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May 20, 2004

Changing a "Culture of Rejection"

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The breakdown in marriage over the last 50 years carries a cost: America has evolved from being a culture of belonging to being a culture of rejection, and its children are paying the price.

National survey data repeatedly show that the most positive outcomes are in those families where the parents have always belonged to each other and to their children: the intact married family. These families are less likely to live in poverty, less likely to depend on welfare and less likely to grapple with addictions to drugs and alcohol, among other problems.

Take yearly income. The federal government's 2001 Survey of Consumer Finances shows the annual salary for a never-divorced, intact family is $54,000. (The step-family with parents on their second marriage trails close behind at $50,000). But for a family that's divorced, that figure is cut by more than half: $23,000. And for those who have never married, it's cut by more than half again: $9,400.

A host of other social indicators also underscore the importance of the intact married family. Grade point average is one: The federal government's National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health shows that for teenagers in a married family, it's 2.98 (out of a possible 4.0); for those in divorced families, it's 2.64. Children in single-parent homes are more than four times more likely than those in married families to be expelled from school. And those in non-married homes are almost twice as likely to report being depressed.

It's not just the families who suffer. Government budgets grow when marriages fail or when parents reject each other. Picking up the pieces becomes the work not only of the fragmented family itself but of all taxpayers and the whole of society.

Worse, the number of victims has skyrocketed. For every 100 children born in 1950, 12 became part of a broken family -- four were born out of wedlock and eight saw their parents divorce. By 2000, there was a fivefold increase: For every 100 children born, 60 became part a broken family -- 33 born out of wedlock and 27 the product of divorce.

Mind you, no responsible researcher would stipulate that all children who come from married families have no problems or that those from single-parent homes are guaranteed to fail; we're talking about trends here. After all, rejection and indifference do the damage, and that can happen in the intact family, too.

Still, if, in a well-intentioned effort to spare the feelings of those around us, we ignore these trends, we do so at our peril. The data show that when fathers and mothers belong to each other in marriage, their children thrive -- and the more they belong to each other, the better off their children are. But when parents are indifferent or walk away from each or reject each other, their children don't thrive as much -- and many wilt a lot.

Society also suffers with more gangs, more assaults, more violence against women and children, more sexual abuse of women and children, and much bigger bills for jails, increased need for health care, supplemental education, addiction programs, foster care, homelessness programs and on and on. The expansion of all these social program budgets is directly linked to the breakdown in marriage.

Changing this will require a huge amount of work. We need to set about restoring the conditions that will again grow a culture of belonging, with all the ingredients that go into such a culture: courtship, marriage, worship and communities of families that form neighborhoods that are nice places to come home to: neighborhoods in which romance, courtship and marriage are normal and frequent.

The data also show that regularly going to church makes a difference. That shouldn't surprise us: George Washington in his Farewell Speech to the Nation pointed out that Americans need to be a people of worship if this experiment in freedom is to work. There is much in the scientific literature that points towards religious practice as a great preserver and fosterer of marriage and family strengths.

The challenge before the leaders of this great nation is to bring America back to having a culture of belonging rather than being a culture of rejection; to being a country where people and families belong to each other and especially fathers belong first to the mothers of their children and mothers belong first to the fathers.

Parents belonging to each other. That's what children need more than anything else this nation can give them.

Patrick Fagan is the William H.G. FitzGerald research fellow in family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire

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