Family and Prosperity

Gathering together as a family for Christmas can be stressful. Many people travel long distances on crowded highways or wait in line for hours in airports just to go home for a few days.

But as you gather, I hope that you will ponder for a moment, and appreciate, the miracle that is the institution of the family.

For each of us, family is our first school, our first church, our introduction to social life, to realities like work, law, cooperation, negotiation, and authority.

For society, family is the foundation, and its constituent building block. Family is the first and greatest social program, providing for, protecting, and shaping every one of its members. As Jack Kemp used to say, government can give you money, but government can’t love you. The experience of unconditional love intrinsic to the family gives us security and teaches us to hand on that love to others.

As Pope John Paul II famously put it, “so goes the family, so goes the nation; so goes the nation, so goes the world.” Families are created by marriages; the way we think about family is both the cause and result of the way we think about marriage, and about our relationships with one another.

No surprise then that social science continues to bear this out. We can discover these truths by reason alone, and we can rediscover them by the findings of empirical study.

All of our public policy debates ought to be informed by the facts. I would like to highlight, out of the mountain of data, the findings of three recent reports.

We are reluctant, and rightly so, to judge others, but, whether we like it or not, society will always have attitudes about family life; it is only a question of having the right ones or the wrong ones. What society collectively approves or disapproves of will determine the direction of society.

In May, Raj Chetty of Harvard University and Nathaniel Hendren of the National Bureau of Economic Research released a report finding that low-income children are most likely to succeed in counties that have a large share of two parent families.

In the past few weeks, the American Enterprise Institute released a poverty report finding the same phenomenon at the state level. Higher levels of marriage and married-parent families are strongly correlated with better economic growth, economic mobility, median family income, and are inversely correlated with child poverty. Some of the numbers they found are striking. They found, for example, that “states with the most married-parent families have a $1,451 higher per capita GDP, 10.5 percent greater upward income mobility for poor children, and 13.2 percent less child poverty than states with the least married-parent families.” Strong families build human capital, which makes for a stronger workforce, and a more productive society.

The third recent report is “Parenting in America,” released by the Pew Research Center on December 17. This report shows both the dramatic changes that have taken place in a very short time in American society, and the differences in parenting styles between mothers and fathers.

The changes: today, 69% of children live with two parents, down from 87% in 1960. Today, a record-low 62% of children live with two married parents, while 7% live with two cohabiting parents. Single-parent households nearly tripled as a proportion of American households from 9% in 1960 to 26% in 2014.

Knowing what we know from the Chetty-Hendren and AEI studies — that children do best with two parents — this dramatic change is cause for grave concern.

Pew found that mothers are more likely than fathers to say that they sometimes are overprotective of their children (68%, compared with 54% of fathers), to say that they give in too quickly (50% vs. 35%) and to say that they praise their children too much (36% vs. 29%).

In short, mothers and fathers tend to have different parenting styles so consistently that we can say that there is not “parenting” so much as there is mothering and fathering. The differences between mothers and fathers show that both are irreplaceable. A mother cannot replace a father; neither can a father replace a mother. No one can rightly intentionally deny a child of either of these irreplaceable figures in their lives.

These are but three reports out of libraries of research, but they are some of the latest pieces of evidence in this ongoing debate. The research and the debate will both continue. I hope, however, that the facts will help us to reach not only sound and prudent public policy, but also remind us to count our blessings this Christmas.