Written by David Blankenhorn
on January03, 1993
Thanks to activists, scholars and writers such as David Blankenhorn, the central social disaster facing the United States — the extraordinary number of children growing up without their fathers at home — is finally being addressed with a measure of intellectual and public honesty.
Just in the last few weeks, the Atlantic Monthly, published a watershed essay by Mr. Blankenhorn’s colleague in the Institute for American Values, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, with the appreciated but late title, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”
Commentary (which has been good on the issue) published a similarly strong analysis of the “Family Values Debate,” by the great political scientist James Q. Wilson.
The media gave good play to Bill Bennett’s newest contribution, the “Index of Leading Cultural Indicators,” which documents our nation’s social regression.
And columnist David Broder saluted several of these publishing events by agreeing that the dissolution of two-parent families severely hurts millions of children and commits equal damage on society.
In no small way, Mr. Blankenhorn helped set this stage, as he has been writing and speaking eloquently on these issues since founding the Institute for American Values, in New York City, in 1987. The Institute, which he serves as president, is a private, nonpartisan organization devoted to research, publication and public education on major issues of family well-being, family policy, and civic values.
The following oral essay, “Fatherless America,” is based on his remarks to an American Experiment Luncheon Forum of the same name on January 13, in Minneapolis. The fact that its broadcast, two days later on Minnesota Public Radio, led to the most requests we’ve ever had for an audio tape, speaks not just to his presentation, but to the degree to which citizens are starved for frank talk on this hard and flammable subject. A few samples from his speech:
“The question we have to look at is a relatively simple one: ‘Do children need fathers?’ Here is our answer in the United States in 1993: ‘Not necessarily.’ That is our answer. Turn on the news, read the papers, look in the magazines. That’s the answer. Not necessarily. We have changed our minds on this question.”
“. . . we ought to say that the most urgent domestic policy challenge to the new administration is to reverse the trend of declining child well-being. The only credible strategy for reversing that current trend is to increase the number of children in America who grow up with their two married parents. And the best way to take a crack at that large task is to reinvigorate fatherhood as a social role and to begin the process of reconnecting millions of American children to their fathers.”
Or in other words, “It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the fathers.”
Mr. Blankenhorn, who is a native of Jackson, Mississippi, did his undergraduate work in social studies at Harvard, and his master’s in comparative social history at the University of Warwick, in England. Before starting the Institute, he worked as a community organizer in Virginia and Massachusetts. He and his wife Raina live with their three-year old son Raymond in New York City.
I’m grateful to him for this thoroughly on-target argument, which ends with properly melded courage and grace:
“There’s a lot of pressure on all of us to pull our punches on this issue, and to not speak the truth as we see it because people think you’re blaming, that you’re intolerant, and that you’re imposing your values. What I try to tell myself is to try not to be misunderstood and try to act and speak in a spirit of generosity, tolerance, inclusion and compassion — but to speak the truth as I see it on this issue. ‘Judge not lest thee be judged’ is an important idea, but we need to speak the truth about the conditions which are good for children, and not be intimidated, because a lot hangs in the balance.”
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Thanks very much and I welcome your comments.
Mitchell B. Pearlstein
Let me put my thesis on your table as plainly as possible. We are living in an increasingly fatherless society. A generation ago, an American child could reasonably expect to grow up with his or her father. Today, an American child can reasonably expect not to. This trend of fatherlessness is the most socially consequential family trend of our generation.
Look down the list of pressing social problems facing the nation: poverty, crime, teenage pregnancy, child abuse — including sexual abuse — domestic violence against women, poor school performance. The range of problems that urge our attention are not separate issues, but are linked in an important way by the family trend of our time, which is the break-up of the mother-father child-rearing unit, and the increasing number of American children who spend all or a significant part of their childhood living apart from their father.
Let me take this one step further. I believe in a more general sense, apart from this discrete list of social problems, that the trend of fatherlessness contributes to, and is an important driving force behind, what might be called a “social recession.” It’s the widely shared sense among many Americans that we’re in, not an economic recession, but a social recession or a cultural regression. It’s a sense that there is a declining sense of civic obligation, a lowering of trust in social institutions, a diminution of caring for one another in society, along with the increase of a range of personal pathologies, emblemized most vividly by an increase in violent crime, but also including a range of personal problems, including eating disorders, unipolar depression, teenage suicide, declining adolescent and child mental health, and so on.
