This essay first appeared at AEI, as part of a symposium on the legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.” It is written in response to AEI scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay “The Great Society at Fifty: The Triumph and the Tragedy.”
The Great Society was launched by President Lyndon Johnson to strengthen the American Dream. But when it comes to two fundamental American values—work and family—Nicholas Eberstadt’s important essay shows us that the programs associated with the Great Society have failed to deliver, at least judging by the trends—manifest declines in male labor force participation and marriage in the United States—that have followed in the wake of these programs.
But we do not know if these programs simply coincided with the declines in marriage and work or caused those declines. When it comes to marriage, we do not know how much, if any, blame for the dramatic increase in the nation’s nonmarital childbearing—from 7% in 1964 to 41% today—can be apportioned to public welfare programs that have made it easier for poor, single mothers to support themselves and their children. Conservatives, of course, tend to blame these programs for the breakdown of the family. Progressives, by contrast, tend to blame economic forces—such as declines in American manufacturing—that have also coincided with the retreat from marriage.
But it’s also possible that dramatic changes in American popular culture may have had a hand in these trends; after all, new research on family change in Brazil suggests that popular culture—especially the introduction of telenovelas—played an important role in the dramatic changes that swept poor and working class families in Brazil since the 1970s. Similar cultural dynamics may have been in play in the United States.
Regardless, however, of the origins of our contemporary retreat from marriage, what cannot be disputed, as Eberstadt notes, is that “the new American welfare state facilitated these new American trends by helping to finance them: by providing support for… for single women with children who would not be able to maintain independent households without government aid.” My worry, in particular, is that many of our means-tested policies targeting low-income families end up privileging single parenthood, insofar as benefits are reduced or eliminated when another earner is brought into the household. The challenge, then, facing scholars and policymakers is determining if there are new ways to help poor families without locking them into a cycle of family instability and single parenthood.
Moving forward, the paramount rule here for policymakers should be “First, Do No Harm,” that is, do not support policies that penalize or otherwise undercut marriage. This rule should be a starting point for reform conservative efforts to strengthen family life, given the central role that marriage has played and continues to play in helping men, women, and children realize the American Dream.