Family Feud

A Reply to
Arlene Skolnick, "Family Values: The Sequel," May-June 1997

"Family Values: The Sequel," Arlene Skolnick raises
two important questions. First, is the trend toward family fragmentation—understood
as a steady decline in the proportion of children growing up with
their two parents—a harmful one? And second, should progressives
and other people of goodwill seek to reverse this trend?

Skolnick's answer to the first question
hovers somewhere between "maybe" and "probably
not." Much of her essay is a defense of the idea that, from
a child's perspective, divorce and unwed child bearing are not
so bad after all—or at least not as bad as some people (like the
two of us) say, and certainly not as bad as some other bad things,
such as unemployment, low income, or parents who squabble or
are unhappy. Her answer to the second question is a flat "no":
"We [liberals] should have no part of efforts to hold children
hostage to a narrow definition of family that looks only at form
and not at love, care, and responsibility." We disagree with
both of these answers. Let us briefly explain why.

On the question of whether today's
disintegrating-family trend is harmful to children, Skolnick's
determined optimism is increasingly rare today, both in the society
at large and among the social scientists who study these issues.
Indeed, her sanguine view evokes the 1970s, when the family structure
revolution was still new and, in the area of sexuality and procreation,
everything seemed possible. (Remember books from that era with
titles like Creative Divorce?) Perhaps this time-warp factor
explains why one of Skolnick's few concrete recommendations is
that, when devising family policy for the next century, "a
good place to start would be the old memos and reports issued
in the 1970s."

Perhaps. But as Skolnick herself points
out, nostalgia is no substitute for analysis. A quarter century
has passed since the early 1970s. During that interval, scholars
have accumulated a great deal of knowledge about the dimensions
and consequences of the family structure revolution. And despite
whatever nostalgia we may feel for a bygone era, surely we must
recognize that, analytically speaking, we can't go back to a more
innocent time.

Indeed, to examine the current academic
literature in this area is to encounter again and again the story
of fair-minded scholars who, on the weight of accumulating evidence,
have substantially altered their previous judgments about the
benign consequences for children of divorce and unwed child bearing.
This list includes Norval Glenn, David Eggebeen, Lynn White, Peter
Uhlenberg, Ronald Angel, Sar Levitan, and numerous others—most
of whom, by the way, are Democrats.

For example, Norval Glenn, a former
editor of the Journal of Family Issues now at the University
of Texas, reports that "in the 1970s, the prevalent scholarly
view was that such changes as the increase in divorce, out-of-wedlock
births, single-parent families, and stepfamilies were benign and
adaptive, if not distinctly beneficial." Yet, "by the
1990s, this view began to change, as evidence accumulated about
the negative effects of marital disruption on children and about
other social costs of the family changes. Not all family social
scientists participated in this shift, but it is significant that
the most prominent scholars and those most directly involved in
the relevant research were most likely to do so."

Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur tell
a similar story in their 1994 book, Growing Up with a Single
: "The idea that single mothers were to blame for
producing a class of criminals, drug addicts, jobless men, and
long-term welfare recipients seemed wrongheaded, given what we
had learned as graduate students in the 1970s. Hadn't social scientists
demonstrated that the negative effects attributed to single motherhood
were really due to poverty and racial discrimination? So we thought
when we began our study."

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But by the 1990s, after years of careful
research, they had changed their view: "in our opinion [today]
the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up in a household
with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than
children who grow up in a household with both of their biological
parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background,
regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is
born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries."

Other recent large-scale studies have
come to remarkably similar conclusions. Children raised outside
of intact marriages are more likely to be poor, to have trouble
in school, to report psychological problems, to commit violence
against themselves and others, to use drugs, and to experience
sexual and physical abuse. As adults, children of divorce report
lower levels of satisfaction, more depression, and more physical
health problems; they also, on average, obtain less education
and hold less-prestigious jobs. They are also more likely to get
divorced themselves and to bear children outside of marriage.

Even studies that "control"
for income—a technique that tends to minimize the effects of divorce,
since lower income is in itself one of the most reliable consequences
of family breakdown—repeatedly find that, as Paul Amato and Bruce
Keith conclude in their meta-analysis of 35 studies on divorce,
" . . . parental divorce (or permanent separation) has broad
negative consequences for quality of life in adulthood."

