives through the Department of Health and Human Services and the faith-based community. Our leaders should challenge the media, which increasingly undermines marriage as an institution, and expand family-leave provisions and strongly oppose efforts to redefine marriage in our culture.

The Puritans understood something we do not today. As a nation, we must more effectively support families in the fulfillment of their critical social responsibilities. In fact, among the Puritans, men suffered community penalties for infractions such as not attending public worship, wild and sinful living and dereliction in fulfilling parental educational responsibilities. The Puritan vision for a prosperous and peaceful society relied heavily on moral and civic socialization, which could only occur through a family structure. Cotton Mather, an influential Puritan minister and political figure, stated in 1679 that “most of the evils that abound amongst us proceed from defects as to family government.” He believed that weak families would exacerbate every social ill known to man. Unfortunately, his predictions have clearly come to fruition today.

As simplistic as this direction may sound, it is clear that the front lines of social change are both in the halls of Congress and in the nation’s living rooms. The current political leadership has largely disregarded this glaring crack in America’s foundation. Unfortunately, as any architect will acknowledge, with a crack in the foundation, it is only a matter of time before the entire building crumbles.

—Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago.

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