Children and Family in America: Challenges for the 1990s

Report Marriage and Family

Children and Family in America: Challenges for the 1990s

July 23, 1991 14 min read
Wade Horn
Bradley Fellow in Education Policy

When I walked into my first meeting of the National Commission on Children, I looked around the room and, observing that two-thirds of the Commission were liberal Democrats, thought to myself, "What's a good conservative like me doing in a place like this?" Indeed, at the beginning, at least, given the makeup of the Commission, the idea that the final report would be anything that a conservative could support seemed to be inconceivable.

But, almost two years later, I did vote for the Commission's final report, something which has prompted many of my friends to ask me, and some not quite so politely, "What's a supposedly good conservative like you doing voting for a report like that?"

Today, I will attempt to answer that question, hopefully to the satisfaction of my conservative friends here at The Heritage Foundation. But before doing so, I would like to first share my sense of the status of children and families in America as well as some basic principles which I believe should guide public policy in this area.

When one reads newspaper accounts of the status of children in America, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the statistics -- and some of the statistics are overwhelming:

one million children abused and neglected every year;

over 400,000 children living away from their families in substitute care;

one in five children living in poverty.

Statistics like these makes one wonder if there are any happy children left in America

The fact is, however, that although there are children who are abused and neglected by their parents, the vast majority of children are being raised by parents who care for and nurture them; although there are children who are living away from their families in foster care, the vast majority of children are living in homes with their own parents; and although there are too many children living in poverty, the vast majority of children do live in circumstances where their material needs are adequately met. The truth is that most children are doing quite well, in spite of what we do in Washington.

Upside Down View. But many so-called child advocates do not like to emphasize this side of these statistics. Instead, many child advocates like to engage in what I call the "Poseidon Adventure" school of child welfare -- the proclivity of many child advocacy groups to turn the world upside down so that it appears that a happy American childhood is a relic of the past.

Adherents to such an upside down view of the world often become uncomfortable when reminded that most American children are, in fact, healthy, happy and secure, and living in loving, caring families. There was even a moment, about midway through the National Commission's work, when some Commission members actually expressed disappointment when told of the results of a public opinion survey, which the Commission funded, which found that most American families and communities are alive and well, that most parents are involved in their children's lives, and that most parents and children feel good about their family relationships. It is quite interesting to note that although the survey was originally intended to be an appendix to the final report, the Commission's final report neglected to include a summary of the results of this survey. In psychology we call that "selective forgetting."

But just because most children in America are, in fact, healthy, happy and secure, does not mean we should neglect to attend to those who are at risk, whose chances for success are seriously endangered. We know, for example, that every day:

2,500 children are born out of wedlock;

700 low birthweight babies are born;

135,000 children bring a gun to school;

7,700 teenagers become sexually active;

1,100 teenagers have abortions;

600 teenagers get syphilis or gonorrhea; and

6 teenagers commit suicide.

After acknowledging that some children are, indeed, at-risk of poor developmental outcomes, we must then ask why. Conventional wisdom says that families are buffeted by external forces -- economic or whatever -- that are simply beyond their control. This answer drives a policy that relies on government intervention into family matters. It's no shock to people in this room that this has essentially been our family policy for twenty-five years, and it hasn't worked.

I brought a much different perspective to the National Commission on Children -- that much of what threatens our children results from individual decisions and behaviors on the part of adults -- decisions like abusing alcohol and drugs, having children out of wedlock, and neglecting one's responsibility to support children both emotionally and financially following a divorce.

We know, for example, that adult drug abuse, and especially the use of "crack cocaine," is the single most important factor behind the escalating numbers of abused and neglected children in the United States, as well as the rapid rise in the number of foster care placements. We also know that perhaps as many as 375,000 children each year are starting off life already handicapped because parents chose to "share" their drug habit with their unborn child.

We also have a popular culture which chooses to, on a daily basis, bombard developing children with messages that drugs are cool, teenage sex is wonderful, parents don't know anything, and hard work is for nerds.

Mythology of Relativism. But perhaps most devastating of all, is the fact that our culture has spent the last several decades deeply inculcating a mythology -- the mythology of family relativism -- the misguided belief that family structure is irrelevant, that no configuration of family is better than any other. Indeed, the need to even form a family is questioned. Family relativism lets us stop worrying about many of our children, because it tells us that divorce and single parenting have no real impact upon children. And it convinces us that something called "quality time" makes up for unconnected parents.

And how successful this mythology has been. About half of today's children will spend some time in a single-parent family before they reach the age of 16. Many children will attain single-parent family status through divorce. About half of all marriages today will end in divorce and about one-half of all children whose parents do divorce will experience a second divorce before they are 16 years old.

For many other children the pathway to single-parent families is through the failure of family formation. Today, over 25 percent of children now begin life in a single parent household; among blacks, the figure is over 60 percent.

Most Important Variable. The increasing numbers of children being raised in single parent households is important because family structure is the most important variable related to successful outcomes for children. As a group, children from one-parent families exhibit above average rates of youth suicide, mental and physical illness, violence, and drug use. And the connection between crime and single-parent homes is so strong that, when one controls for family configuration, the relationship between crime and race as well as crime and low-income disappears.