It’s a cluster of problems that are not primarily economic or political in nature, but are cultural and social. I don’t like hyperbole, but I want to suggest to you that this cultural regression poses a genuine threat to the success of the American experiment as we approach the 21st Century.
So, if anyone were to ask: “What is the most urgent domestic priority of the incoming administration?” I think we ought to say, “It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the fathers.”
More specifically, I think we ought to say that the most urgent domestic policy challenge of the new administration is to reverse the current trend of declining child well-being. The only credible strategy for reversing that current trend is to increase the number of children in America who grow up with their two married parents. And the best way to take a crack at that large task is to reinvigorate fatherhood as a social role and to begin the process of reconnecting millions of American children to their fathers.
By the way, there’s a lively debate going on within the Clinton administration transition team, as we speak, about this very topic: How are we to conceive of an approach to children’s issues over the next few years? There’s a lively and rich debate going on right now within the Clinton administration between those, on the one hand, who want to continue a traditionalist approach of programmatic responses to the consequences of family fragmentation; and, on the other, those who want to give increased attention to the trend itself and see what we might
be able to do to reverse the trend itself as the surest way of trying to do something about the problems facing children.
Dimensions and consequences
Now, having made this modest, qualified assertion about the importance of this subject, let me for a moment spell out for you its dimensions and social consequences.
Fatherlessness in America is increasing on two levels. The first level is what I would call a physical loss — the physical loss of fathers. Tonight, 33 percent of the children in the country will go to sleep in homes where their fathers don’t live. Before they reach age 18, somewhere between 45 percent and 60 percent of all children living today will spend at least a significant portion of their childhood living apart from their father. In other words, if you were to take a map of America and draw a line down the middle of the country and, on one side, put all the children who were going to grow up between birth and age 18 living with their father, and on the other side, all of the children who will not have that experience, there would be about the same number of children on each side of the line. Fatherlessness is now approaching a rough parity with fatherhood as a defining experience of American childhood.
What about the fathers who are not there? The news is not good. The social science research is beginning to come in, and among non-custodial fathers the relationship with their children is, in general terms — according to Frank Furstenberg and other scholars who have studied this — weak. And it gets weaker as time goes on. Moreover, after the remarriage of the father, it gets weaker still. We once thought that stepfathers would solve a lot of the problems of fatherlessness. But new studies, particularly those from Britain, are showing that in some senses, stepfamilies are the most volatile and unstable of all family forms, particularly regarding the well-being of girls.
Actually, many boys tend to do a little better with a stepfather because they have a male role model. But some of the evidence from Britain suggests that girls do worse in a stepfamily than they do in a single-parent home. And if you add the fact that stepfamilies are much more likely to break up than others, you have what Furstenberg and his colleagues call “grim news” on the issues of non-custodial fathers and stepfamilies regarding child well-being and the father-child bond.
Now, I don’t think any one, single thing explains all of our social problems. But having said that, let me suggest that one, single thing explains all of our social problems.
Take a look at crime, a problem primarily of young males. The most important predictor of criminal behavior is not race, not income, not religious affiliation. It’s father absence. It’s boys who don’t grow up with their fathers. Longitudinal studies show this. Once they control for income and other factors, it’s the absence of the father that seems to generate an increased likelihood of criminal activity. More than 70 percent of all the juveniles right now in long-term correctional facilities are young men who grew up without fathers in their homes.
The Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, confirms this strong relationship between crime and one-parent families. The institute says, “The relationship is so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature.” Professor James Q. Wilson of UCLA says, “Neighborhood standards may be set by mothers but they are enforced by fathers, or at least by adult males. Neighborhoods without fathers are neighborhoods without men able and willing to confront errant youth, chase threatening gangs, and reproach delinquent fathers. The absence of fathers deprives the community of those little platoons that informally but effectively control the boys on the street.”
Look at an issue that we associate mostly with young women: teenage pregnancy. Again the evidence is coming in that the most important predictor is not educational attainment, not income, not race, but father absence.
