The Fallout of Weak Family Life

Meeting in Poland Highlights a Key Social Concern

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, MAY 27, 2007 (Zenit.org).- More than 3,000 delegates from dozens of countries gathered May 11-13 in Warsaw, Poland, for the 4th meeting of the World Congress of Families. The WCF describes itself as an "international network of pro-family organizations, scholars, leaders and people of good will."

On the first day of proceedings, Roman Giertych, minister of education and deputy prime minister of Poland, told participants: "The family is life. Without the family, there is no state. There is no government. There is nothing."

The May 11 press release by conference organizers also reported similar comments made by a government representative from the United States, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and immigration. "As you know," she declared, "the family is the oldest human institution, the first and most enduring community of individuals working together for the common good."

During the following days the WCF examined topics ranging from the impact of the media on family life, to difficulties caused by pornography, to the challenge of contraception and euthanasia.

Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, prepared a text for the meeting, which was read by Father Grzegorz Kaszak. "The vocation of marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman," the text affirmed.

Marriage in America

A useful overview of the ill effects that result when marriage and the family fail came in a book published late last year by Kay Hymowitz. In "Marriage and Caste in America," Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, argued that marriage failures are exacerbating social differences.

A combination of divorce and out-of-wedlock births is producing a nation of separate and unequal families. These inequalities, Hymowitz warned, are putting at risk the future of large numbers of children who will start life with severe disadvantages.

The prevalence of single motherhood is especially high among poor women who have only a high-school education. The book cites studies showing that in the mid-20th century just about all women, regardless of educational level, married before becoming mothers. Divorce levels were also very low.

In the decades after the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, the incidence of both divorce and having children outside of marriage became much higher among women with lower educational levels, compared with their more highly qualified counterparts. By the turn of the century, only about 10% of mothers with a college degree or higher were living without husbands. For mothers with only nine to 14 years of education the level was 36%.

In 2004 the proportion of children born to single mothers reached 33% of all births. The vast majority of these children went home from the maternity ward with a mother who had low levels of education and who was poor.

Poverty and low grades

The elevated number of single mothers goes a long way to explaining the persistently high level of poverty among children in the United States, according to Hymowitz. No fewer than 36% of female-headed families are below the poverty line, compared with 6% of married couples.

Poverty is far from the only problem facing children of unmarried mothers. They also have lower grades and educational qualifications compared to children who grow up with married parents. This holds true even after allowing for differences in race, family background and IQ. Not surprisingly, this also means that as adults, children who did not grow up with both parents also earn less and have a lower occupational status.

This leads to a situation, Hymowitz continued, where the social and economic inequalities owing to single motherhood are perpetuated into the next generation.

These problems cannot be resolved just through better welfare programs, Hymowitz contended. She pointed out that when a divorced mother remarries, her children's outcomes resemble those of children from single-parent families more than those from intact families. In addition, children of cohabiting parents tend to enjoy few of the benefits that kids from married couples enjoy.

Traditional marriage, and childbearing within marriage, Hymowitz argued, orders society in ways that we are still striving to understand. Children brought up by a married couple are not only given greater security and order in their lives, but they also grow up more likely to want to replicate this same family structure for themselves.

Hymowitz then dedicated a substantial portion of her book to examining what happened with black families, where the trend to single motherhood started much earlier. Already in the mid-1960s, critics such as Daniel P. Moynihan warned that the poor state of black families was part of the reason they were not achieving economic equality with whites. Voices such as Moynihan's were, however, in large part ignored and we now run the risk of producing another unequal caste of society, those children born to unmarried mothers, argued Hymowitz.

Some of the attempts to cope with the increase in single motherhood, the book warns, such as increased distribution of contraceptives and welfare programs, only deal with the symptoms of the phenomenon. Strong families that provide plenty of parental oversight, along with robust cultural and moral values, are far more effective at encouraging adolescents to avoid becoming parents at an age when they should be concentrating on their education.

Concluding the book, Hymowitz did see signs of hope. In more recent years divorce, illegitimacy and teen pregnancy rates have declined. As well, family values and marriage seem to be enjoying a resurgence of support. Moreover, the idea that children in married, two-parent families do better is even being accepted by some of the cultural and social elites, who before would not entertain such a proposal.

Without being overly optimistic, Hymowitz opined that for some adolescents there could be a rediscovery of personal responsibility and family values. The danger is, however, that this could be restricted to just one group in society, namely, the children fortunate enough to count on two parents. The future of those who are brought up in the much more precarious situation of divorced families or single mothers is much less promising.

A credo

In the midst of continuing debates over the future of the family, the Poland meeting of the World Family Congress closed with a "Warsaw Declaration," which a May 18 press release by organizers described as "a pro-family credo for the 21st century."

"The natural family, creation of God, is the fundamental human community, based on the lifelong marriage between a man and a woman, in which new individuals are conceived, born and raised," stated the declaration text.

The declaration affirmed that it is the family that teaches what faithfulness in love means, along with respect for the life of every human being. It is also through authentic family life that a moral community is generated, essential for the upbringing of younger generations.

The declaration specifically thanked the defense of the family by Pope John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI.

The final part of the text called on churches "to proclaim the truth about life, marriage and the family, affirming the latter as the first community of faith and the school of all vocations."

The declaration also appealed to political institutions, academics and health professionals to support the family. "We ask all people of good will to be at one with families and to help them restore hope and bring concrete assistance when difficulties occur," urged the text. A duty of increasing importance in a world whose future will depend in great degree on what happens to the family.