Murphy Brown has come a long way. Dan Quayle's infamous remarks once ignited a firestorm, mainly among liberal elites whose "how dare he!" bromides reflected their default "defend-the-1960s-at-all-costs" worldview. Related, but less caustic, remarks by Indiana governor and potential 2012 contender Mitch Daniels will be less likely to create such a stir. But they point us to a real problem we probably don't want to talk about as a nation, however much we need to.
As reported this morning by Mona Charen at NRO and featured in ConservativeHome's morning update, Daniels said, "If I could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, it would be to guarantee that every American child could grow up in a two-parent home until the age of 18. That would solve maybe three-quarters of our problems."
Daniels won't likely be attacked as Quayle was for the simple reason that we have a lot more data and understanding about the issues now. It's hard to argue with his claim (unless one wants to try to get scientific about the "three-quarters" point). The more out-of-wedlock births we have, the more social and economic dysfunction we have. Whether you're Isabel Sawhill on the left or Ron Haskins on the right, you follow what they data says on this point.
But just as the evidence has grown more complete and persuasive, the problem has gotten a lot thornier. Why?
Because, as Brad Wilcox points out today on Platform, our marriage crisis in America has become a middle class crisis. We usually associate "out of wedlock births" with poverty. Confronting single parenthood was actually a big part of welfare reform, and we actually created a federal program to address it. But no more. Unmarried households have exploded within the 58 percent of the U.S. population that Wilcox calls "moderately educated" - those with a high school degree who went to college but didn't graduate.
Between 1982 and 2008, unmarried childbearing rose from 5% to an eye-popping 34% among this group, while it has stayed at a low 2% during that time for wealthy women.
This is truly a troubling development during a time when the Obama administration has made it a goal of its healthcare bill to extend social welfare far into the middle class. Like frogs in the proverbial kettle, we are witnessing a "welfare-izing" of the middle class. Middle income homes are now starting to exhibit traits that we used to reserve for low-income families. And while their relative affluence compared to very poor families would help somewhat, all the evidence shows that - as Mitch Daniels has indicated - children in single parent homes fare worse on just about every indicator, leading to a host of problems that cost a lot to redress.
We can't throw federal dollars at this as we did in welfare reform. If we did that, we would simply be encouraging the "welfare-izing" trend. Plus, as Ron Haskins has argued in National Affairs, we don't really know of successful programs that help reverse single-parenting trends once people are in their 20s, which is what such programming would likely try to do. We would be shooting in the dark against the odds, probably creating more problems to fix later.
So what to do?
It is unlikely that trying to encourage behavior through the tax code would do much good. Our problem is cultural and fundamentally driven at the level of opinion and behaviors that lie outside good policy options. Politicians and policy wonks don't like this, but I'm afraid that's where we are. So there are probably two things we can consider:
- Increase public awareness of the facts. Probably the only thing policymakers could do at a national level is to partner with private sector communications firms, offer some funding for a competitive public affairs campaign, with a selection committee of private sector professionals, and set the private sector embarking on a multi-year public communications effort. Admittedly, these types of initiatives have mixed results. But the first step is talking about the facts. This is one way to do it.
- Double down on public health education and make childbearing and marriage required components. If schools are going to offer sex ed, they should be required to present the facts on marriage, cohabitation, and childbearing. It's insane to talk about sex without addressing these topics. Teenagers can probably tell you more about STD infection rates by contraceptive device than any data point on unwed childbearing. Efforts are already underway on this front, and this is the best we can do for the future. I'm afraid reversing the trend among 20- and 30-somethings through a public policy intervention is a lost cause.
These two ideas feel limited. And they are. What would help even more would be for a public official - or even more, a less-annoying Lou Dobbs type of television advocate - harping on this issue over and again. Short of that, we will be largely adrift on this issue, trying to make adjustments as we can through some version of the two options I suggest.