D. Dowd Muska

 

Book of the Year, Still Searching for Readers

December 22, 2011

Mitch Pearlstein’s From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation was released in August. It’s safe to assume that in four months, the book has moved fewer copies than a typical reality-TV star’s “autobiography” sells in a day. (It’s currently #241,079 on Amazon’s list.)

That’s the frighteningly regrettable condition of American culture in the early years of the 21st century. When a scholar pens a devastating, citation-soaked analysis that finds a common cause linking the top concerns of libertarians, conservatives, and liberals, he’s not invited on “Today,” “Charlie Rose,” or “Hannity.” Editorial pages aren’t interested. And the Facebook page for his work garners a niggardly eight “likes.”

Pearlstein, a former federal educrat who founded the neoconservative Center of the American Experiment, proffers a multilayered thesis. The carnage engendered by illegitimacy, separations, divorces, and shoved-together stepfamilies is “subtracting from what very large numbers of students are learning in school and holding them back in other ways.” Thus, “millions of Americans [are] less competitive in an increasingly demanding worldwide marketplace.” Ultimately, the phenomenon “can only lead … to deepening class divisions in a nation which has never viewed itself or operated in such splintered ways.”

Digging through decades of research by sociologists, economists, pollsters, and demographers, Pearlstein presents the appalling facts about family fragmentation. “[N]ational samples of high school seniors,” he writes, “were asked if they agreed that ‘having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle and not affecting anyone else.’ By 2001-03, the proportion of boys concurring with the claim had grown to 56 percent, up from 41 percent in the late ‘70s. For girls, the rise was even steeper, rising to 55 percent from 33 percent over the same period.” Little wonder, then, that four in ten births now occur outside wedlock. Condemn the mothers -- they certainly deserve it -- but “baby daddies” don’t excel as parents, either: “By age five, nearly two-fifths of boys and girls of unwed parents had no regular contact with their fathers over the previous two years.”

Not very long ago, entering the world with married parents all but guaranteed a child a stable home. Times change. The divorce rate “more than doubled between 1960 and 1980.” What was once considered an all-but-inviolable commitment is now seen as a temporary arrangement, to be voided if something better shows up: “Marriages … in the United States are much more fragile than elsewhere in the world. After only five years, more than one-fifth of Americans who married had separated or divorced as opposed to half that many or fewer in other Western countries.”

Damaged families = damaged kids. Pearlstein notes the “reams of empirical research” that prove that “boys and girls growing up in fragmenting and fragmented families, on average, do less well academically and in other vital ways than other children.” Some have the luck and/or pluck to rise above hideous circumstances. Most don’t. Depressed, resentful students don’t cultivate marketable skills -- inside or outside school. Upon reaching adulthood, their choices are abysmal. Low-paying, monotonous work? Stealing or drug-peddling, which often leads to a life-destroying encounter with the criminal-justice system? Or the wildly generous government dole, staffed by caseworkers who have low interest in boosting the self-sufficiency of their “clients”?

An expanding underclass is particularly burdensome in a globalized economy that prizes intellect, innovation, and industriousness. Furthermore, it belies the long-treasured narrative that as each generation gives way to the next, The Land of the Free gets happier, healthier, and wealthier.

Pearlstein is wise to avoid a bullet-point prescription for solving what is unquestionably America’s most pressing problem. The best he can muster is a recommendation for a fearless dialogue on “the entwined well-being of children and responsibilities of adults, as well as … how rampant family fragmentation damages and holds back our nation.” (A “team of experts in public opinion, communications, and other relevant fields” could prove useful in such an endeavor.)

However inconceivable, the findings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” now apply to the population as a whole. When grown-ups won’t grow up, and provide solid, nurturing homes for the children they chose to have, decline is assured. (And is, in Moynihan’s chilling assessment, “richly deserved.”)

The most important book of 2011 examined what might be the greatest crisis the country has ever faced. For Americans more interested in the calamity of family fragmentation than Snooki, “Brangelina,” and the Kardashians, copies are still available.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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