Is family fragmention helping to drive inequality?

11.27.2012, 8:06 AM

At First Things, an interesting essay by Joseph Knippenberg on income inequality, responding to President Obama’s 2011 speech on the subject in Osowatomie, Kansas.   Here’s the point he makes that got my attention:

What I found most promising about the president’s speech is also what dismays me the most about his analysis. He framed the question in terms of the expectations people have for their families, the hope that they can live up to their responsibilities as parents. I strongly suspect that where families are intact, with two parents contributing to the welfare of the household (through some combination of work, “household management,” and attending to the education of the children), the inequality in the distribution of income that most troubles him is diminished. So why not talk about marriage, the culture and community that support it, and the character it begets? Would not reversing the decline of marriage and family formation ultimately do a great deal more to promote the human flourishing that sits at the heart of the president’s and our concerns?

I am persuaded that economics has a lot to do with family formation, but am also confident that talk about economics and about the distribution of income is no substitute for a proverbial focus on the family.

There’s an important conversation to be had here, but the point of departure has to be “the good life,” understood in traditional terms, not merely in terms of how much money we have or don’t have.

Yes.  I think the great undiscussed issue when it comes to the rise of inequality and the endlessly invoked weakening of the “middle class” is the role of family fragmention.  I’m not saying it’s the only thing, and it may not be the main thing, but it’s there and it matters, including to anyone who cares about social justice and a society in which we are more equal.  Props to Amber Lapp for raising this same issue in her excellent post.


13 Responses to “Is family fragmention helping to drive inequality?”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Part of the problem is that the term “family fragmentation” refers only to the absence of a marriage license and/or whether one parent or another sleeps in a different home. Imagine instead if the term “family fragmentation” was behavior-based instead of location-based; that a family would be considered fragmented if destructive behaviors were present, even if both parents were sleeping under the same roof.

    Because ‘fragmentation’ in the location sense is preceded by fragmentation in the experienced sense.

  2. David Blankenhorn says:

    La Lubu: I see your point. You want to emphasize (to use some academic jargon) family “process” over family “structure.” But wouldn’t you also agree that structure can strongly influence process?

    For a child, “Do you have a good relationship with your father?” is a question about process, which you seem to want to focus on. But if your father has moved to the other end of the country to be with a new woman (which is a structure question; are both parents sleeping under the same roof?), surely that is likely quite strongly to impact the issue of your relationship with your father.

    So the two, structure and process, cannot really be separated (he said). Yes, what ultimately matters is process not structure (I agree), but structure sure has a hell of lot to do with process, in most cases.

  3. Not a rhetorical question: After more than 30 years of talk about “reversing the decline of marriage and family formation” with 0 success, what makes social conservatives think it can actually be done? Do they really believe it’s possible, or is it just rhetoric (not that there’s anything wrong with that)?

  4. La Lubu says:

    David, marriage as a structure does not set the agenda for marriage as a practice. People do got get or stay married because of the structure, but because of the practice. If the structure does not provide the practice, the structure gets abandoned.

  5. annajcook says:

    Hmm. I guess I’m suspicious at the predictive power of structure for process or practice, admittedly for very subjective reasons. My own personal life experience has been that how a family looks from the outside observer is often very deceptive in terms of how the family relationships function. In a very broad-strokes example, my own parents have a very “traditional” looking marriage. They married in their mid-twenties (for my mother a second marriage, for my father a second serious relationship), bought a home, had children in their thirties, and have remained together. My father has been the full-time wage-worker throughout their marriage, while my mother was the full-time parent and home-educator during our years at home.

    Yet in terms of childcare philosophy, gender roles, household organization, and intra-familial relationships, our family is really different from socially-conservative families. We’re much closer to hippie-progressive notions of self-directed learning, child autonomy, a non-binary notion of gender, fluid sexuality, etc. My parents in no way pressure us to form relationships that are structured like theirs, though obviously they want us to have relationships that are nurturing, supportive of our individual potential, fullfilling, etc. They just don’t think there’s an automatic structure that will support that for all people — they trust us to find our own way.

    So form is interesting, but function is (to me) much more interesting and useful as a predictor of outcomes. It’s the difference between asking WHAT people do and WHY they do it — WHAT people do and the MEANING they make of it.

  6. nobody.really says:

    Three (somewhat contradictory) thoughts:

    1. What Philip N. Cohen sez.

    Enough with the metaphysics: “Are you pro-marriage or pro-economics?” Instead, let’s talk about what problem we are trying to solve, what causes we see for that problem, and what policies we propose to address those causes or remedy the problem. I suspect we might find more agreement about policies/remedies than we would find about the metaphysical framework each of us carries in our heads.

    2. I focus on economic variables: Let’s make the outcome that benefits society also the outcome that benefits the individual, thereby harnessing self-interest to achieve social good.

    I feel some reluctance to focus on marriage as an end in itself. We all have known people in dysfunctional marriages. If we adopt policies designed to, say, promote more stable environments in which to raise kids, I would not be surprised that more stable marriages resulted. But they would be the side-effect, not the object, of the policies.

