Quayle Was Right


Washington. -- Dan Quayle may be gone but the "family values" debate lingers on.

And on and on and on.

"Dan Quayle Was Right," shouts the cover of the April Atlantic. About what?

About families headed by two married biological parents, says author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Breaking up may benefit the adults involved, she says, but it is dreadfully harmful to many children and, slowly but surely, to our society.

Unfortunately, she complains, to point out these simple truths is to invite ridicule like that Dan Quayle attracted when he attacked TV's "Murphy Brown."

Ms. Whitehead, a research assistant at the Institute for American Values in New York, ought to know. It was her Washington Post essay about Murphy Brown's unwed motherhood last May -- an essay spotted by Marilyn Quayle -- that led to Dan's attack on the TV show.

Ms. Whitehead may have a point, although she has curiously little to say about what we should do about the situation.

A response from the other end of the ideological spectrum can be found in "The Politics of Parenthood; Child Care, Women's Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother," by Mary Frances Berry, of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Our commonly held model of the "traditional family" as one with daddy off at work and mommy at home taking care of the kids appeared rather recently, she says. Dads used to share child-rearing chores more than they do today. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were reared by their fathers, she notes.

Today's "myth of the good mother" puts an undue responsibility on women while letting fathers off the hook, she says: "Whatever else we do, we must understand that advocating women's rights and greater opportunity for women in the workplace and in every avenue of public life is inconsistent with the insistence on mother taking care of children and housework."

The answer? Men need to share more of the housework and child-rearing. I agree, although I also have no delusions that I or most other American husbands are doing anywhere near as much housework as our wives do. Even when we and our wives think we do, in-home studies indicate that we really don't. Yet these are the areas of friction that often lead to breakups.

The number of children who can reasonably expect to spend their childhood with both biological parents married to each other has declined from 80 percent for my postwar boomer generation to only 50 percent in 1980, says Ms. Whitehead.

If current trends continue, most American children will spend several years in a single-mother family and, since step-parents are more likely to break up than two-biological-parent families, an increasing number of children will experience family breakup two or three times during their childhood, Ms. Whitehead writes.

If you think that's bad for children, Ms. Whitehead offers nothing to calm your fears. She describes how the vast majority of surveyed children from broken homes express deep longing for their parents to be married. They tend to reject step-parents as a substitute and step-parents tend to fall short in making the investments that biological parents make.

It appears to be easier for children to get over the death of a parent than to get over the divorce of their parents, says Ms. Whitehead.

Blame the American "social matrix," she laments. It has shifted so much that those who view the decline of two-married-biological-parent families with alarm, as she does, tend to be dismissed as nostalgic clingers to the myth of "Ozzie and Harriet."

By contrast, today's new myth might be embodied in the Vanity Fair profile of Jack Nicholson's fatherhood, headlined "Happy Jack." What made Jack happy, Ms. Whitehead notes, was "no-fault fatherhood." He and Rebecca Broussard, the 29-year-old mother of his children, lived in separate houses.

It's OK, said Jack, she prefers it that way.

OK, asks Ms. Whitehead, but what about the kids?

Her recommendation, expressed in her final paragraph, is for society to change. Swim against the tide that is dragging the American family under, she says.

Change? Very well. But from what to what?

The magazine's editors offer a helpful sidebar that, ironically for an article billed as a defense of Dan Quayle, offers a list of worthy proposals that, by my recollection, the Bush-Quayle administration did little to promote when it had the chance.

The proposals include funding full implementation of the stricter child-support enforcement called for in the 1988 Family Support Act and expanding the earned-income tax credit, which, by itself, could lift a million full-time "working poor" families out of poverty.

Another intriguing proposal would establish a child-support-assurance program, an entitlement plan similar to Survivors Insurance for widows. It would guarantee a standard level of child support, funded by withholding income from the non-residential parent.

Besides making deadbeat dads pay up, it would not encourage moms to go on welfare, as the current system might, since they would keep their benefits whether they work or not. Good idea, and we as a nation can afford it, if we want to.

But we need not give up on the cultural war. As we have seen in the shift of American society over the past two decades from one that was moving toward legalizing marijuana to one that now has raised the drinking age and all but outlawed tobacco, it is possible for society to be moved by a good idea.

Perhaps there's hope that married parenthood is becoming fashionable again when we see a flamboyant celebrity like Eddie Murphy marry Nicole Mitchell, the mother of his children, in nuptials celebrated on the cover of People magazine. I wish them well. I hope Eddie does his fair share of the housework, too.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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