Controversy: Family Trouble

Continuing the debate from "Family
," July-August 1997 and "Family Values: The Sequel," May-June 1997.


a review essay that purports to include my book, The Divorce
, Arlene Skolnick ignores what the book actually says.
Instead, she falsely ascribes to me things I have never written.
Let me begin with some of her many errors and misrepresentations.
Then I will draw on my own argument, since it reveals the weaknesses
in her view of how liberals should think about family structure

I have never written: "fatherlessness
is the number one domestic problem facing the country because
it drives all the rest." I do not point to the vulnerabilities
of single-parent families as signs of their "moral failings."
I do not argue for making alternatives to two-parent biological
families socially unacceptable and practically difficult. I do
not use "horror stories" about divorce. I do have files
of touching letters from children of divorce, but I use none of
this anecdotal evidence. I rely only on clearly identified historical,
literary, legal, and social science evidence. I do not say that
our culture has "abolished" marriage and the nuclear
family. I do not call for policies that will disadvantage children.
I do not treat family structure changes in a social and economic
void or profess a "germ theory" of divorce. Indeed,
I cite many background factors behind the steep increase in divorce
rates, including postwar economic affluence; the growing opportunities
for women in education and the workplace; women's greater relative
economic independence and thus greater freedom to leave bad marriages;
weakening social sanctions against parenthood outside of marriage;
the relaxation of cultural prohibitions against divorces involving
children; and rising expectations for adult emotional satisfactions
within marriage. All figure in the growing fragility of marriage
and the increased likelihood of marital breakdown and dissolution.
I place the seedbed for the divorce revolution in the late 1950s,
not the 1960s. Finally, I do not "mislead" by "repeatedly"
using the phrase she attributes to me as a direct quotation: "average
child of divorce."

Skolnick also writes, "Many of
the family researchers cited in Whitehead's Atlantic article
[April 1993, "Dan Quayle Was Right"] protested her misuse
of their data" and then says in the next sentence, as if
to illustrate: "Sara McLanahan, for example, has objected
to efforts to 'demonize single mothers.'" Several researchers,
including three mentioned in the article—but not McLanahan—did
protest, but not over misuse of their data. (The piece went through
the Atlantic's meticulous fact-checking process and such
misuse would not have survived.) In a letter to the Atlantic,
they contended that I "imply erroneously that most children
of divorce will have lasting problems." However, in a passage
that directly quotes research opinion, the article itself says
the exact opposite: "while coming from a disrupted family
significantly increases a young adult's risks of experiencing
social, emotional or academic difficulties, it does not foreordain
such difficulties. The majority [italics mine] of young
people from disrupted families have successfully completed high
school, do not currently display high levels of emotional
distress or problem behavior and enjoy reasonable relationships
with their mothers."

Moreover, Skolnick creates the impression
that McLanahan has accused me of misusing her data and demonizing
single mothers. I am not aware of any such accusations. Indeed,
before the article was published, I read the entire passage on
her work to McLanahan and made the changes she suggested. As to
how we should think about single motherhood, I agree with the
views expressed by McLanahan and Gary Sandefur in their book,
Growing Up with a Single Parent (1994): "we reject
the argument that people should not talk about the negative consequences
of single motherhood for fear of stigmatizing single mothers and
their children. While we appreciate the compassion that lies behind
this position, we disagree with the bottom line. Indeed, we believe
that not talking about these problems does more harm than good."

Another glaring error: Skolnick identifies
me as the leader of a group of writers based at the Institute
for American Values, referring six times to "Whitehead and
her colleagues." I parted company with the Institute for
American Values more than two years ago, and I wrote The Divorce
after I left. My work is mine alone, not the "output"
of any organization.

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generating this smokescreen of falsehoods, Skolnick avoids contending
with my ideas. Most scholars agree that the divorce revolution
occurred as a result of the social, economic, and cultural factors
I identify above. But these factors alone do not explain its single
most remarkable feature: the virtual disappearance of widespread
social concern over the harmful impact of divorce on children.
Earlier in the century, when the divorce rate was minuscule by
today's standards, people worried about the damage it did to children.
Yet at the very moment that divorce began to affect a historically
unprecedented one million children each and every year, this concern
vanished. Why this dramatic shift?

Simply put, there was a sea change
in the American conception of divorce. The society no longer defined
divorce as a social or family event, with multiple stakeholders,
notably the children whose interests must be represented and served.
Instead, it saw divorce as an individual and psychological event
with a single stakeholder, the initiating adult. Divorce also
ceased to be regarded as a last-resort remedy for an irretrievably
broken marriage and began to be identified with positive outcomes
for adults and especially for women: greater happiness and independence;
a stronger self-image; and enhanced capacity for initiative, assertiveness,
and risk taking. In this conception, children were no longer viewed
as stakeholders in marriage or divorce.

