By Gregory Hirshman
Although rarely mentioned in the media, the collapse of the traditional family may be the most serious domestic problem now facing the United States. While health care, crime, poverty, and education pose critical challenges, each could be ameliorated by restoring the family as the basic unit of our society. The social fabric of the United States has been under attack by a highly sexualized culture which values instant gratification more than long-term relationships and which promotes behavior antithetical to the development of stable families. In this environment the US illegitimacy rate, according to The Washington Times, has exploded from 5.3% in 1960 to 36.8% in 2006. The divorce rate, according to University of Maryland Professor Reeve Vanneman, has doubled during the same period. This article will discuss some of the factors which have led to this breakdown, will demonstrate why it has been disastrous for our society, and will provide ideas about how we can once again promote stable, traditional families.
The modern trend toward accepting casual sex and disparaging traditional morality accelerated during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, and today it continues to weaken the family unit. Popular movies and television series demonstrate the attack. Many portray casual sex and sexual activities between unmarried people as acceptable, or even laudable. Watching such activity, many young people adopt the “values” implicit in these shows. The music industry is often even worse. The hit song “Right Round,” by rap artist Flo Rida, featured the following chorus: “From the top of the pole I watch her go down / She got me throwin’ my money around / Ain’t nothing more beautiful to be found / It’s goin’ down down.” Such explicit and aggressive irreverence toward traditional values encourages morally irresponsible behavior.
The explosive growth of pornography has also done incalculable harm. Although the sex industry has existed since the dawn of civilization, the combination of technological advances such as DVD players and the Internet and the lessening stigma attached to viewing pornography has led to its rapid growth. According to the National Opinion Research Letter, 25% of American adults surveyed in 2002 admitted watching an X rated movie in the previous year. CBS News reported in 2003 that 50% of guests at the biggest US hotel chains purchased adult films on in-room pay-per-view television systems. Many people believe that pornography is primarily targeted at men, but the Internet Filter Review reports that women comprise one third of those who visit adult websites and 28% of those who admit Internet sexual addiction. People who pass their time watching casual sex are likely to view sex as an activity whose sole purpose is their own personal pleasure.
It is not surprising then that public support for marriage and traditional family values has steadily diminished. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, 59% of all Americans, and 89% of liberals, believe that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is morally acceptable while 54% of all Americans, and 83% of liberals, accept having a child outside of marriage. 6% of all Americans, and 12% of liberals, even believe that it is morally acceptable for married men and women to have an affair.
Why is this important? Many people, especially liberals, argue that traditional marriage is outdated, or at least unnecessary, for our society. They assert that no one should tell people what types of relationships are right. Individuals should do as they please. This sounds plausible, but a preponderance of stable, married families is essential for the welfare of society. When children are born out of wedlock and families are split by divorce, there are adverse consequences not only for the individuals involved, but also for society at large.
It is well known that having illegitimate children is often detrimental to the mother. She is likely to have to raise the children by herself and to fall into poverty. For the children themselves, however, the results are even worse. According to Heather MacDonald of City Journal, they are three times as likely to fail in school, three times more likely to commit suicide, and more than 20 times more likely to suffer child abuse than children of low-income married parents. They are also far more likely pursue a life of crime. 70% of long-term prisoners, 60% of rapists, and 75% of adolescents charged with murders grew up without fathers. Illegitimacy is also a major cause of intergenerational welfare dependence. According to Robert Rector of The Heartland Institute, illegitimate children whose mothers do not subsequently marry require welfare assistance 17 times more frequently than children raised by intact married couples. On average, these children live half of their childhood in poverty while children born within marriage and raised by intact families on average live in poverty only 7% of the time. While poor people are more likely to have illegitimate children, poverty does not explain the explosion of illegitimacy. For example, despite current inequality, blacks in America enjoy a much higher relative standard of living than they did in the 1940’s. Nevertheless, according to black columnist Walter Williams, illegitimacy among blacks has ballooned from 19% in 1940 and to 70% today. Clearly, broader social forces are at work.
The divorce rate over the past half century has also skyrocketed. According to Americans for Divorce Reform, divorced women with children are four times more likely to have incomes under the poverty line than married woman with children. In addition, a single divorce can cost state and federal governments tens of thousands of dollars in court fees, increased bankruptcies, food stamps, and public housing benefits. As with illegitimacy, the children suffer most. Children of divorced families are more likely to suffer from child abuse, to live in poverty, and to pursue a life of crime. They are more likely to struggle with social skills and to suffer from psychological, psychiatric, and behavioral problems. Through no fault of their own, they are placed at a severe statistical disadvantage relative to their peers. A half century ago, there were few such children. Today, they represent a large and growing minority.
What can we do to reestablish the family unit of one man, one woman, and their children as the building block of society? The most important thing is to encourage parents to educate their children about the importance of the family. Children who see and hear their loved ones value traditional families will be more likely to establish their own. Schools should educate children about the value of stable, married family life. Sex education is important, but students should also learn the virtues of the family unit and of the value of marriage. Although it is very difficult to change media culture, social pressure should be exerted to discourage content antithetical to traditional moral values. Greater attempts should be made to make it difficult for children to access pornography and to make pornography less socially acceptable.
While we will never live in a society entirely free of illegitimacy, divorce, and pornography, we should do all we can to limit these social evils. By supporting the stable, married family, we will promote the welfare of children and the stability of society. For half a century, the fabric of American society has been decaying. This trend need not continue. There is hope if we make a concerted effort to promote a social structure conducive to a better society. The actions of individuals have consequences for society, and society, like the individual, has the right to defend itself. We have a moral obligation to act and to urge others to act in ways that promote the general welfare.