Let me again quote from research. In her study of white families, Sara S. McClanahan says, “Daughters of single parents are 53 percent more likely to marry as teenagers, 111 percent more likely to have children as teenagers, 164 percent more likely to have a premarital birth, and 92 percent more likely to dissolve their own marriages.”
Well, let’s get in close. Listen to the clinical observations that Judith Wallerstein, a pioneer in this field, has carried out in California. She talks to these people. She doesn’t look at their pocketbook, or their income level, or how they fill out questionnaires. She gets to know them over a long time.
Here’s what she says about girls who don’t grow up with their fathers: “Daughters of divorce often have a hard time finding out what their fathers are really like. They often experience great difficulty in establishing a realistic view of men in general, of developing realistic expectations, and in exercising good judgment in their choice of partners. As they get older, many young women have affairs with older men. The relationships with older men represent primarily the search for the parent they never had. They have no conscious memories of being continuously
well-parented as little girls. So they miss the sense of having been loved, taken care of and esteemed. Trading sex for closeness now, they want to be held and cuddled by their older lovers, as if they are trying to recapture or to experience for the first time the physical nearness that very little girls seek by crawling into Daddy’s lap.”
Take a look at the issue of domestic violence against women, and take a look at the issue of sexual abuse of children. Reports of these crimes are on the increase, and the incidence of them, we think, is on the increase. Who does it? Who are the men committing these crimes? Has there been something in the culture or in the drinking water that has caused a bunch of married fathers to abuse their biological children and to beat up their wives? Of course there are some men who do just that. But, actually, if you want to look at the numbers on this, the increase of domestic violence against women and the abuse of children tracks with eerie precision, not with the presence of biological fathers, but with the absence of biological fathers and the substitution of non-biologically related men — boyfriends, stepfathers, etc.
Let’s just quickly take the easiest one — poverty. Historically, poverty for a child tended to depend on what his father did for a living. Today, it’s much more likely to depend on whether she has a father. Child poverty is less linked to wages now. It’s more linked to family structure.
In the interest of time I won’t go through a list of other social problems, but I just want to illustrate quickly this point and to suggest that we are not simply looking at a series of discrete social problems or just this little thing called father absence. We’re looking at a fundamental breakdown of one of the basic scripts of our civilization, something that could be called the fatherhood script.
The fatherhood script
Here’s what the anthropologist Margaret Mead, as well as many other people who have looked at human societies across diverse cultures, say: Human societies depend decisively on the socialization of males. The whole idea is to harness male energy to pro-social purposes. I don’t want to bewilder you with complex academic jargon, but let me suggest that there are two basic categories — good and bad. The bad thing that men can do is become violent, isolated and sexually irresponsible. The good thing they can do is to become husbands and fathers.
Becoming husbands and fathers is the universal prescription of human societies for the socialization of the male. It’s how societies link male aggression, energy, purpose — maleness — to a pro-social purpose. The way human societies do that is by linking them to the lives of their children and to the lives of the mothers of their children through marriage. That’s how it works. This is a universal human institution, and what we have decided recently is that we don’t have to do that anymore. And, increasingly, we’re not doing it. And as we don’t do it, social and child well-being decline.
The question we have to look at is a relatively simple one: “Do children need fathers?” Here is our answer in the United States in 1993: “Not necessarily.” That is our answer. Turn on the news, read the papers, look in the magazines. That’s the answer. Not necessarily. We have changed our minds on this question.
Let me give you two quick metaphors for understanding how this shift works. The first metaphor is that of a movie script. The principal male character of earlier scripts is what I would call the good family man. He’s the guy who puts his family first. When he dies, the people at the funeral say, “Old Frank, he was a good family man.” We’ve all heard this. Today our idea of the principal male character is one I would call the superfluous father — the notion that fatherhood as a social role is either unnecessary or actually part of the problem.
Let me quickly give you a couple of quotes on this. In “The Women of Brewster Place,” the ABC mini-series a couple of years ago, a young, shy woman says, “I don’t have a husband.” An older, wiser woman says, “Well, I’ve had five and you’re not missing much.”
Here’s what Caryn James, the television critic of the New York Times, says on the increasing number of unmarried pregnant women now featured on prime time television sitcoms. (This was before “Murphy Brown.”) James says these new shows have brought television, “In touch with the shifting realities of women’s options,” the most important of which is that “women who want children do not need or necessarily want a spouse underfoot.”
