Governor Rick Perry has jumped into the race to become the GOP presidential candidate in 2012 and is leading in some of the polls. His entry doubtless alarms those who start to twitch when the conversation turns to “family values,” with good reason. Mr. Perry’s website proclaims that he believes “in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, regarding it as the linchpin of the family unit and, thus, society as a whole.”
To supporters of gay marriage, such statements are provocative and controversial. Yet a growing number of policymakers and analysts are concluding that supporting traditional families may play an important role in plugging our country’s fiscal drain. Numerous studies from groups leaning left and right suggest that increasing numbers of children born out of wedlock, high divorce rates and looser family structures are contributing to rising poverty rates, especially among minorities and the under-educated. The result: an even greater drain on government resources.
Governor Perry, whose Christian faith influences his policy-making, may bring this debate into the open. As the nation struggles financially, nearly every possible avenue to reducing government spending is being considered. Bolstering the family – an approach some say could powerfully improve the country’s fortunes – has yet to receive much attention.
The 2010 Census reported that for the first time in our history, married couples make up less than half of all households. The traditional family with a mom, dad and children now constitute less than 20 percent of American households, down from 43 percent in 1950.
At the same time, the number of children born out of wedlock has exploded. In the mid-1960s, only 6 percent of children were born to unmarried parents. Some 40 percent of all children are born to unmarried parents today; in the African American community, the figure is above 70 percent and for Hispanics, the total is 50 percent.
According to the Heritage Institute, 2008 Census data indicates the poverty rate for single parents with children was 36.5 percent compared to 6.4 percent for married couples. They conclude, “Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent.”
According to a study released last fall by the Brookings Institute, the rise in children born out of wedlock is “assuring the persistence of poverty, wasting human potential, and raising government spending.” In its Strengthening Fragile Families study of single-parent households, the Brookings researchers wrote that “the most important conclusion … is that these families play a central role in boosting the nation’s poverty rate and that they and their children contribute disproportionately to many other serious social problems.”
Further complicating debate on these matters is the growing schism between income levels and family structure. College-educated young people, many of whom live together before marrying, typically do tie the knot before having children. Divorce rates in this crowd have declined. It is among those without college degrees that single parenting is on the rise. Wilcox and Griswold, authors of another Brookings study, describe the “deepening marginalization of marriage and the growing instability of family life among moderately educated Americans,” whom they define as those with only a high school diploma. They point out that what was once a problem primarily for poor populations is in fact spreading to working-class neighborhoods.
Should the country be alarmed by these trends? According to Benjamin Scafidi, an economist at Georgia State’s Bunting School of Business, fractured families, divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers at the least $112 billion per year, some $70 billion is in federal outlays, the balance borne at the state and federal level. His work is based on evidence that single-parent households tend to have a higher propensity towards poverty, which boosts spending for food stamps and Medicaid, for instance. He also concludes that young people raised by single parents are more likely to get into trouble, more often developing drug problems or ending up in jail.
What can be done to turn around the waning of traditional family structures? Chuck Stetson, a board member of the Institute for Family Values who helped to fund the Scafidi report, is pushing divorce reform state by state. He describes himself as an independent voter who can read the writing on the wall. “We have to get left and right together,” he says. “You’re never going to balance the budget if you don’t understand the social issues.” Stetson is driven by numbers; he has plenty of convincing statistics. “Boys growing up without a dad are twice as likely to end up in jail. About 5 percent of teenage girls get pregnant when they live with their father; if the father leaves before they’re six years old, they have a 35 percent chance of becoming pregnant,” he argues.
What more can be done? The good news from Scafidi is that his work, done in 2008, indicates that even small improvements in marriage success can yield significant dividends. He cites a marriage education program initiated under Governor Perry that attempted to improve household stability. He concludes that the program could easily pay for itself by boosting traditional family structures.
Unhappily, embracing “family values” has become a lightening rod for debate on touchy issues such as gay marriage, abortion and the separation of church and state. Stetson is right: Those on both sides of the aisle should welcome attempts to reduce divorce and encourage marriage, based on conclusive evidence that family support networks are a boon to children and to society – and even to taxpayers.