As the family goes

By Brendan Shea

July 5, 2014

In a recent article (As Ohio Goes? Voting with Their Feet), I introduced my policy discussion by noting how Ohio’s negative net domestic migration may eventually weigh on the state’s political prominence in national elections.

Despite this possibility, it is still very much the case today that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. Few correlations in social science are more apparent. But one is clearer still: the importance of married mom-and-dad families for the overall well-being of children and society, a fact confirmed by research on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide.

Before considering what the data have to say, it’s essential to recognize the heroic efforts of countless numbers of single parents, who sacrifice everything to give their children the greatest chance of a fulfilling life. Chief among these sacrifices is the gift of life itself, which must always be celebrated.

No statistic could ever diminish the beauty of the love these parents have for their children. What the statistics do show, however, is that in the aggregate, single parents are at a significant disadvantage compared to married mom-and-dad families in their ability to provide for the totality of their children’s financial, emotional, and moral needs.

According to the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, the poverty rate for a married mom-and-dad family headed by an individual with a high school diploma is 8.9 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for a family headed by a single mother with a high school diploma is 38.8 percent. It’s not surprising, then, that children born outside of wedlock (over 40 percent today) are seven times more likely to experience poverty at some point in their lives than children born and raised by a married mother and father.

A 2002 report from the left-leaning research institute Child Trends affirms that “family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.” The report concludes that “children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies of cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes.”

Even President Obama has chimed in on this topic. In a speech delivered in Chicago, on June 15, 2008, then candidate Obama declared: “We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”

As President Obama’s own words correctly convey, there’s simply no substitute for married mom-and-dad families. There’s no better vehicle to assure that every child has the best chance at financial, emotional, and moral health. This was certainly the understanding of our nation’s founders.

The founders didn’t speak very much about marriage and family because their importance was simply taken for granted at the time. The family was viewed as the “school of virtue,” through which religion and morality were imparted. Consequently, the family was understood to be instrumental to society, not only for social stability and success; but for the very preservation of the young republic.

As George Washington proclaimed in his 1796 Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness…”

Sadly, the understanding of the family’s irreplaceable role in society can no longer be taken for granted. On one hand, many exalt the individual as an island unto himself. The other extreme subverts the individual to distant and impersonal institutions, such as the state. But both of these views are misguided.

As every parent who has ever changed a diaper or warmed a bottle at 3am knows, we don’t enter the world as fully-functioning, autonomous individuals; we’re utterly dependent. And this dependence isn’t merely material; it’s emotional as well. For example, even though most Eastern European orphans have all of their bodily needs cared for, many develop emotional and psychological disorders that remain throughout their lives. Why? Because they were starved during their formative years of that essential ingredient only a family can provide: love. We just can’t make it on our own.

Likewise, every teacher knows that despite his best efforts, he’ll never be able to cajole good behavior or instill a love of learning in his students if these things aren’t constantly reinforced at home. There’s simply no societal “safety net” that can make up for poor parenting.

Contrary to what some would have us believe, then, the family – not the individual or the broader community –is the most elementary unit, the building block, of society. It is the family that provides for our material and emotional needs in a way that allows us to become virtuously independent and morally upright citizens rather than narcissistic individualists.

Indeed, we’d be hard-pressed to claim that the increase in psychopathic behavior today – from lawless politicians, to sexual predators, to mass murderers – bears no connection to the breakdown of the family.

The beloved and recently canonized Pope Saint John Paul II put it best: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Applied to America, John Paul’s phrase could just as easily read, “As the family goes, so goes Ohio and so goes the whole nation in which we live.”

Indeed, our nation cannot continue to be that “Shining City on a Hill,” a beacon of freedom and independence, without the family as its building block. If the family is to survive in 21st-Century America, it must thrive in Ohio.

For the family to thrive in Ohio, government must respect it as the first and primary level of governance. Laws and public policies must allow businesses and the economy to flourish and support rather than undermine the natural family. In short, we must return to our nation’s founding principles: protecting life, liberty, property, and our moral ecology, and letting private institutions, individuals, and, above all, families take care of much of the rest.

This certainly doesn’t mean that government – especially state and local government – has no role to play in providing for the common good (in later articles, I’ll discuss some of the things government can and should do – not the least of which is instituting policies that affirm the family’s essential role). But it does mean that government must strike a proper balance between solidarity, our responsibility for one another, and subsidiarity, which entrusts that responsibility to the lowest competent authority.

At this stage in our nation’s history, the scale has been tipped too far toward the collectivist impulses of solidarity – driven by the heavy hand and ever-increasing scope of the federal government – and the family has suffered immeasurable harm as a result.

No institution in the history of the world more effectively safeguards the natural desire for freedom and self-government or better provides for their realization than the institution of the family. This Independence Day, the best thing we can do for our national family is to restore the independence and rightful centrality of the traditional nuclear family in society.

Brendan Shea is a financial analyst and founder and president of Madison County Right to Life. He lives with his young family in London, Ohio and can be reached at brendan.shea7@gmail.com.