Anna Coote of the London Institute for Public Policy Research says, “The father is no longer essential to the economic survival of the unit. Menhave not kept up with changes in society. They don’t know how to be parents. At the same time, women don’t have many expectations of what men might provide.”
I won’t read you the others, but I just want to say that we have changed our mind on this basic question.
Now, two more points. One is what we can do about it. The second is why we’re not likely to anytime soon.
If we wanted to change — if we did change our minds — there are a range of things that we could and ought to do. The current welfare system is an astonishing disincentive for responsible fatherhood and for marriage. Our current child support laws and efforts at paternity identification are wildly inadequate to the task of simply identifying the fathers of children born in the United States and establishing as a social principle that the father’s obligation to his child is unbreakable.
So, in the areas of welfare reform, child support, marriage and divorce law, and the tax code, as well as in how we organize public housing and other forms of public assistance where it’s very hard to be a married couple, there are a range of policy and political levers.
But for present purposes let’s just stipulate that there is a policy agenda for increasing the proportion of children who grow up with their fathers. But what I want to do — not in an attempt to be pessimistic, but in an attempt to look at the problem squarely — is tell you that it’s unlikely that we will make those changes, because we haven’t changed our minds on the basic question. Once we change our minds on the basic question, I think the policy agenda will flow rather naturally.
What has really troubled me and made me curious is this: Why is this such a hard thing for us to discuss? Why is there such dissent out there on this issue? Quite honestly, it seems to me that what I have just told you for the previous 25 minutes is the social science equivalent of declaring that the Earth is round. It’s not complicated.
My grandmother’s highest education level was the second grade, and nothing I’ve said would cause her to do anything other than to say, “They pay you to say that?” But why is it that we can’t talk about this in a way that is authoritative and that causes actual change to happen in the lives of American children? Why is it that we are contending with the Flat Earth Society on this subject?
I want to race through five reasons why. These are rules of conversation on sexuality, procreation and fatherhood.
The first rule is what I call the principle of adult centrism, which simply means that we look at things through the eyes of the adult more than we do through the eyes of the child. We have increasingly come to believe that children are pretty tough and durable, that they can take a lot, that they can certainly take a lot more than we used to think, and that there should be a redefinition of burden-sharing in society so that children share some of the burden that adults had previously assumed for themselves.
You go into Hallmark greeting card stores now and you see whole rows — at least in New York — of divorce cards for children. There are cards which say things like, “I know it’s tough that I’m not there, but every ending is a new beginning.” These are cards that you send children to make them feel better about the situation they’re in. We have shifted the center. We now think about this mostly through the point of view of what’s good for adults.
The second rule is what I call the therapeutic imperative. It’s simply this: In the realm of what I would call social ecology, you may not say anything that might make someone feel bad. It’s just that simple. Now, in the realm of natural ecology, we can indeed say such things. If you light up a cigarette, people are going to make you feel bad.
In the realm of the natural ecology, we will stigmatize certain behavior and we will say things that will make people feel bad: “Put out that cigarette. Don’t throw litter on the ground.” You’re out of bounds if you do that. We shun you if you do that. Pretty strong stuff, none of which would have happened a generation ago, when half the people in this room would have been smoking. But in the area of sexuality and procreation, we are not permitted to say anything that reflects judgment of others. It’s not permissible. If you do it, you are shown the door of the conversation.
The third rule is what I would call the nostalgia barrier, which means that you can’t suggest that any social institution used to be better than it is now. And if you do say that, you are thereby said to suffer from a mental disability called “Nostalgia for the Mythical Past that Never Really Existed,” and you’re shown the door. The fact that maybe the husband-wife institution used to be stronger than it is now is not given a hearing on the grounds that you are simply indulging in the “Nostalgia for the Mythical Past that Never Really Existed.”
The fourth is what I call the clinical veto, which means that a specific example can invalidate what social scientists call a confirmed empirical generalization. Let me give you an example of a confirmed empirical generalization. The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking can be harmful to your health. Let me give you an example of a clinical veto: “Why, I know Frank next door. He smoked two packs a day for 40 years and he’s healthy as a horse.” We don’t permit the example of Frank to veto the confirmed empirical generalization that cigarette smoking can be harmful to your health, because we’re dealing in the natural ecology. But in the realm of the social ecology — what is good for children, what are the conditions that tend to produce good outcomes for children, what conditions tend to produce bad outcomes for children — we are governed by the clinical veto.
