IFS: Why should we be so concerned about the state of the American family today? Of all of the family issues on the nation’s agenda—marriage, divorce, cohabitation, single parenthood, the fatherhood crisis, or something else—which one has you most concerned?
Douthat: We should be concerned because the family is the taproot of identity and community, the pre-political unit on which politics depend, the place where all the ladders of psychology and personality start. And right now, a familial experience (growing up in an intimate relationship with both your natural parents) that used to be average, boring, typical is increasingly a luxury good, an aspiration that’s rising out of reach for people whose talents and resources are limited or modest.
But in thinking about why this is happening, and what’s going wrong, I wouldn’t single out just one issue, because they’re all too deeply intertwined. The biggest problem the American family faces right now is a problem of compounding: The way that many of the trends you cite have, since the 1960s but in certain ways especially in the last generation, effectively all been pushing in the same direction, with each problem making other problems worse. There’s a perverse cycle, in other words, that’s hard for people to escape: A higher divorce rate creates a cultural context in which young people don’t see lifelong monogamy as a plausible goal and don’t want to take the chance of being hurt in the way that one or both of their parents were . . . which, in turn, prompts them to delay marriage and cohabit for an extended period instead, to effectively test their partner . . . which makes it more likely that they’ll have a child during such a “test” period, without a marital bond with the other parent . . . which raises the odds, whether they marry or not, that the relationship will dissolve, creating more instability in the life of their child or children . . . who in turn will grow up with an even-more pessimistic view of marriage and family life than their own divorce-shy parents did. All of these effects are then amplified by the “social contagion” aspect of family breakdown, in which just having peers or neighbors whose marriages are failing or who have had kids out of wedlock creates a context in which that seems like the norm, and a stable or flourishing family life like an exceptional, nearly-unattainable ideal.
That’s why when we talk about these issues, it’s a mistake to place too much weight on single problem—out-of-wedlock childbearing, say—without also acknowledging the broader context, the connections between trends, the way that decisions made by people at one point in the life cycle have effects on their peers and children at different points, and so on. Which isn’t a counsel of despair, by the way: In certain ways it’s the opposite, because it also suggests that if you can start to turn things around in one area, it could have positive follow-on effects in other areas as well. (Perhaps this will happen eventually with the recent decline in teen pregnancy, the one area where a for-the-worse trend has been successfully reversed.) It’s just an argument for taking a holistic approach, and for recognizing that the goal of family stability, familial flourishing, is a multi-dimensional aspiration, with applications not only for twenty-somethings and their sexual choices but for how we think about, say, Baby Boomers contemplating divorce or younger kids who are already growing up in single-parent homes.
IFS: Some research on single-parent households indicates that young boys suffer the most from broken families, which seems to be borne out by the latest statistics on gender differences in special education, college graduation, and incarceration. Boys with a high school degree or less, in particular, are struggling in today’s “knowledge” economy, which creates a vicious cycle when it comes to their own marriage prospects, and the future of their children. Is there anything the government can do to address this problem, or is this more the province of our cultural institutions that attend to our homes and hearts?
Douthat: You’re probably talking about the research from David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, which my own newspaper featured last year. They found a fair amount of evidence that sons raised by single mothers fare considerably worse, across the life cycle, than daughters raised in a similar situation, and argued that this helps explain the widening gap between men and women, especially working class men and working class women, on all of the indicators you mention. Their argument seems to fit the data: While single parenting, strictly defined, isn’t rising at the same rate as in the past, and a lot of the recent rise in unmarried childbearing consists of women who often have a cohabitating partner around (or a series of them), the basic lived reality of family breakdown still overwhelmingly involves active mothers and absent or semi-present fathers. And it just seems like common sense, so long as you accept the reality of sex differences, that the absence of fathers in particular would have a disproportionate impact on sons.
This leads, then, to exactly the kind of problem I talked about in my last answer: There’s a compounding effect over time, because fatherless boys are less likely to grow up to be marriageable men, which leads to more women having kids on their own, which leads . . . well, you follow. This is something that I don’t think is sufficiently acknowledged in some recent liberal commentary on family issues, where there’s increasingly a kind of resignation about the decline of the two-parent family, and a sense that we just need better programs to support single mothers, maybe better birth control so these women can have kids a little later when they’re more equipped to raise them, a focus on good parenting rather than good marriages, without any aspiration of actually getting back to the two-biological-parent, lifelong-monogamy norm. The problem (among others) is that this basically locks in that male disadvantage, locks in a world where boys don’t have fathers around to model masculinity, locks in a dating scene where women don’t have enough plausible mates to choose from. So even if you can stabilize people’s finances, the “dad gap” might still be pushing basic human goods—for men, a father you can know and love and respect; for women, a man you can love and trust and rely on—out of reach of more and more people over time.