There was ideological consensus on
this new conception. Conservatives embraced its affirmation of
unfettered individualism, which gave adults the freedom to pursue
their own individual interests in a socially and legally deregulated
environment. Liberals were attracted to the psychological and
social benefits of divorce for women. Freed from their economic
and psychological dependency on marriage, women would be able
to hold their own against men in the workplace and in family life.

conception of divorce, with its disenfranchisement of children,
threatens the child-saving tradition of twentieth-century liberalism.
Two defining goals of the liberal project have been to secure
greater rights and freedoms for women and to improve the welfare
of children. In the past, these goals were compatible because
liberals could assume an identity of maternal and child interests.
What helped women would help their children. Consequently, if
mothers were emotionally stronger and happier after divorce, presumably
their children would be as well. However, the empirical evidence
on the impact of divorce on children challenges this assumption.
A majority of women do report improved psychological health and
outlook after divorce, but their children often suffer serious
economic disadvantage and emotional loss, including weaker ties
to their father. Thus, the advantages of divorce for adults, especially
women, are not equally or reliably shared by their children. Liberals
like Skolnick try to evade this conflict by soft-pedaling the
hardships of divorce for children. Thus, Skolnick argues, concerns
about the harmful impact of divorce on children are exaggerated
because, by one scholar's estimate, only 25 percent of children
(roughly 250,000 per year for more than 25 years) suffer long-term
damage. It is inconceivable that she would dismiss such a rate
if it applied to unemployment or domestic violence. Her view is
a remarkable and tragic retreat from the liberal tradition. Moreover,
by branding concerns over marital instability and father absence
as "moral panic," she abandons one compelling argument
for why we must act to reverse the decline in high school-educated
male wages: It shrinks the pool of marriageable men and responsible

Skolnick is at odds with another liberal
tenet. Usually it is liberals who argue that the structural organization
of social, economic, and political life shapes outcomes, while
it is conservatives who say that individual character and agency
count. Here, it is Skolnick who says structure doesn't matter.
Rather, it is the quality of relationships that determines children's
outcomes. Of course, consistent love, nurture, and supervision
are essential to successful child rearing, and these qualities
can be found in many different family structures, from single-mother
households to married-parent households to foster-parent households
and even in some kinds of institutional settings—a point I make
in my book. But the idea that family structure has no bearing
on the quality of nurture and care giving is nonsense. Structure
does matter precisely because it influences the quality and duration
of parental nurture and investment. Nondisrupted two-parent households
simply have a greater capacity to make higher and often longer-term
investments of time and money in their children than the fast-growing
alternatives: one-parent, stepparent, and foster-parent families.
To say this is not to promote intolerance for other family forms—all
families deserve respect. Rather, it is to make an empirical statement
about the capacities of different family structures to achieve
good outcomes for children.

Moreover, if structure does not matter,
then the liberal crusade against structural inequalities has been
a wild goose chase. Given Skolnick's logic, rather than work to
change structures, liberals should work to improve the quality
of relationships between rich and poor, corporate moguls and low-wage
workers, Donald Trump and the homeless.

More to the point, Skolnick's is a
politics of sentimentality, where the goal of securing the objective
conditions for child well-being is replaced by the subjective
goal of feeling good about ourselves and our families. Her politics
is akin to the advertising strategy of for-profit managed health
care companies: They tell us warmly how much they care as they
cut back ruthlessly on care itself.

Skolnick's view also makes it impossible
for liberals to make a persuasive case that all American adults
have a collective public duty to all American children. A society
cannot sustain an ethic of public obligation to children if it
also accepts a private ethic that disenfranchises them. If parents
are entitled to put their needs and self-interest before those
of their own children, why should they or any other adults feel
an obligation to help a stranger's child? If fathers can cut back
on their private support to their own flesh and blood, why would
they tax themselves to provide public supports to other people's

Finally, Skolnick ignores traditional
liberal skepticism about the application of marketplace values
to family life. Earlier in this century, progressive reformers
warned that divorce was the domestic equivalent of robber-baron
capitalism. In this tradition, liberals held that family relationships,
like relationships in labor unions, were governed by principles
of solidarity, mutual aid, and binding obligation whereas the
marketplace was governed by principles of individual self-interest,
short-term contract, and nonbinding relationships. Yet Skolnick
rejects this view of familial relationships and uncritically accepts
a popular conception of divorce that advances marketplace values.
Divorce is an arena for entrepreneurship and whatever costs it
creates are off-loaded onto the children who, as teenagers put
it, have to "suck it up and deal." This is why divorce
is embraced by libertarian conservatives. It is hard to detect
much difference on divorce between Arlene Skolnick and Newt Gingrich.
Both take the same position: Can't help it. Can't change it. Can't
get hung up on what it does to the kids.