There is also a strong relationship between single-parenting and being raised in poverty. According to David Elwood, single-mother families have a poverty rate, after government transfers, of 38 percent, as compared to only 6 percent for two-parent families. Seventy-three percent of children in this country growing up in single-parent families are poor for some time before age ten, as compared to only 20 percent of children living in two-parent families. Indeed, the real reason more children are living in poverty today compared to two decades ago is not because of any supposed decimation of domestic spending by the Reagan and Bush Administrations, but because the proportion of all children living in single-parent households has more than doubled from 11 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in 1990.

This is particularly striking for blacks, where over the past two decades the poverty rate for black children in single parent households has remained nearly constant at about 65 percent, whereas the poverty rate for black children in two-parent families actually declined from 26 percent in 1970 to 19 percent in 1988. The reason why poverty among black children continues to be high despite declining poverty rates for black children growing up in two-parent families is that many more black children are being brought up in single-parent families today compared to just two decades ago.

Yet despite this mounting evidence, the connection between single-parenting and poor outcomes for children has largely been ignored in the development of public policy. As Karl Zinsmeister wrote in the June 1990 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

For the past quarter century American public policy has shied away from the idea that certain family forms are more desirable than others. There is no attempt to promote child bearing within wedlock. There is little penalty attached to child abandonment. There is scant recognition of the social benefits of marriage, or of the social contributions of those who devote themselves to conscientious childrearing. There is no reward from our public programs for standing by kith and kin.

And a family that remains a family today spends less time being a family. William Mattox pointed out in last winter's Policy Review that "parents today spend 40 percent less time with their children than did parents in 1965." A quote Mattox uses from Harvard University child psychiatrist Robert Coles is a concise description of the legacy of family relativism:

Parents are too busy spending their most precious capital -- their time and their energy -- struggling to keep up with MasterCard payments. They're depleted. They work long hours to barely keep up, and when they get home at the end of the day they're tired. And their kids are left with a Nintendo or a pair of Nikes or some other piece of crap. Big deal.

Given this situation, what should be the proper role of government in addressing these issues. I believe that several principles should guide us:

First, the federal government should play an important leadership role by elevating the discussion of these issues through "bully pulpit" activities and by inspiring others to focus their resources and energies on addressing these pressing concerns. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan has been especially effective in using this "bully pulpit" to elevate these issues through his calls for the resurgence of a "culture of character" and "communities of concern," as well as his advocacy of healthy lifestyles.

Second, we need to examine current social policies to determine which may create perverse incentives that actually cause family dissolution or a failure to form in the first place. There are, for example, instances where rents in public housing authorities skyrocket should a single mother choose to marry. And there is mounting evidence that no-fault divorce laws may make family breakup too easy an option, by leading to the impression that there is such a thing as a "relatively painless divorce" -- a notion that is never true when children are involved.

Third, while government should continue to provide cash and non- cash assistance to those who find themselves in poverty due to circumstances beyond their control, there should be a recognition of a reciprocity in government benefit programs -- that is, if one gets, one has an obligation to give something back. That was one of the ideas behind the Family Support Act, as well as programs like Mom's Place in Pennsylvania where single moms get quality child care in exchange for going to school, getting good grades, and cleaning up the center at the end of the child care day.

Fourth, government needs to ensure that money earned by the working poor is money brought home by the working poor. That was the idea behind the recent expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Fifth, the federal government should continue to fund well- targeted programs designed to promote familial self-sufficiency by combatting parental behaviors that tend to perpetuate long-term welfare dependency -- programs like Head Start and JOBS. But in doing so, we should be careful not to confuse good intentions for effective programs. Consequently, before bringing every "good idea" to scale, we should engage in the difficult work of determining program effectiveness through research and evaluation studies.

Finally, government programs and services should always be designed to empower parents and strengthen families through maximizing choice and local control of programs.

So how does all of this square with the final report of the National Commission on Children? First, it is important to state that I do not agree with everything contained within the final report. Indeed, I have some significant reservations about the final report which I highlight in my letter of reservation contained in an appendix in the report. But there is much that I do endorse.

First of all, the Commission resisted the temptation of "Poseidon Adventure" thinking, and actually kept the statistical thinking right- side-up, stating in the opening paragraph of the report that:

Most American children are healthy, happy, and secure. They belong to warm, loving families. For them, life is filled with the joys of childhood -- growing, exploring, learning and dreaming -- and tomorrow is full of hope and promise.

Similarly, the report states in the chapter on preparing adolescents for adulthood:

The majority of young people emerge from adolescence healthy, hopeful, and able to meet the challenges of adult life... They are progressing in school, they are not sexually active, they do not commit delinquent acts, and they do not use drugs or alcohol.

Furthermore, the Commission did what it had to do if it wanted to be honest to its mission of helping children -- it rejected family relativism. Indeed, one of the guiding principles for the entire report states:

Children do best when they have the personal involvement and material support of a father and a mother and when both parents fulfill their responsibility to be loving providers.

