National Affairs Rory Leishman

National Affairs Rory Leishman

In March, The Atlantic published an informative essay by David  Brooks on the current state of marriage and the family in the United States that is well worth reading, notwithstanding that he comes to the wrongheaded conclusion that creation of the nuclear family, defined as a married couple and their biological children, was a mistake and needs to be replaced.

To begin with, Brooks, a New York Times columnist, notes that the nuclear family is a relatively recent development that coincided with the growth of urbanization and industrialization in the 19th century. Prior to 1850, about three-quarters of Americans older than 65 were farmers who lived in extended families with their children, grandchildren and sometimes other relatives, but by 1960, 77.5 per cent of American children were living in a home with no other relatives than their own married, biological parents.

During this same period, Canada went through a similar transition extended to nuclear families. By 1961, 94 per cent of Canadian children were living with married parents and only six per cent with a single parent.

Meanwhile, in both the United States and Canada, higher rates of divorce, declining rates of marriage, increasing incidents of common law unions, and soaring rates of out-of-wedlock births have all had an adverse impact on the nuclear family. In the case of out-of-wedlock births, about 40 per cent of children in the United States are now born to an unwed mother, up from scarcely five per cent in 1960, whereas in Quebec, no fewer than 62 per cent of children are born to an unwed mother, up from fewer than four per cent in 1960.

Brooks acknowledges that the decline in marriage and the nuclear family has been especially hard on children. “We all know stable and loving single-parent families,” he writes, “But on average, children of single parents or unmarried cohabiting parents tend to have worse health outcomes, worse mental-health outcomes, less academic success, more behavioral problems, and higher truancy rates than do children living with their two married biological parents.”

Quite so. The fragmentation of nuclear families has also been particularly tough on low-income mothers and fathers. With regard to the latter, Brooks observes that “in the absence of the connection and meaning that family provides, unmarried men are less healthy – alcohol and drug abuse are common – earn less, and die sooner than married men.”

Highly educated and high-income Americans are fortunate in that among them, marriage and the family are almost as stable today as in the 1950s. It is only among the less educated and less wealthy that the nuclear family is in deep trouble.

Brooks concludes: “The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families (has) ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.” Really? On the basis of the evidence Brooks cites in his article, there is far better reason to believe that it is not the presence, but the widespread absence of the nuclear family that ravages the working-class and the poor.

Regardless, as Brooks sees it, working class Americans cannot afford the house cleaners, baby sitters and other amenities that enable the rich to keep their nuclear families intact. But if that is true, how is it that 70 years ago, when living standards were far lower than they are today, most working class Americans got married, stayed married, and thrived in nuclear families.

Brooks is on the right track when he concedes that it is not so much a shortage of income as a radical change in culture that is mainly responsible for shattering so many nuclear families. Compared to the 1950s, many more parents today are so individualistic, self-oriented, and focused on professional careers that they refuse to make the sacrifices necessary to attain the overriding joys of nurturing children and a loving marriage.

As a supplement to Brooks’ article, The Atlantic has published a rebuttal by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and Hal Boyd, associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University. They insist: “The nuclear family is still indispensable: Rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

As evidence, Wilcox and Boyd point to a 30 per cent decline in the divorce rate since 1980, a more recent and modest decline in out-of-wedlock births, and the fact that: “Since 2014, the share of kids in intact families has begun to climb, reversing a decades-long trend in the opposite direction.”

While Brooks argues that biologically unrelated friends is a modern form of the extended family that can substitute for the absence of a biological parent in the home, Wilcox and Boyd convincingly rejoin: “As any parent knows, when it comes to an inconsolable child, even a ‘dozen pairs of arms’ from the village don’t quite compare to the warm and safe embrace of Mom or Dad.”

The conclusion is clear: Instead of some newfangled form of extended family, most low-income Canadians and Americans would benefit far more from the social, cultural, and governmental supports they need to join with the wealthy in enjoying the benefits of a loving marriage and nuclear family.