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Crime, justice and families: Society must regain its public voice on the importance of marriage

Editor’s note: This is the final of three excerpts from a major study conducted by the Council on Crime and Justice of Minnesota’s criminal justice system. The study, “Justice, Where Art Thou? A Framework for Minnesota’s Future,” generated a report, recommendations for improvements, and a collection of community essays and research papers. Today’s installment highlights a third essay commenting on study findings. Today’s essay is by Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative and free-market think tank in Minneapolis. To see the entire report, visit the group’s website.

Crime, justice and families: Society must regain its public voice on the importance of marriage

Before beginning, permit me three caveats.

First, when talking about the importance of re-institutionalizing marriage, particularly in inner-cities, the only kind I’ve ever advocated are healthy, nonviolent, low-conflict, equal-regard marriages.

Second, in no way is my intention to single out or gang up on single moms, as I’ve always sought to make it clear that I respect and empathize with the very large number of unmarried women who are, in fact, raising their children successfully, even heroically, under often very hard circumstances. I also always try to acknowledge that life is inescapably messy.

I’m quick to point out, for instance, that my wife and I are each in our second (and last) marriage. She was a single mom for a long time after her divorce and before we met. My three stepsons have turned out great despite it all. You get the idea.

And third, even though fatherlessness increases the odds against children doing well, it does not inevitably consign them to troubled lives. Many kids growing up with only one parent at home (or in other “nontraditional” arrangements) are doing very well, while many other kids, growing up with both their biological parents are not doing well at all. But in the main — and the point is central — growing up without a father at home, especially in tough neighborhoods, invites trouble.

To the three questions posed:

1. How has family breakdown affected the way the justice system looks today?

More than 40 years ago — which is to say, not long after the Council on Crime and Justice came to be — Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote what remains the definitive passage on the connection between family breakdown and crime. “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles,” the scholar and future senator argued, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history; a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder — most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure — that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.”

The more I’ve thought about these linked issues, for decades now, the more I’ve grasped how miles beyond sad they are, starting with millions of young American men, disproportionately of color, whose lives are crippled barely after they’ve begun. What a calamity for themselves, their families, and our country.

Yet as severe as Moynihan’s strictures were in 1965, it’s incumbent to recognize the immense degree to which families have continued to weaken and fall apart. Back then, about 5 percent of all American babies were born out of wedlock, with the number for African-American children at about 25 percent. In updated and localized contrast, 43.6 percent of all births in Minneapolis in 2005 were to unmarried women, with the corresponding number for U.S.-born African-American women a hard-to-grasp 86.6 percent.

I know of no sphere of life — not a single statistical category — in which boys and girls who grow up in single-parent homes do as well, on average, as kids who grow up under the same roof with their married biological parents. The same bad news (frequently even worse news) applies to children living in stepfamilies. A recent report of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University sums things up succinctly: “The trend toward single-parent families is probably the most important of the recent family trends that have affected children and adolescents. This is because the children in such families have negative life outcomes at two to three times the rate of children in married, two-parent families.” Criminal behavior, of course, is one of those outcomes.

2. How have societal attitudes shaped family breakdown?

Sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kafalis, in a detailed and sympathetic study of single mothers, “Promises to Keep,” write about how all aspects of family life “have shifted dramatically to the left since 1960 — shifts which now mean that having sex, establishing a common household and having children have all become decoupled from marriage.” In the ’60s, they write, two-thirds of all Americans thought that sex before marriage was morally wrong. By the ’80s, that proportion had fallen by half, to one-third. Similarly, in the ’60s, half of Americans believed that married couples who didn’t get along should stay together for the sake of their children. Only about one-fifth now believe unhappy parents should tough it out and remain married.

This is not to say, Edi and Kafalis take pains to add, that low-income women believe that having children outside of marriage is ideal. In fact, they claim that surveys show (surprisingly, it seems to me) that low-income women are more likely than middle-class women to say they believe that children raised by two married parents are better off than children raised by one parent alone. However, and the following point is central to Edin and Kafalas’s analysis, “these abstractions are largely irrelevant to their lives,” as the poor women spoken about here “must calculate the potential risks and rewards of the actual partnerships available to them and, given their uncertain future prospects, take a ‘wait and see’ attitude toward the relationships with the men who father their children.” Meaning, they are not quick to marry.

More harshly to the point, Edin and Kafalas argue that this approach “makes enormous sense, as the men in the neighborhood partner pool — the only men they can reasonably attract, given their own disadvantaged place in the marriage market — are of fairly uniformly low quality.”

What do Edin and Kafalas mean by the uncommonly acerbic stricture for an academic study of “low quality” men? Dispiriting descriptions like the following are repeated throughout their book.

“It is the drug and alcohol abuse, the criminal behavior and consequent incarceration, the repeated infidelity and the patterns of intimate violence that are the villains looming largest in poor mothers’ accounts of relational failure. About one in three mothers we talked with said that crime, usually drug dealing, and the almost inevitable spell in jail or prison were what broke them apart. More than a third blamed their partner’s alcoholism or drug addiction for the strain on the relationship. Four in ten said their relationship broke down because their child’s father couldn’t manage to stay faithful. An even higher proportion — nearly half — said that they could no longer take the chronic abuse they suffered at his hands. Taken together, fully two-thirds of the mothers said they’ve had a relationship disintegrate for one or more of these reasons, and about half have encountered these problems with more than one man.”

3. How will family breakdown affect the justice system in the future?

Might one expect matters to improve any time soon? Not if answers to a survey question that has been asked of thousands of high school students over nearly three decades continue on their same injurious trajectory. Starting in the mid- to late 1970s, national samples of high school seniors have been asked if they agreed that “having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle and not affecting anyone else.” Going back to 1976-80, 41.2 percent of boys said yes, while a smaller proportion, 33.3 percent of girls said yes. By 2001-03, however, the proportion of boys agreeing with the claim had grown to 55.5 percent, with the proportion of girls agreeing having grown even faster to a near-identical 54.8 percent. It’s understandable that 17- and 18-year-old kids are not familiar with arcane research about families. But what upside-down media and other cultural messages are they absorbing to believe that out-of-wedlock births don’t affect anyone?

We must regain our public voice about the importance of marriage. The final report, for example, of the (Hennepin County) African-American Men Project in 2002 was brave about many things; marriage, unfortunately, was not one of them. While it contained much that was on target about the importance of fathers, it was virtually mute on the very much fastened importance of marriage.

Marriage is so diminished in many parts of the United States that crime is but an additional nail. Yet if marriage is to revive in the very communities which need it most, crime will indeed — somehow — need to recede. Yet other than a spiritual revival of the most introspective and animating kind, I just don’t see it happening. I don’t see it happening unless and until people collectively grab their heads and say, “My God, we can’t keep on doing this any longer. We can’t keep committing suicide.”

Mitch Pearlstein, Ph.D., is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment, a conservative and free market think tank in Minneapolis. He previously served in the U.S. Department of Education; on the staffs of Minnesota Gov. Albert H. Quie and University of Minnesota President C. Peter Magrath; and as an editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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