Even more incredibly, the report goes on to state:

Rising rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and absent parents are not just manifestations of alternative lifestyles, they are patterns of adult behavior that increase children's risk of negative consequences.


There can be little doubt that having both parents living and working together in a stable marriage can shield children from a variety of risks.

Not exactly a death knell perhaps, but plenty to make the faithful followers of family relativism nervous. Talking About Values. In addition, the Commission report actually talks about values, and about morals. Not just talks about it, but devotes an entire chapter to it, entitled "Creating a Moral Climate for Children." The very existence of this chapter reflects the belief of the Commission that not all problems are solved by government programs, but rather are best overcome by developing moral values in children, and, in the words of Secretary Sullivan, a "culture of character."

And now we've got the moral relativists on the phone to the family relativists, and they're both wondering what in the world happened.

Significantly, the Commission also endorsed public school choice. While not going as far as I and other members wanted to go -- which is to include private schools as well -- it is a major push for parental empowerment, and a recognition that the current educational establishment is failing our nation's schools.

And finally, the report reflects the view that the most effective ways to help families achieve economic self-sufficiency are to: 1) encourage the formation and stability of two-parent families; 2) make work pay through the Earned Income Tax Credit; and 3) develop a strategy for countering the decade-long tilt in the tax code against families with children.

For example, the report states:

Clearly, living in a stable, two-parent family with one or both parents employed is the child's best hope for escaping poverty and having his or her basic material needs met. Government should therefore actively encourage work, independence, and strong families.

Flawed Proposals. Unfortunately, the Commission's major proposal of a $1,000 refundable tax credit for children is flawed by a failure of the liberal majority to explicitly tie the refundable nature of the tax credit to a reduction in other government benefit programs. As an "add on" to welfare, such a refundable tax credit could potentially lead to an increase in single-parenting, a violation of one of the report's guiding principles.

The report is also flawed by its failure to develop a reasonable plan for paying for its proposals. It's fair to say that a majority, if not all, of the liberal Commissioners supported some sort of tax increase -- although most of their ideas for increasing taxes reflect the traditional liberal philosophy of, "I won't tax you, I won't tax me, so I'll tax that guy behind the tree!"

Some of us, on the other hand, considered the notion of paying for a cut in taxes by raising taxes as ludicrous, and circular thinking at its worst. In our view, a program designed to support families can not further erode their economic power with new taxes. More reasonable approaches put forth by a minority of members of the Commission involved curtailing federal spending by cutting some expenditures or capping growth in domestic spending.

The Commission also did not reach consensus on health care. The liberal Democrats on the Commission endorsed a national health insurance scheme which is essentially a repeat of the recommendations of the Pepper Commission -- a previous Rockefeller-chaired commission that also could not reach consensus on this issue. Unfortunately, as we stated in our minority chapter on health, the Rockefeller-endorsed "play or pay" proposal would invariably lead to higher taxes, a substantial loss of jobs, and discrimination against employees with families -- a result which I find unconscionable for a National Commission supposedly concerned about the welfare of families with children.

Positive Results Also. Nonetheless, and despite these shortcomings and unfortunate events, I believe the message of the report isn't lost, and shouldn't be wasted by conservatives. For years now we have been attacking mainstream policy thought as off the mark, completely missing the issues and concerns that really matter to families, and that can really make a difference to children. The result has been, as Zinsmeister says, a public policy that provides "no reward... for standing by kith and kin."

Now we have a report that pushes two-parent families, recognizes the importance of values and morality, endorses school choice, and acknowledges that what families need is not more government programs, but to be allowed to keep more of the money they earn.

The report has also helped to further sharpen the distinctions between conservatives and liberals -- concerning both the proper role for government in family matters and the way we pay for government. For example, the existence of two health chapters indicates that liberals are for government mandates without regard for costs, either in terms of increased taxes or job loss. Liberals apparently are even willing to tolerate discrimination against employees with families in the name of government mandates. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in empowering consumers and permitting undistorted markets to function in medical care and health insurance as a means of providing the best health care for the most people while targeting public programs to those most in need. In addition, the lack of consensus on how to pay for the report's recommendations reveals that liberals continue to refuse to even flinch at the idea of raising taxes, whereas conservatives believe government should do everything it can to keep taxes low and federal budget deficits small.

But there is a danger in the report. It may be, as some suspect, that the liberals on the Commission didn't really believe in any of the conservative rhetoric contained in the report and only agreed to include it in order to obtain a unanimous vote. Perhaps that's why the title of the report, chosen after the final vote, reads "Beyond Rhetoric." So we must work hard at holding the liberal Commissioners' feet to the fire, and insist that they remain true to the rhetoric and message of the report. We must constantly remind the liberal Commission members that they endorsed the idea that the best way out of poverty is not some government program, but rather for single parents to get and stay married. We must remind them that they endorsed the idea of school choice precisely because the present school establishment has failed our nation's children. And we must remind them that they endorsed the idea that the mass media must be more responsible in their messages to children regarding drugs, sex and hard work because moral values are important -- and in the long run even more important than government programs. Then let them answer why "good liberals like them voted for a report like this."


Wade Horn

Bradley Fellow in Education Policy