Cook: Married with children

Cook: Married with children

February 25th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

We need conservatism more than ever.

Not the angry, border-politics conservatism, or the cuts-everything economic conservatism, or the hawkish, pre-emptive strike conservatism.

We need a wise, generous and compassionate conservatism that refocuses its policies on the one solution that can transform and reshine things like no other solution can.

Marriage.

Not gay marriage. Not straight marriage.

Just marriage.

Marriage-talk has long been the property of the conservative voice, and often sounds like code for a narrow patriarchy. It's high time to dust off the pro-marriage language and reopen a national conversation about marriage; as we've been talking about other things, it's become fragile like never before.

"Something astonishing has happened," claims the 2012 State of Our Unions Report, published annually by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values in New York City.

Within the demographic of 25-to 60-year olds who graduated high school but not four-year-colleges -- the report calls them "Middle America" and they are 60 percent of the nation's population -- marriage is falling out of fashion.

In the 1980s, marriage was the glue: fewer than 15 percent of middle American women gave birth outside marriage.

In the early 2000s, that figure -- out-of-wedlock births to women in middle America -- had reached 44 percent.

And in 2012, the trend became the norm.

"In the U.S. today among women under 30, more than half of births -- 53 percent -- now occur outside of marriage," the report reads.

Here's what then happens: the loss of the married family explodes like a supernova toward other losses: of income, stability, education, health. Kids, routinely, have harder times.

"Including drug use, depression, attempted suicide and dropping out of high school," the report claims.

The state of middle America begins to resemble the fragmented state of poor America; the erosion of the middle class mirrors the evaporation of middle class marriage, with marriage becoming a great predictor of a child's future: kids born in families with education and marriage skills do better than kids who aren't.

"If family fragmentation were reduced by just 1 percent, U.S. taxpayers would save an estimated $1.1 billion annually," reads the report, which later explains why: fewer divorces lead to fewer teen smokers, fewer delinquents, fewer suicide attempts, fewer acts of violence, and so on.

This is not to demonize single parents, whose work never ends and whose dedication is saintly. Nor is it to justify abuse, or to water down the good role divorce can play to dissolve destructive marriages.

But it is to say that marriage and family can be society's answer to the problems of poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity and teenage nihilism. It is like the social version of Seven Degrees of Separation: the solution to every issue can, sooner or later, be linked back to marriage.

"The social challenge of our times," the report said. "And virtually no one is talking about it."

Conservatives can, and liberals should. The report grandly offers a national agenda that could easily fit under any policy on the right or left. (With sweet irony, marriage could be the issue that restores the political divorce among Republicans and Democrats).

• 1. End marriage penalties and disincentives at the federal level.

• 2. Triple the child tax credit for kids under 3.

• 3. Teach young men -- especially those in prison -- healthy marriage skills.

• 4. Ban anonymous sperm donation, which allows fathers to both remain financially absent while also sending the message that fathers don't matter.

• 5. Pass a Second Chance Act that would reduce divorce by, among other things, offering high-quality reconciliation to couples.

• 6. Premarital education for stepfamilies.

• 7. Invest in marriage and relationship programs; the report even mentions our very own First Things First as an excellent example.

• 8. Challenge the Hollywood narrative -- Al Bundy-esque, with little positive to say about monogamy -- that mocks the importance of marriage.

• 9. Make over the national message about marriage, similar to what we've done with smoking and seat belts.

• 10. Tell your own story: about marriage, about divorce, about childhood.

"In America, marriage has always been and remains a vital pathway to opening social opportunity," the report states.

Sometimes, revolution looks a lot like a minivan and a mortgage payment.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.