But of course the liberal rejoinder is reasonable too: To tip the balance back toward the two-parent family here, you need men to step up and rise above their circumstances, but you also need women to take a chance on what you might call the semi-marriageable, to live with a certain amount of male immaturity (or worse) while they’re trying to raise kids, to deal with the downside risks of a failed marriage. That’s a hard ask, it isn’t always reasonable to ask it (particularly in communities where so many men are incarcerated), and to the extent that we do ask it, those women need more help along the way. A lot of that help has to come from cultural institutions—churches, especially—but some of it has to come from public policy as well.
There I think that the current hints of a left–right consensus on some of these issues are promising: There’s increasing interest on both sides of the aisle in criminal justice reform, wage supports for unmarried men, and other ideas that might make a difference to couples or would-be couples on the margins. But that consensus won’t hold if the policy drift is just toward a kind of open-ended support for single parents. There has to be a specific focus on making men marriageable, and making it easier to be married to them, and that focus has to cash out (literally) in whatever policy choices we make.
IFS: One of the greatest ironies of our well-intentioned social welfare system is that by performing many of the tasks that were once the responsibility of the extended family (care of the aged, young, and infirm), the government has to some extent “crowded out” the functionality of the modern family. This evolution has no doubt contributed to the retreat from marriage and childrearing that we see reflected in the “birth dearth” all over the industrialized world, which in turn makes social welfare systems less sustainable in the long run. What do you make of this dilemma? How should we address it? Is there a way to ensure the government safety net can coexist with flourishing non-governmental bodies like families, charities, and religious institutions?
Douthat: This makes an easy segue from where I ended my last answer, because to my mind that’s the essential challenge for conservatives in thinking through public policy right now. The basic thrust of your argument is right: Government does seem to crowd out private associations, private charity, even eventually the family unit itself. Religious and charitable giving goes down when government spending goes up; informal welfare states fragment and disappear as formal ones are established; expansive retirement programs push down birthrates (old-age spending seems to explain part of the long-running, though now-diminished, difference between U.S. and European fertility). On a philosophical level, too, you can see a longstanding discomfort among many liberals with the existence of influential “non-governmental bodies,” since liberalism’s default vision of society often just involves the individual and his or her relationship to the state. So there can be a deliberate effort, of the kind you’ve seen on certain Obama-era fronts, to co-opt and regulate the non-governmental sphere, without too much concern about how that might weaken its influence or hasten its disappearance.
These realities help explain why the traditional alliance between conservative communitarians and stricter libertarians hasn’t just been a marriage of convenience; there really is a connection between limited government and a flourishing civil society. At the same time, though, that alliance has sometimes encouraged a kind of anti-statist utopianism on the right, a fantasy that the purpose of conservative political activism is to somehow repeal the welfare state outright, or else a kind of “thus far, but no further” politics that accepts existing programs, opposes new ones, and otherwise leaves questions about how public programs actually work to liberals to wrangle over and figure out.
Both tendencies, utopianism and policy indifference, can be disastrous for communitarian conservatives. The welfare state isn’t going away (indeed, it’s been with us since long before the New Deal or the Progressive Era), because whatever its downsides and perverse consequences it fills gaps—especially during hard times—that a purely voluntary system of assistance tends to leave open. And precisely because the welfare state can crowd out the institutions of civil society, conservatives have a particular obligation to think hard about the design of programs, to fight tough battles over the details of welfare policy (not just the funding levels), and to figure out exactly what kind of public provisions are most compatible with a flourishing voluntary sphere. That doesn’t mean just adopting a me-too attitude toward every liberal suggestion; it means having actual alternatives, which hopefully add up to a conservative, pro-civil society vision for what the safety net should be and do.
IFS: With one recent study indicating that divorce has actually been on the rise over the last generation or so, what do you make of the recent efforts of some states to tighten up their no-fault divorce laws? Is there a way for the state to encourage couples to think twice about ending their marriages without returning to an era where spouses and their children could be stuck in violent relationships?
