This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, in which Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary, called for a national effort to “strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families.” The report cautioned that black families were “crumbling” as a result of increasing numbers of single mothers and absent fathers, a trend likely to lock them into a cycle of poverty. Last week Sunday, columnist George Will declared those early warnings correct, joining a chorus of (largely) conservative voices keen to relitigate the argument that the cause of poverty is not economic but cultural. Have they been waiting 50 years for the chance to say “I told you so”?
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the idea that poverty can be alleviated by increasing the prevalence of “traditional” families is apparently as irresistible as ever. Just last month during the “Future of Marriage in America” panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute asserted: “If you want to eliminate poverty overnight you can wipe it out by having stable, two-parent households.”
But it’s just not so, according to a recent analysis of new census data on family structure, education and income from the Council on Contemporary Families. It found that financial security helps children more than does any particular family structure. Marriage is not a panacea for poverty: There are almost as many poor or near-poor children in two-parent families as there are in single-parent ones.
Too often, our country treats the strength of the nuclear family unit as a proxy for the health of the nation. But to suggest that deepening poverty in the United States is the result of changing family structures ignores the widespread, international reach of these trends and the different outcomes being wrought. Countries such as Iceland, France, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Britain all have higher nonmarital birth rates than the United States, and yet they all have far lower rates of child poverty.
Allowing children to live in poverty is a policy choice, not the inevitable result of a given family structure. As author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich has often argued, poverty is not a lack of character, it is a lack of money. Our tendency to shame single mothers or low-income families and express grave concern about their growing numbers improves nothing. Rather, it fosters a climate in which politicians fear a backlash for supporting programs that supposedly “validate” nontraditional family structures. Ambitious family-friendly policies that have potential to dramatically improve the lives of struggling families cannot succeed in a political climate where the nuclear family unit is valued over all others.
We need a better, broader vision. The idyllic “traditional family” represents an increasingly small minority of families today. This vision, more imagined than real, is elevated by a constellation of well-funded conservative organizations and Christian ministries. The fact that this image looms so large in the public imagination just accentuates the need for investment in good alternative models the rest of us can aspire to.
When it works well, marriage provides great benefit to its participants, especially already advantaged ones. But a steady half-century decline in its incidence leaves no reason to believe it will make a comeback, at least not among those in the lower income brackets where it has waned most dramatically. That’s because the ebb is caused by a confluence of factors, chief among them decades of advancement for working women, deepening economic inequality, diminishing numbers of blue-collar jobs and staggering levels of incarceration in poor communities.
It’s time to take structure out of the conversation about strong families. We know intuitively that children raised by unhappily married parents, or abusive ones, aren’t any better off than those raised in less traditional, but more stable and loving, single-parent homes. Those like me who came of age in the 1990s have already rejected the rigid prescribed gender roles and family expectations of our parents’ generation, but we have yet to successfully build clear alternative paths. What will millennials, whose nonmarital birth rate is 51 percent, aspire to? What story of a new American dream will include our families?
Marriage may be on the decline, but that is not catastrophic by itself. Love and companionship are alive and well. We just need powerful positive visions of thriving families that don’t depend on any one family structure but rather are guided by values such as compassion, acceptance and evidence about what really matters for children. This requires fully embracing and accepting the dignity and value of a wider range of family permutations and then determining how the well-being of individuals within each can be improved.
Redefining what it means to be a good family may be the social justice fight of my generation. It will never be realistic or reasonable to expect people to marry themselves out of poverty. More important, no one should have to.
Nicole Sussner Rodgers is a founder and the editor in chief of the online magazine Role Reboot.
© 2015, Special to The Washington Post.