Fifth and last — and this is the hardest one for me — we are influenced by what my friend Bill Galston, who teaches at the University of Maryland, calls regime effects. A regime effect is the transferring of the founding principles of the American experiment into the sphere of sexuality and parenthood. What are the founding principles of the American experiment? We all know them. We love them. Individual liberty, personal autonomy, radical self-creation, individual rights. This is the American narrative. [Note: Professor Galston has since been named to President Clinton’s domestic policy staff.]
The American story
This is the American story. We left the old country and threw off the encrusted obligations and oppressions and restrictions of the old place to come here, where we could be free. And we could move West, and we could recreate ourselves. And it’s the poetry of Whitman, who sings the song of the founding principles of the American experiment: “From this hour I ordain myself loosd of limits and imaginary lines, going where I list, my own master total and absolute.”
This is why immigrants from around the world still want to come here. They want to be free. But if we transfer these founding principles of the American experiment into the area of sexuality and procreation, we have a disaster. A disaster. We have irresponsible fatherhood. We have declining child well-being and we have the growth of this entire range of social problems. So there’s a uniquely American aspect to what we are struggling with here, because we’ve taken the principles that the country was founded on and projected them into a sphere of life that has resulted in the undermining of those very institutions which permit the flourishing of individualism and personal freedom in the first place.
Freedom doesn’t come from nowhere. Freedom comes from core, seedbed institutions. It takes root in basic social institutions, the most important of which is the family. If we undermine that, we undermine the conditions that make free societies possible.
I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic and maybe I should qualify this, but that’s the way I honestly see it. We’re struggling with part of our own history. We’re struggling with the meaning of the American story. We’re struggling with a turn in the American story in which we no longer see a connection between the pursuit of happiness and the notion of family commitment. We have decoupled those ideas.
I believe the great challenge for our time, in terms of the way we think about social policy and, more importantly, who we think we are as a people, how we want to raise our children, and whether or not the next century is going to be as good as the last, is: Can we reconnect for modern conditions — knowing that we cannot relive past experience — the pursuit of happiness and family commitment? I think that’s the great challenge that we have with the American experiment in the coming years. Upon the answer to that question hinges the success of our children.
Dr. Karen Effrem: Do you think one of the other reasons we’re shying away from the care of children is that we seem to be seeing an antipathy toward religion in our society? I’m not speaking in a sectarian sense at all. But the blueprint of the family is something that is a major foundation of the Judeo-Christian faith, and there seems to be a huge anger and rejection of that in our society. Do you think that also is related to the devaluing of fatherhood and family?
Blankenhorn: I think that’s a very good point. The central message to men and women of our religious faith and heritage regarding marriage is that marriage is a commitment. The central message of our contemporary culture is that an enduring marriage is an option. There is a strong correlation between religious practice and enduring marriages. James Q. Wilson was once asked by a group of very unsympathetic, highly elite scholars of one kind or another, what did he think they could possibly do to make things better for children? One of the first things he said was, “I think you should abandon the practice of ridiculing religion.”
K.J. McDonald: Thank you, especially for a presentation that indicates another disastrous result of 50 years of pseudo-liberalism in America. My question is related to government policy. You alluded to the welfare disincentives that are built-in. They’re obvious. Do you have research that shows that federal tax policy, especially income tax policy, is destroying our American families and the father’s ability to earn money and support his family?
Blankenhorn: A lot of it has to do with the erosion of the personal and dependent exemption. When the child exemption was established in 1948, a typical family of four paid only 2 or 3 percent of its incometo the federal government. Now that typical family pays a much higher proportion, and families with children pay a higher proportion of taxes relative to other taxpayers. In other words, the tax burden has not only increased, but it has shifted onto married couples with children primarily because inflation has eroded the value of the personal exemption, the standard deduction, and the marriage deduction in the tax code.
I do favor increasing the value of the marriage deduction and increasing the value of the dependent exemption. Having said that, however, let me say that I don’t believe that we will be successful if we think that we can purchase family cohesion by delivering a few hundred more dollars to people. This is mostly not about money.
