'Restoring the Family': Is It Possible?

'Restoring the Family': Is It Possible?

There is a fairly broad consensus among social scientists, from the right to the center-left, that fathers matter. The benefits of growing up in a two-parent family, while perhaps sometimes overstated, are real. And single-parent families are especially common among African-Americans.

So what? That was the question hanging over a panel called "Restoring the Family" at the Manhattan Institute's Prospects for Black America event yesterday. The consensus does little good if we can't actually, well, restore the family. "I saw the title, and with respect to organizers, I almost laughed," said panelist Glenn Loury, the storied Brown University economist, at one point.

By my count, the panel — moderator Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, with Loury, the Brookings Institution's Ron Haskins, and Bob Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise — made four concrete suggestions for addressing the problem. Here they are.

1. Have elites send a pro-two-parent-family message.

The discussion of this option actually began at an earlier panel on criminal justice, where the Manhattan Institute's John McWhorter pooh-poohed it. Realistically speaking, he said, this will only set off a debate that ends in a draw — whatever agreement may exist among social scientists, the black community is divided. He named Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie as prominent critics. Debates are all well and good, but at the end of the day, nothing is going to change.

(Instead, to reduce crime, McWhorter supports drug legalization — which, despite public-opinion gains when it comes to marijuana, could face a similar critique.)

Loury was more supportive of this approach, arguing that intellectuals should support two-parent families even if it's going to provoke a harsh reaction, and expressing disappointment that President Obama hasn't been more outspoken about the issue.

2. Use government programs to promote healthy marriages.

Hymowitz mentioned this option briefly. She said such programs have not been very effective so far. No one disagreed.

For what it's worth, you can see a more hopeful take here and a good criticism of these programs here.

3. Study what's already working.

This is an argument that Woodson has long been making. Even among African-Americans, with a 70 percent-plus out-of-wedlock birth rate, there are lots of people who are putting together stable families. Why not study what they're doing to defy the odds, and how grassroots efforts can encourage it?

This provoked some pushback from Haskins, who said social scientists are already plenty interested in success. Maybe, but my sense is that we could all do more to keep this approach in mind when we think and talk about these issues.

4. Promote better birth control.

This is a suggestion from Haskins, drawing on the work of his Brookings colleague Isabel Sawhill. It's near and dear to my own heart, because I advanced it, with some important reservations, in a National Review piece late last year (paywalled, 25 cents). Whatever limitations it has, I'm drawn to its simplicity: All it requires is a doctor's visit — not some grand restructuring of society, family, or the economy — and, a rant against Republicans from Haskins aside, the needed policy is mostly in place via Obamacare's free-contraception mandate, which covers all FDA-approved forms of birth control. (The mandate doesn't apply to Medicaid, and there's been a fight over contraception in Colorado.)

Here's the basic idea: Condoms and birth-control pills, as effective as they are in theory, often fail because people don't use them correctly. This results in unintended pregnancies, which account for a large proportion of nonmarital births (though "intendedness" is difficult to study). By contrast, long-acting, reversible contraceptives (LARCs) like IUDs and implants almost never fail and don't require constant responsibility. Get women on LARCs, reduce unintended pregnancy.

There are obvious advantages to helping (and, more controversially, encouraging) unmarried women to delay their fertility. Women are more likely to find suitable husbands if they spend more time looking, the men around them become more marriageable as they grow up, and women earn more money as they age regardless of whether they marry. All this is good news for any children the women later decide to have, which doesn't become a problem fertility-wise until the 30s.

I think these benefits far outweigh the costs, but there are costs. Many conservatives oppose IUDs because they sometimes destroy embryos before they implant in the uterus. (For discussion, see my NR piece as well as my back-and-forth with Ramesh Ponnuru.) And it's possible that LARCs will boost the spread of STDs and cause people to accumulate more sex partners.

In short, lamenting what is lost is easier than bringing it back. There are ideas worth trying, but all come with substantial tradeoffs and uncertainties.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

[Note: I added an explanation of the Colorado contraception fight to more fairly explain why Haskins was frustrated.]

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