Is the family breaking down, or evolving into something new?

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How was your Valentine's Day? If it was, well, complicated, the Family Research Council, a conservative, Christian advocacy group in Washington, D.C., would probably not be surprised.

Last month, the FRC's Marriage and Religion Research Institute released its third annual Index of Family Belonging and Rejection. The index reports the percentage of 17-year-olds who have been raised in households headed by two married, biological parents.

According to MARRI, fewer than half (45 percent) of the country's 17-year-olds are growing up in what its analysts call "intact married" families. Among large cities, only one (Cleveland, 15 percent) was worse than Baltimore (16 percent). And as a group, large cities fared so poorly that the authors declared, "City life in the United States is not conducive to family or marriage." A low index score is especially worrisome because, according to the findings in a related MARRI report, family intactness is predictive of positive outcomes in many areas, including educational attainment, the likelihood of living in poverty and dependence on public benefits.

"The majority of American adults can't stand each other enough to raise the kids they brought into existence," said Pat Fagan, co-author of two separate papers describing the index and its implications for public policy, in a phone interview. Mr. Fagan worries that if adults lack the tenacity to marry, stick it out and raise children in stable relationships, children won't have proper role models and support, and our country will be doomed.

But if the end of American society is near, the index can't prove it — not definitively. For one, it does not compare the outcomes of biological families with those of other household structures, such as stepfamilies and long-term cohabiting couples with kids. And regionally, it is not the urban, freewheeling Northeast that has the lowest scores but the more rural, churchgoing south, a fact Mr. Fagan can't explain.

Yet even if one agrees with the findings and conclusions in these reports, it's not clear what should be done about them. The state's blindness to "the importance of the intact married family in shaping the outcomes of its social policies," write Fagan and his co-author, "… is an error of historical proportions." But the idea of government explicitly supporting one household structure over another is frightening. In a worst-case scenario, you could imagine funds for daycare programs designed to help single, working mothers being cut to increase tax breaks for married couples. But would it work? Mr. Fagan and his co-author push for government action but don't offer a single policy prescription.

So while MARRI's basic findings about the prevalence of families led by biological parents and their corresponding social and economic benefits are useful, it seems that some of its conclusions are based not exclusively in the research but in centuries-old fears about cities and anxiety about the dizzying pace of change in American life.

There are people alive today who were born in towns that didn't have electricity, saw computers transform their workplaces midcareer and now use the Internet to access their retirement accounts. It should be no surprise, then, that our relationships and family structures are adapting and evolving along with us.

In the last half of the 20th century, divorce rates rose and marriage rates decreased as women gained access to contraception and joined the labor market in greater numbers, and as life-spans increased. Some of Mr. Fagan's concern is warranted. How do we cope with the uncertainties brought on by changes in technology, social norms and economic conditions? When today's children are ready to raise families, they may be able to pick their baby's height, eye color and sex. But they may have few clues as to which faith (if any) their kids will choose, what country they will work in, or whether they will ever marry.

As a happy uncle, godfather and product of a "broken" urban home who enjoyed the support of lots of surrogate mothers and fathers, I suspect that, going forward, the communities we choose and that choose us will be at least as important as the communities into which we are born. Technology will change, but our basic impulses aren't likely to be any different: We'll have to find each other and help each other. In such quests, cities have often been a good place to start.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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