when it seemed liberals were finally getting it right about the
family, along comes Arlene Skolnick to prove otherwise. Her arguments
set liberals back more than 30 years, to 1965, when the left made
its first serious misstep in the family values debate. That was
the year that President Lyndon B. Johnson, drawing on the work
of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called "the breakdown of the
American family structure" the chief threat to the well-being
of black Americans. Most liberals were outraged: Family structure
was not the cause of inner-city problems; poverty was. Focusing
on family structure merely stigmatized and blamed the victims.

Now, it seems, we're still right where
we started 30 years ago. The economy may have come a long way
since then—but the family hasn't. Indeed, the structural conditions
of white families today—judged in terms of rates of single parenthood
and out-of-wedlock births—are about what they were for black families
in 1965. Many on the left have finally come to acknowledge the
family pathology—yes, pathology—of the inner-city ghetto. But
when the idea is generalized to the population as a whole, liberals
still don't get it. Family? they ask. What's the problem? It's
the economy, stupid.

No doubt we should be doing more for
the poor, more to improve the economy in every way possible. Yet
it's clear that money is not the whole answer to our nation's
family problem. If it is, why, in an era of unprecedented affluence,
have the living conditions of children of all classes deteriorated?
Why, moreover, is the distribution of family structures more or
less the same in Brentwood as it is in Bedford-Stuyvesant—with
many of the same social consequences in both places.

A good society depends heavily on strong
families raising emotionally secure and moral children who can
grow up to contribute to the commonweal. Despite Skolnick's pleadings
to the contrary, the social science evidence overwhelmingly indicates
that single-parent and stepparent families are flawed in a sociological
sense—the children in these families are two to three times more
likely to experience negative behavioral outcomes.

Sure, many non-nuclear families are
successful. And there will always be children growing up without
two parents who need, and should have, extra support from the
community and the nation. But what kind of politics is it that
denigrates support for two-parent families as an exercise in nostalgia?

Arlene Skolnick's main message is this:
"Get used to it." Accept that most children will not
be growing up with their two parents, and make the best of it.
Do we take a get-used-to-it position on racial inequality, environmental
degradation, severe poverty, or the campaign finance system?

It defies credulity that seeking to
curtail the sky-high divorce rate (close to 50 percent), the nonmarital
birth rate (now a third of all births), and the absence of fathers
from the home (now more than a third of biological fathers) could
be considered illiberal or unprogressive. These are tragedies
for children, and for the nation.

They are also avoidable. Nobody is
calling for the end of divorce, the end of sex, or for rescinding
the gains that women have made in recent decades. But we should
push for later marriages, for sound marriage preparation and marital
enrichment programs, and for the end of teen pregnancies. We should
extend parental leave and remove marriage penalties from the tax
code. And we must get beyond the idea that fostering married,
two-parent families is somehow "castigating parents in the
'wrong' family forms."

Does the left sincerely want political
credibility and a national following? If so, I submit that the
path put forth by Arlene Skolnick goes in precisely the wrong
direction. Her family platform may appeal to the academic left,
but as a way to appeal to the American electorate it is dead wrong.
More important, it does not address what children really need.


a surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland quality to Barbara Whitehead's
response to my review. First she accuses me of misquoting her,
which is impossible because I never actually quoted her in the
article. The sentences she cites as being attributed to her appeared
in a paragraph summarizing the general arguments advanced by those
currently or previously affiliated with the Institute for American

Later, Whitehead states that in order
to "soft-pedal" the effects of divorce on children,
I cite a scholar who estimates that "only 25 percent"
of children suffer long-term damage. "It is inconceivable,"
Whitehead writes, "that she [that is, me] would dismiss such
a rate if it applied to unemployment or domestic violence.''

I searched in vain for that reference
in my original article—because it wasn't there. Whitehead was
referring to a comment made by Mavis Hetherington, which I quoted
in my reply to David Blankenhorn and Maggie Gallagher in the July-August
issue of TAP. A small point, perhaps, but indicative of
a certain carelessness. Whitehead's next error, however, is more
serious. Hetherington states that while between 20 and 25 percent
of children from divorced families have problems, compared to
10 percent in intact ones, it means that between 75 and 80 percent
are not having problems. But where Hetherington mentions "problems"
Whitehead misquotes her as speaking of "long-term damage."

