The wrong mar­riage de­bate again

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

If only lower in­come het­ero­sex­u­als were as keen to marry as some ho­mo­sex­u­als, the United States would be a much stronger coun­try. Sup­port­ers of gay mar­riage (most promi­nently The New York Times, which re­ported New York’s le­gal­iza­tion of such unions two weeks ago with about as much hoopla as it did the Ja­panese sur­ren­der in 1945) are ec­static.

Ac­tu­ally, the first sen­tence of this col­umn might be mis­lead­ing. While it might seem, from the in­tense ac­tivism on the sub­ject, that gays are im­pa­tient to reach the al­tar, it may not be true. Sur­veys in coun­tries that have le­gal­ized gay mar­riage have found com­par­a­tively small num­bers of ho­mo­sex­u­als seek­ing mar­riage (be­tween 2 and 5 per­cent in Bel­gium, and be­tween 2 and 6 per­cent in Hol­land). It’s quite pos­si­ble that le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage is sought mostly for sym­bolic rea­sons, as a sort of Good House­keep­ing Seal of Ap­proval on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. (Just by the way, the fun­ni­est sign at a re­cent Obama speech was held by a gay-mar­riage ad­vo­cate ir­ri­tated by the pres­i­dent’s claim that his views on the sub­ject are “evolv­ing.” The sign read “Just Evolve Al­ready.”)

Imag­ine if even one-twen­ti­eth of the at­ten­tion we de­vote to gay mar­riage were turned to the state of het­ero­sex­ual mar­riage, we might be­gin to see the true emer­gency.

Writ­ing in The Weekly Stan­dard, Mitch Pearlstein, whose book “From Fam­ily Col­lapse to Amer­ica’s De­cline” is due out in Au­gust, out­lines some of the con­nec­tions be­tween fam­ily break­down and eco­nomic de­cay.

The sta­tis­tics are fa­mil­iar. In 1970, 85.2 per­cent of chil­dren un­der 18 lived in a two-par­ent fam­ily. In 2005, it was 68.3 per­cent and drop­ping. Forty per­cent of births in Amer­ica are to un­wed par­ents. Bro­ken down by eth­nic group, the fig­ures are 30 per­cent among whites, 50 per­cent for His­pan­ics and 70 per­cent for blacks.

Sin­gle moth­ers (and oc­ca­sion­ally fathers) find it much more dif­fi­cult to be the kind of au­ton­o­mous, self-sup­port­ing in­di­vid­u­als that our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment was de­signed for. Sin­gle par­ents turn to the gov­ern­ment for as­sis­tance in dozens of ways.

Pearlstein cites econ­o­mist Ben­jamin Scafidi, who has of­fered a rough cal­cu­la­tion of how much fam­ily break­down costs Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers an­nu­ally.

Scafidi con­sid­ered TANF (Tem­po­rary As­sis­tance to Needy Fam­i­lies), Food Stamps, hous­ing as­sis­tance, Med­i­caid, S-Chip, child wel­fare ser­vices, jus­tice sys­tem costs, WIC, LIHEAP (Low In­come Home En­ergy As­sis­tance Pro­gram), Head Start, school break­fast and lunch pro­grams, and fore­gone tax re­ceipts.

The an­nual bill to tax­pay­ers: $112 bil­lion.

But Scafidi was be­ing con­ser­va­tive, Pearlstein ar­gues.

He didn’t in­clude the Earned In­come Tax Credit, the costs to schools that ac­crue from ad­di­tional dis­ci­pline prob­lems, the spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion costs that in­crease in lock step with chaotic fam­ily en­vi­ron­ments, and the added bur­dens on Medi­care and Med­i­caid that re­sult from more un­mar­ried older Amer­i­cans. Scafidi ex­plains that “high rates of di­vorce and fail­ure to marry mean that many more Amer­i­cans en­ter late mid­dle age (and be­yond) with­out a spouse to help them man­age chronic ill­nesses, or to help care for them if they be­come dis­abled.”

The flight from mar­riage is trans­form­ing the com­plex­ion of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, in­creas­ing in­equal­ity and de­creas­ing self­suf­fi­ciency.

As Kay Hy­mowitz has writ­ten (soon to be joined by new books by Charles Mur­ray and the above men­tioned Pearlstein), mar­riage pat­terns are cre­at­ing a caste sys­tem in a coun­try that had tra­di­tion­ally en­joyed rel­a­tive equal­ity. Among the well-ed­u­cated, mar­riage rates have re­mained very sta­ble over the past sev­eral decades.

Col­lege grad­u­ates are thus (mostly) rear­ing their chil­dren in or­derly, sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ments in which kids are taught to study hard, de­lay grat­i­fica- tion and plan for the fu­ture. But 54 per­cent of the chil­dren of high school dropouts are il­le­git­i­mate. Their par­ents’ lives are marked by fi­nan­cial stress, con­flict and tur­moil.

Since in­come and ed­u­ca­tion are so closely linked, the out­lines of a per­ma­nent caste sys­tem be­come vis­i­ble, with the ed­u­cated rais­ing chil­dren who have the tools to be­come suc­cess­ful them­selves and the poor and lower mid­dle class con­tin­u­ing to give birth un­der cir­cum­stances that vir­tu­ally con­demn their chil­dren to poverty.

Much has been made by Democrats of the in­creas­ing in­equal­ity of in­come dis­tri­bu­tion in Amer­ica. That in­equal­ity is real. But it’s not the re­sult of tax cuts. It’s an ar­ti­fact of fam­ily struc­ture. And un­less we find a way to dis­cour­age un­wed child­bear­ing and re­vive mar­riage, the chasm be­tween classes will con­tinue to grow.

Gay mar­riage is a dis­trac­tion. The coun­try de­pends on tra­di­tional mar­riage.

Mona Charen is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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