    3. In contrast, in Coming Apart Charles Murray – bless him for his candor – forthrightly proposes a policy of promoting marriage through moral suasion: The upper- and middle-classes need to shame people into entering, and maintaining, marriages.

    I admit that I’m not wild about using moral suasion as a tool of public policy. I still harbor a romantic notion about marriage being a freely-chosen institution. I prefer explicit rules and explicit sanctions over vague ones. I wonder if other people who resist the “marriage promotion” movement harbor similar aversions.

    That said, my reading on this blog, among other sources, is leading me to get over this aversion. Even if marriage is sometimes the result of good outcomes, I suspect marriage is also sometimes a cause. At a minimum, the moral suasion to maintain a marriage may help people through tough, but temporary, times.

    Moral suasion may be a weak lever compared with economic policy, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use it for all it’s worth. Moreover, moral suasion is a desirable tool precisely because of its weakness: It provides incentives for certain outcomes, yet leaves room for people in duress to pursue other outcomes without violating any law.

  7. Matthew Kaal says:

    Nobody Really,

    I am not sure broad based moral suasion is the best tool – but your comment reminded me that often at weddings I’ve attended the entire Wedding party (and all those assembled there) are charged with helping uphold the couple’s wedding vows.

    It gets to the reason LaLubu often brings up for public vows, that they include the community in the accountability structure for helping a couple defend and nurture their married relationship.

    So maybe a more intimate relationship-based suasion would work best…don’t know, just pondering this…

  8. La Lubu says:

    Nobody.really, funny you should mention Charles Murray; I was the moderator for a book club discussion last night that focused mainly on “The Price of Inequality” by Joseph Stiglitz, but (as planned) included further discussion of Murray’s “Coming Apart” since people still wanted to argue about it. To segue into the Murray discussion, I mentioned Murray’s piece on the American Enterprise Institute where he was asked for proactive suggestions on improving conditions for working class people. None of his four suggestions mentioned “values”. No, they were all concrete, economic-based interventions: eliminating unpaid internships, dropping the SAT as a college admissions requirement, replacing ethnic-based affirmative action with socioeconomic-based affirmative action, and eliminating the bachelor’s degree as a requirement for all job for which it is not a bona-fide need.

    Isn’t it interesting that someone who wrote such a lengthy and controversial tome recommending the “moral suasion” you mention reached for other solutions as being more effective?

    I’m not a fan of “moral suasion” for several reasons: it requires shared values, which works fairly well for “big ticket” moral issues like murder or child molestation, but has very sketchy results for “negotiables” like adultery or domestic violence; the primary focus after the pressure of moral suasion becomes not “how do I change my behavior” but “how do I make this behavior less visible?” (keeping up appearances; style over substance); and “moral suasion” is seldom applied with the same rigor to all. Lip service has always been given to fidelity in traditional marriage, with the full understanding that it was entirely optional for men.

  9. Isn’t the biggest argument against moral suasion that it is completely ineffective? What does anybody have to offer to make it work that they have not yet tried?

  10. I had this well reasoned hypothesis about the reverse; economic inequality (and economic stress) driving family fragmentation. It goes down the crapper when one looks at international divorce rates. “Stressless” Denmark, for example, has about the same divorce rate as the US. On the other hand, why is Israel’s rate about one-third of ours? I lived in Thailand for a few years where philandering is the nation’s favorite indoor sport. Divorce is unheard of.

    My refined hypothesis is that family fragmentation is a cultural issue. As a society we have yet to figure out how to shape our culture.

  11. David:

    UVa just released The Culture of American Families. You might find this a good read

  12. Diane M says:

    @Philip Cohen – I’m not a conservative, but I don’t think moral suasion has really been done in the US. I think there was a cultural trend to believe that divorce was benign that is now being reversed.

    I think there is now a cultural idea, particularly among younger people, that it doesn’t matter if you get married or not, even if you are having a baby.

    I think moral suasion probably could make a difference, but getting people to agree about it is the first hurdle. Collecting data is one step in that direction. Changing our culture is the next.

    I would agree with LaLubu, however, that moral suasion alone could cause other problems. I think it would have to be accompanied with some practical help including jobs and free conflict resolution classes and counseling.

  13. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – to the extent that a divorced family structure is a reflection of messed up family processes, couldn’t it be used as a measure for a problem? The solution might not simply be more marriage.

    @David Cary Hart – on the other hand, in Sweden, all parents stay together more than they do here, even though married Swedes stay together the most. There’s probably a value to economics, too. (In our country, however, family structure is adding to the income inequality, so the relationship may be hard to tease out.)

    @annajcook – I’m with you on “traditional” family structures not always being conservative. I’m still concerned about the rise in the number of children being born without two committed parents. There would have to be some surprising reason behind that for me to see it as a good thing.

    @nobody.really – I like what you say. Anyhow, How would you harness the individual’s self-interest? What would you do to make marriage and sticking together with kids benefit individuals?