Reading parts of Whitehead's polemic,
however, I lost sight of what the argument is all about. She states
that she does not think that fatherlessness is the major domestic
problem facing the country; that she does not think that single-parent
families reflect the moral failings of the adults involved; and
that she agrees that the majority of young people from disrupted
families do not suffer academically or emotionally. Furthermore,
she says, she does not favor policies that stigmatize single-parent
families or make their lives harder and she is not in favor of
policies that disadvantage children—by which, I assume, she means
she opposes the recently enacted welfare bill.

In the second half of
her response, however, Whitehead does a complete about-face. She
equates divorce with "robber-baron capitalism," claiming
that it tramples on nonmarket values like solidarity and obligation,
and inflicts all the costs and damages on children. Whitehead
argues that by selfishly putting their own needs and self-interest
ahead of their children, parents who divorce thereby undermine
any sense of public obligation to children.

Curiouser still is the logic of Whitehead's
discussion of "structure." It is true that sociologists
describe the parental make-up of a household as a "family
structure," and that they also speak of "social structure"
in describing the broader arrangements (such as the class system)
of a particular society. Somehow, Whitehead imagines this to mean
that whatever one says about the number of parents in the home
determines what one can say about large-scale social structures—that
whatever one says about family structure must apply equally and
in the same way to whatever one says about larger structures.
"If structure does not matter," she writes, "then
the liberal crusade against structural inequalities has been a
wild goose chase." Aside from pointing out that I never wrote
that family structure doesn't matter, there is little one can
say in response to such absurd reasoning.

Popenoe takes a moderate tone in part of his response: "Nobody,"
he writes, "is calling for the end of divorce, the end of
sex, or for rescinding the enormous gains that women have made
in recent decades." Yet Popenoe, like Blankenhorn and Gallagher,
prefers to frame the argument in stark black-and-white terms,
when the reality is far more subtle.

There are indeed lessons in the history
that Popenoe recounts, but they are not what he thinks they are.
The controversial Moynihan report that Popenoe refers to, famous
for its description of the black family as "a tangle of pathology,"
was intended more to spur an assault on poverty than to criticize
family composition. As Moynihan explained in a 1967 Commentary
article, he introduced the topic of family structure in an
effort to arouse public attention and to win the support of conservatives
who would otherwise have opposed federal programs to provide full
employment and guaranteed family incomes.

The notion that poverty and unemployment
can lead to family instability and socially destructive behavior
was neither novel nor necessarily conservative. But the mixture
of morality, pathology, race, and economics turned out to be explosive.
In the resulting uproar, both left and right focused on the theme
of family pathology—and Moynihan's economic message was lost.
Both left and right misunderstood Moynihan to be blaming the poor
for their own difficulties. Indeed, contrary to Popenoe's version
of events, conservatives won, succeeding over time in shifting
the focus from poverty and economic dislocation to the behavior
of the poor.

1965, two major developments have had a profound impact on families.
One was the shift at the end of the postwar boom to a lean-and-mean
postindustrial economy that stripped family-sustaining career
opportunities from many blacks and noncollege-educated adults
of all demographic groups. Young adults in the family-forming
stage of life have been hit especially hard by an insecure and
uncertain job market. Popenoe may not be aware of it, but marriage
has always been a matter of both love and money—something a man
had to be able to "afford." This is still true today,
when a man is expected to help cook the bacon as well as bring
it home. Further, there is a literature reaching back to the Great
Depression showing that economic conditions play a large role
not only in the decision to marry, but in the quality of marital
life. In recent years, as Frank Furstenberg has pointed out in
American Demographics, marriage has become a "luxury
item," something that most low-income people would prefer,
but find beyond their reach.

Of course, economics is not the whole
story. The other major shift was a revolution in women's roles
and in middle-class attitudes toward them. The increasing economic
independence of women has made divorce and even out-of-wedlock
childbearing—a la Murphy Brown—socially permissible, not only
among outspoken feminists, but also, surveys show, more generally.
But it is impossible to debate seriously someone like Popenoe
who equates stepparenting with teenage pregnancy, and calls the
life conditions of children in Brentwood and Bed-Stuy comparably

Popenoe's proposals for premarital counseling and
marital enrichment programs make sense. Still, anyone with common
sense and a modicum of experience realizes that in this day and
age, there will always be children whose family structure does
not conform to the idealized standard of two nondivorced parents.
Those children need society's concern, regard, and respect. The
narrow and fundamentally corrosive vision of Popenoe and his colleagues
will contribute little to the well-being of children across the
breadth of American society.

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