On the grounds of equity, empowerment, and giving families more control over resources for their children, I do favor changing tax codes in the ways you suggest. But I believe it would be unrealistic to expect that if we did all of that tomorrow it would have much of an impact on the family disintegration trend that we’re witnessing. Because the trend is not rooted in economics, it won’t be solved by economics.
Sen. Pat Pariseau: Have you and your colleagues found that the effects of growing up without a father cannot be reversed after a certain age?
Blankenhorn: I don’t really know whether or not there’s a critical point. The idea used to be that children of divorce would bounce back relatively quickly. We now know that’s not true. And we know that it’s a severe trauma even for children who are approaching adulthood to experience the loss of a parent. But I don’t know whether there’s a special age that’s more vulnerable than others.
Dan Ritchie: A couple weeks ago the Pioneer Press reported on a study that said fewer divorced and widowed women are remarrying, and the editorial that followed up on this was unmistakably gleeful about this new-found independence for women. Can you give us examples of some shapers of culture who have actually changed their minds about fatherhood? Can you think of anybody — for instance, the American Psychological Association and the Rockefeller Commission — and what was it that made them come back to fatherhood?
Blankenhorn: The Association of Marriage and Family Therapy has, to some degree in the last five years, changed its mind on the basic approach to marital counseling. It used to be that the couple would come in and would be asked, “What do you want? What do you need? How do we help you figure out and attain what you two individuals want?” That was the approach. The approach they’re moving toward, and and which is gaining acceptance is, “Let’s start with this question: Is there a way to save this marriage?” That’s a big shift.
I think the reason they moved in that direction was that in the 1960s and ’70s there was a great deal of optimism about the benign consequences of divorce for both adult well-being and child well-being. That optimism has been shattered by the empirical evidence.
A second example would be the one you mentioned, the Rockefeller Commission (officially known as the National Commission on Children) — a bipartisan commission dominated by Democrats with a minority of Republicans — which came out a couple of years ago very much in favor of cultural change, the two-parent family, and so on, when a lot of the people on the Commission never would have signed off on such a thing at the beginning. Part of it might have been a political compromise about how to get a report that’s acceptable to everyone. But having talked to a number of members of that commission, I do believe that a change in attitudes, on the basis of the evidence, did occur among members who did not begin with any kind of openness to this point of view.
But there is also a sense in which, when these fundamental questions become the subject for “expert” debate, all is lost. It becomes such an impoverished, weak way of approaching the subject: “I’ll quote my statistic, you’ll quote yours” — dueling social scientists.
These are questions that our parents and grandparents, whatever their faults, just knew because they were taught it. It was not something that they had to debate or be told by experts. We now have regressed to the point where we call in experts to argue it out. Or sometimes we use TV sit-com characters to have the discussion. The social science debate is a frail reed upon which to rest much hopefulness.
On the other hand I take encouragement in the two examples I cited. Here are examples of mainstream, professional organizations and commissions changing their minds. There is also some social science evidence that young people — people who are going to get married and have children in the ’90s — are changing their minds a little bit. Don’t forget, these are the children of the divorce revolution. These are the children of the family revolutionaries. And there is some evidence that they wish to rebel against the family chaos of their parents’ generation in the same way in which their own parents rebelled against the family conformity of the 1950s.
Ed Murphy: My understanding of your initial thesis is that it’s primarily social and cultural reasons rather than economic ones that have led to the decline of the American family. Can you talk a little bit about the effect, if any effect, of an economic system that has resulted in the loss of 15 million manufacturing jobs in the last decade? These jobs were largely held by men. They were largely held by men who did not have a great deal of education or a great deal of skills. Of course, in my parents’ age, a person could work at the local hardware store and raise his family and buy a house and live the traditional life, and that doesn’t seem to be possible anymore.
Blankenhorn: That’s a very good point, and I believe you’re right to stress it. I am not saying that economics don’t matter. Let me mention two ways in which I think it does. One is the one you mentioned: unemployment and sudden loss of a job. This is a tremendous hardship and causes great stress and anxiety and it leads, among men, to things like increased use of alcohol and violent behavior. In addition, I would say that some portion of the family problem we see in urban America can be explained by the declining economic prospects of young, poorly educated males. This includes, particularly, minority males, who without the reasonable expectation of holding a job capable of supporting a family, are less likely to marry and are less likely to be desirable marriage partners. I think that that does explain some depression of the marriage rates in urban communities.