Consider also, as a matter of special
importance for progressives, the well-established relationship
between growing family fragmentation on the one hand and growing
income inequality and child poverty on the other. Overall, children
of single mothers are five times more likely to be poor than children
living with married couples. They are also nine times more likely
than children in married families to experience "deep poverty,"
with incomes of less than half the official poverty level. Moreover,
poverty for these children is far more likely to endure. To take
the two extremes, a child whose mother never marries is 30 times
more likely to be poor for most of childhood than the child of
a lasting, intact marriage. And according to McLanahan and Sandefur,
a child who is not poor to begin with experiences, on average,
a 50 percent drop in his or her standard of living after divorce.

Child poverty, like crime or school
failure, has many causes. But surely the declining number of children
raised by both parents is one of the most important. Other countries
may have done a better job at narrowing the economic gap that
separates children in disrupted families from those in intact
families. But no family policy anywhere has succeeded in eliminating
the gap. Under these circumstances, how can we fail to be concerned
about family disintegration?

answers with a familiar refrain: It's not divorce that injures
children, it's the family conflict that predates the divorce.
Like many others who make this claim, Skolnick relies heavily
on a single controversial article, published in the journal Science
in 1991. The article summarizes findings from two studies
of children of divorce, one from Great Britain, the other from
the United States. In her essay, Skolnick seriously misreports
the results of these studies: "[C]hildren whose parents had
divorced in the interim did have more problems, but they had shown
those problems at age 7, before the parents had divorced."
Wrong. Though margin of error considerations make these numerical
estimates less than completely reliable, the British study actually
concludes that pre-divorce family problems account for about half
of the increased problems with behavior and school achievement
experienced by boys from divorced families. The other half of
the problems didn't arise until after the divorce. For girls from
divorced homes, three-quarters of the drop in school achievement,
and all the increase in behavioral problems, took place after
the divorce.

The U.S. survey, based on a far smaller
sample, also found that about half the increased behavioral problems
of boys could be attributed directly to the divorce. But the U.S.
study also reports that the behavior of U.S. girls actually improved
after divorce, an oddly anomalous finding that was never adequately
explained by the researchers (though the study's lead author Andrew
Cherlin theorized plausibly that daughters of divorce tend to
internalize their divorce-related problems, becoming anxious or
depressed rather than misbehaving or "acting out" in
ways that the study was able to measure).

Granted, high levels of family conflict
are harmful to children. But Skolnick declines even to address
one of the most basic questions: Has the increase in divorce over
the last generation taken place primarily among such acutely troubled
families? Or alternatively, are we increasingly ending marriages
that, at least from the standpoint of child well-being, could
and should be saved?

There is no definitive answer to this
question. But many researchers have reached conclusions similar
to those presented by Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg in
their book, Divided Families: ". . . we doubt that
such clearly pathological descriptions apply to most families
that disrupt. Rather, we think there are many more cases in which
there is little open conflict but one or both partners finds the
marriage personally unsatisfying. . . . Under these circumstances,
divorce may well make one or both spouses happier; but we strongly
doubt that [divorce] improves the psychological well-being of
the children."

Offering divorce as the "solution"
to parental conflict is far more problematic than Skolnick realizes.
Indeed, her implicit suggestion that divorce somehow ends parental
conflict is one of those easy assumptions—again, this idea was
very common in the 1970s—that the experience of the past three
decades is forcing us to relinquish. Numerous studies of middle-class
divorces, from scholars such as Eleanor Maccoby, Robert Mnookin,
and Frank Furstenberg, find that "good divorces" are
rare indeed. Even Constance Ahrons's decidedly optimistic book,
The Good Divorce, finds that just 12 percent of divorced
couples enjoy low-conflict divorces, and almost all of these couples
had enjoyed close, friendly relations prior to divorce. By contrast,
about 50 percent of divorced parents engage in bitter, open conflict.
Good divorces, her research suggests, do not typically heal angry,
conflict-filled marriages as much as they terminate relatively
friendly ones.