Douthat: I’m basically supportive of the mix of proposals in (IFS Senior Fellow!) Brad Wilcox’s 2009 essay on divorce for National Affairs—waiting periods and counseling for divorcing couples (especially couples with children), preferential treatment in court for spouses who are being divorced against their will (in the absence of evidence of abuse)—and I know that some of those ideas have been taken up by the Coalition for Divorce Reform, which is trying to push state-level changes. My sense is that this kind of incremental tightening of divorce law is a better bet than the “covenant marriage” approach that some social conservatives pressed in the 1990s, where couples would be given the option of entering into a marriage without a no-fault escape hatch. The evidence we have from the three states that adopted the convenant option suggests that almost nobody actually opted into it, and I think it’s safe to assume that the people who did choose it were at pretty low risks for divorce already. Better, I think, to push for legal changes—however modest—that might apply across the board, and thus shape incentives for the marginal, most-at-risk couples.
Of course, even those modest ideas face a mix of resistance and indifference that makes them tough to push and pursue. Among well-educated Americans, there’s been something of a conservative turn in public opinion on divorce law over the last couple of generations, with larger percentages saying that divorce should be somewhat harder to get. But that coexists with a more permissive turn among less-educated Americans (who are, perhaps not coincidentally, getting divorced at higher rates). And in any case support for tightening divorce laws seems to be mostly theoretical: No-fault divorce is a deeply embedded part of our increasingly libertarian cultural consensus, there isn’t a mass constituency for limiting adult freedom in any meaningful way (children’s interests, as always are poorly represented in a society organized around adult desire), and when reforms are proposed they’re quickly demagogued (as in the last Virginia gubernatorial race) as attempts to imprison women in abusive marriages.
On that last issue, I think it should be possible for a society to take both domestic violence and the marriage bond seriously, and for courts to protect abused spouses while also protecting spouses and children from hasty dissolutions. But given where the country and the culture is right now, I also think the most important debates about divorce are probably the ones happening within religious bodies (my own Catholic Church especially), and that a significant legal move away from a pure no-fault model is a long distance away.
IFS: If you could magically pass a set of policies aimed at strengthening marriage and families, what would those policies be? (Set aside, for now, budget constraints and the chances of getting the proposals through Congress.)
Douthat: My economic program would expand on some of the ideas being kicked around already. There would be an even larger child tax credit than the one Republicans like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have endorsed, and the existing earned-income tax credit would be expanded and converted to a direct wage subsidy. I would impose—I’m the enlightened despot here, right, so federalism no longer applies?—various regulatory reforms on states and municipalities aimed at eliminating a lot of zoning and licensing rules that impose particularly steep costs on working class families. I’d cut and cap tax subsidies that disproportionately benefit upper middle class rentiers. I’d pursue some version of the Paul Ryan vision for welfare reform, with much more state-based experimentation in the provision of non-cash benefits. More broadly, I’d combine relatively loose monetary policy with relatively tight immigration rules, seeking a lower unemployment rate and higher wages at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. And then I’d spend less on prisons and put more money into hiring and training (but not heavily-arming!) cops, and I’d put UCLA’s Mark Kleiman in charge of reviewing sentencing policies at both the state and federal level, with an eye toward achieving significant reductions in incarceration rates wherever possible.
I suspect I would have a fair amount of center-left support for parts of the above agenda. But that support probably wouldn’t extend to the changes to divorce law I’d implement (starting with the ideas sketched above), and it would evaporate entirely when I restricted legal abortion to cases of rape and life-endangering pregnancies. I’ve written before on the possible connection between Roe v. Wade and family breakdown, and though of course I oppose abortion anyway, for non-contingent reasons, I do genuinely think that a well-designed pro-life legal regime would have positive effects on family life, and indeed that there are certain human goods that simply can’t be pursued effectively in the shadow of unrestricted abortion.
Now: Any positive effect would no doubt be a gradual one, with lots of complications along the way, so I would also want to earmark a certain amount of money for further policy experimentation—beyond what I’ve endorsed above—as American culture adapted to my effective repeal of Roe. Basically, having been extreme (relative to the current order, not to my own views) on abortion policy, I’d want to be extremely ideologically flexible thereafter. But what forms that flexibility and experimentation could fill a book, rather than an interview, so I’ll just end my philosopher-king agenda there.