Granted, economic solutions are very important and they’re something we need to pay a lot of attention to. But my point really is this: Look at the broader society. We are more affluent now than we have ever been. We’re a rich society, and we have been getting richer for a long time. If economic affluence purchased family cohesion, we would have the most cohesive families of any society in the history of the world. Our living standards now are astonishingly higher than our parents’ were, just like our parents’ standards were much higher than our grandparents’. We live in a rich society.
This is not about money. It’s just simply not. Do rich families have the most stable families? No, they don’t. So, you’re right. Money matters in all areas of life, and it matters in family life, too, especially in these targeted ways you’re talking about: sudden loss of jobs; sudden loss of adequate-paying jobs; young males, especially minority males, who are not in the job market in such ways that they can support a family. Yes, all that matters.
But as the major way of understanding what is happening to us, I think we have to recognize that our affluence is increasing at the same time that our families are disintegrating. Those two things are happening at the same time. When Governor Clinton says the best family policy is a good job, and as the economy goes, so goes the family, and that the basic family issue is fixing the economy, it’s just wrong. It’s just wrong. It’s not what’s causing family disintegration.
Questioner: My family and I have taken in a teenage foster daughter with no father and have seen the incredible difference it makes in this girl’s life. She’s now an adult. What can we do as individuals?
Blankenhorn: There’s a lot of pressure on all of us to pull our punches on this issue and to not speak the truth as we see it because people think you’re blaming, that you’re intolerant, that you’re imposing your values. What I try to tell myself is to try not to be misunderstood and try to act and speak in a spirit of generosity, tolerance, inclusion and compassion — but to speak the truth as I see it on this issue. “Judge not lest thee be judged” is an important idea, but we need to speak the truth about the conditions which are good for children, and not be intimidated, because a lot hangs in the balance.
Blankenhorn, the founder and president of the Institute for American Values, has produced a thought-provoking work. His book offers five distinct benefits. First, it offers statistical information about fatherlessness in the United States. Next, it sets out a typology of fathers, or—in Blankenhorn’s language—the paternal “characters” who dominate the American cultural narrative. The book presents a rounded theory about masculinity and the place of fatherhood in the shaping of male character. Blankenhorn also offers a list of twelve concrete proposals for redirecting American public policy as it touches on fathers and families. Finally, his book exemplifies a literary style blending scholarly and popular modes of writing. Every step in the generally conservative argument Blankenhorn develops, however, is controversial.
The dimensions of the problem of fatherlessness are staggering. Blankenhorn claims that within this decade, “the total number of father-absent homes created by unwed childbearing will surpass the number created by divorce. In this respect, unwed parenthood will soon become the nation’s principal cause of fatherlessness.” For some father-free child rearing is a voluntary matter: Nearly 10 percent of all births deriving from artificial insemination by donors (some three thousand births per year) are to unmarried women. The very fact that women are choosing to rear fatherless children indicates that inherited norms regarding family and fatherhood have shifted in profound ways.
To Blankenhorn, the unruly nature of male passions results in an all-or-nothing understanding of the paternal station. Either one is fully a father or one is a single male, living in a quite different moral world. By his definition, fathers are continuously present to their children. They subscribe to the “fatherhood code,” the ultimate expression of which is the ideal of the Good Family Man. The core values of this ideal are provision, protection, nurture and sponsorship, and such values are fulfilled differently by males. All of them are aspects of paternal love, which is different from—though complementary to—maternal love. “This difference takes us to the heart of the matter,” Blankenhorn asserts.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Century. CXII, May 17, 1995, p. 546.
Commentary. XCIX, April, 1995, p. 60.
Contemporary Sociology. XXIV, September, 1995, p. 653.
The Economist. CCCXXXV, April 8, 1995, p. 79.
Futurist. XXIX, September, 1995, p. 61.
Los Angeles Times. March 8, 1995, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review. C, February 19, 1995, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, December 12, 1994, p. 56.
Reason. XXVII, August, 1995, p. 52.
The Wall Street Journal. February 16, 1995, p. A12.