Today's divorce rate, far from reducing
the family conflict that children experience, probably increases
it. For example, Skolnick ignores analyses by Richard Gill and
others suggesting that, in a high-divorce society, not only do
more troubled marriages end in divorce, but more marriages become
troubled and unhappy. A divorce-oriented society thus generates
precisely that "parental conflict" that Skolnick embraces
as a reason not to worry about divorce. In addition, the divorce
experience itself frequently opens up vast new territory for parental
conflict, on issues ranging from late child support checks to
who owns the toys. Not surprisingly, parents who cannot contain
their conflicts when they are married do not usually uncover large
new reserves of patience, understanding, and empathy for their
former partners after divorce.

Finally, if preexisting conflict, rather
than divorce itself, explains most of the problems that these
children face, then children of never-married mothers ought to
do better than children of divorce on psychological, behavioral,
and academic measures. But they do not: Children in both kinds
of single-parent homes appear to face a roughly similar set of

experience should teach us to be cautious about pinning all our
hopes for children's well-being on the idea that we can make parents
more cooperative after the divorce than they were before. Accordingly,
doesn't it make sense to devote at least part of our attention
to the cultural messages, corporate practices, government policies,
and economic conditions that may be destabilizing marriage and
thus exposing more of our children to the risks of family fragmentation?

Skolnick would like to attribute almost
all of the explosive rise in single-parent homes to changing economic
conditions. "The largest source of family change and family
stress," she maintains, "is the shift to a postindustrial,
globalized economy. . . ." To illustrate this idea, she points
out that "living together unmarried—which in a legal sense
counts as single parenthood—has been the low-cost way to start
a family." Is that so? One might begin by asking: Low-cost
for whom? For the man, who typically ends up keeping more of his
money and time for himself? Or for his child and the mother of
his child, who typically get less of both?

More generally, the best efforts of
scholars to measure the impact of economic factors like male wages
and unemployment have come to the same conclusion: Economic factors
do explain part, but only a small part, of the recent decline
in marriage. For example, several scholars have concluded that
trends in unemployment and wage rates can explain no more than
20 percent of young black men's retreat from marriage. A recent
study of the economic determinants of divorce by the economists
Saul Hoffman and Greg Duncan concludes that "male incomes,
[female] wages, and AFDC benefits did not play a large role in
the change in the divorce rate over the past few decades and that
the trend reflects primarily either changes in behavior or changes
in noneconomic factors."

answer the second key question raised by her essay—can or should
anything be done to reverse the trend of family fragmentation?—Skolnick
suddenly shifts her mood. She even shifts her epistemology. If
contemplating the consequences of the current family trend puts
Skolnick in an unusually optimistic state of mind, contemplating
the possible intensification of that trend in the future causes
her to become a complete fatalist. For Skolnick, nothing—absolutely
nothing—can or should be done to slow down or reverse the trend
of family fragmentation, or what she terms family "diversity."
The fix is in. It's here to stay. Anyone who says otherwise is
actually hurting children.

Much of Skolnick's argument here depends
upon our acceptance of an overly simplistic dichotomy between
demographics and culture, between the "families we live with"
and the "families we live by." For Skolnick, the former
consist of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. The latter, on
the other hand, consist only of ideas in our heads, fragments
of ideology that, unless we are careful, will divert us from the
material reality. From this perspective, caring about "the
families we live with" means caring about "demographic
changes," "economic shifts," and issues like jobs,
housing, health care, and condom distribution. But caring about
"the families we live by" can only mean yielding to
"moral panic" and politically harmful "hysteria."

This way of describing family life—this
way of describing any aspect of life—is intellectually unserious.
A first principle of social analysis requires understanding the
inevitable tension, in all human affairs, between the social "is"
and the moral "ought"—between the material and the ideal,
between how we act and what we believe. But Skolnick wants to
wave this tension away, pretending that it does not exist. In
her survey of contemporary family change, the "is" emerges
as triumphant and utterly sovereign. The "ought" becomes
at best an epiphenomenon, at worst a dangerous distraction from
the core task of accommodating the "is."

This recommendation that, in Dietrich
Bonhoffer's phrase, we become "servile before fact"
is especially unsuited to progressives, since it represents such
a sharp break with the American tradition of social reform. Sixty
years ago, for example, the union organizers who founded the Congress
of Industrial Organizations declined to be servile before the
fact of workplace exploitation, even though the smart money and
the smart analysts strongly favored current management. Thirty
years ago, civil rights leaders in the South declined to be servile
before the fact of segregation, even though the laws, the police,
and local elite opinion overwhelmingly favored segregation—which
was, in those days, one of the "the customs we lived with."
Similarly, there is absolutely no reason why progressives today
should embrace Skolnick's advice that we become servile before
the fact of family fragmentation—unless, of course, we believe
that family fragmentation is a good thing.

We reject the pessimistic, even reactionary,
claim that current rates of family disintegration constitute an
untouchable fact before which reformers must scrape, bow, and
make excuses. We reject as well the charge that concern for the
health of marriage as an institution somehow signals a lack of
compassion for children growing up in single-parent homes. We
concede that, in the relatively short time since today's scholars
and reformers have begun to focus seriously on this problem, no
one has come up with a perfect or definitive solution for reversing
family fragmentation and fostering hands-on fatherhood, while
at the same time defending and strengthening the ideal of equal
regard between men and women. But anyone who cares about the prospects
for our children must surely confront these challenges in the
years ahead.


Gallagher and David Blankenhorn respond as if we were on Crossfire,
and try to force the argument into a falsely polarized either/or
mold. If they are "against" "family fragmentation,"
I must be "for" it. The result is a caricature of what
I wrote and a distortion of the social science literature. They
pounce on any evidence that divorce or family structure affects
children's well-being, then discard or downplay evidence of other
factors that may be even more important.

Most researchers take a shades-of-gray
position on family structure. The evidence does show that children
in divorced, remarried, or unmarried families are at greater risk
for a number of problems, but there is little support for the
frightening picture of such families painted by these authors
and their colleagues. The vast majority of children in single-parent
families turn out reasonably well. Alan Acock and David Demo,
who examined a nationally representative sample of children and
adolescents in four family structures, reported "few statistically
significant differences across family types on measures of socioemotional
adjustment and well-being."

It is true that other researchers have
found higher rates of divorce-related problems. Mavis Harrington
observes, for example, that about twice as many children from
divorced families have behavioral problems as those from continuously
intact families—20 percent to 25 percent, she estimates, as opposed
to 10 percent. "You can say 'Wow, that's terrible,'"
she comments, "but it means that 75 to 80 percent of kids
from divorced families aren't having problems, that the vast majority
are doing well." Sara McLanahan, who also protests the use
of her data to scapegoat single parents, makes a similar point.
Of course the doubling of risk is worrisome, but it's important
to keep in mind that many of the problems experienced by children
from divorced or never-married families are caused by poverty,
lack of education, psychological problems in the parents, poor
parenting skills, and other preexisting factors.

their insistent claims of concern for children, Gallagher and
Blankenhorn dismiss factors having a greater and more direct
impact on children's well-being than family structure. For example,
study after study shows that the key determinant in a child's
adjustment is the quality of the relationship with the primary
parent; Janet Johnston of Stanford has found that even in hostile,
high-conflict divorces, a good parent-child relationship can buffer
a child from the effects of a difficult environment.

Still, family conflict strongly affects
children's development. Gallagher and Blankenhorn reveal the surprising
limits of their familiarity with the research literature when
they write, "Like many others who make this claim, Skolnick
relies heavily on a single controversial article, published in
the journal Science in 1991." It's hard to understand
how anyone who prescribes national policy on the basis of the
social science evidence can ignore—or, worse, fail to know about—an
entire body of research, dating back to the 1950s, showing that
marital conflict is more strongly linked to adjustment difficulties
among children than to the marital status of their parents. Nobody
should divorce casually, but the question is, Divorce compared
to what? An angry or conflict-ridden marriage can be more harmful
to children than a loving single parent.

Recent research shows that a widespread
but far quieter problem—parental depression—is also a significant
risk factor for child development. And depression, particularly
in women, can result from marital unhappiness. As Richard Weissbourd
observes, "Whether parents are chronically stressed or depressed
often more powerfully influences a child's fate than whether there
are two parents in a home or whether a family is poor."

In short, whether a family consists of two parents
is less important for a child than how well the family (in whatever
form) functions. Of course, it would be better for children if
more marriages were successful. But rather than adopt policies
to make divorce more difficult (which may actually discourage
marriage in the first place), we ought to address the problems
afflicting children in all our families.

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