19 February 2012
. . . so did a lot of kids’ futures.
In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, sociologist Charles Murray offers some figures to ponder. He estimates that in working class neighborhoods today, like his emblematic “Fishtown,” nonmarital births as of 2008 were around 43 to 48 percent of all births. (In nearby fashionable Belmon,t they were around 6 to 8 percent.)
But why does so-called “nonmarital” birth matter? Some ask angrily: “Aren’t all kids precious? Who cares if their parents have wedding rings? What matters is love! And maybe, just maybe, some people are too obsessed with their private, uptight morality, judging others when they should be helping them. Stop hating, stop judging, just help!”
No problem, we won’t hate or judge. We will just help. But now a problem arises: What does the child of a lone parent lack that strangers can provide?
Commentator Mark Steyn provides a snapshot of Fishtown reality to set us thinking,
If, as I do, you live in the country, you have dozens of neighbors like Miss Strader—nice high-school girls who babysit your kids; you lose touch, they move to the next town, and you bump into them a couple of years later doing the late shift at the diner or the general store; they’re 23 or 24, with three kids by three different guys. And they’re still nice, and still kinda pretty, if aged beyond their years. But life and its opportunities are fled.
There are reasons why, throughout history, women have avoided having children on their own by several different guys. Here are two of them:
1. Children don’t get the full benefit of dad’s side of the family. Too often, social commentators focus on the fact that dad himself is not there. Yes, dad is very important. But so is his dad, his mom, his brother, his sister. Any one of them can be a powerful asset to a growing child.
Some will then ask: “So? Do any of these people really need to see a wedding ring before they can give themselves permission to help the child?
No. But it’s hardly that simple. Dad’s family is much less likely to kick in money for a down payment or a car—big time help that can create wealth and job opportunities—if dad and mom aren’t together. And if dad also has another child by a different woman he doesn’t live with, his lifestyle has probably priced his family of origin right out of the big-time-help market. Help from them will tend to mean gifts and treats, not a stronger start in life.
2. Children grow up in a tangled web of half-relationships where loyalties are uncertain. There is a large body of popular and academic literature out there on the pathologies of the nuclear family and its extended family. We’ve all heard it all. Suffocating closeness, warped emotions, etc. The stuff of literature, great and little.
All that said, a child in a traditional family usually doesn’t doubt his position or relationships. He knows that Jimmy is his younger brother. Auntie Linda is dad’s big sister and Uncle Teddy is mom’s little brother. And so forth.
But what if Jimmy is his half brother (mom’s son by another man) and he also has a half-sister Caroline down the block (dad’s daughter)? If all his relationships are like that, he might just develop universal charity toward all humans. But then again, he might just not develop a strong sense of family responsibility. For one thing, it’s not clear who he is responsible for, or under what circumstances. Gentle readers must be the judge of which outcome is more likely.
One outcome is that, in his community, he and others find themselves more and more alone, even in a crowd. Dependence on outside intervention feels normal because there is so little to depend on within the community.
Some have proposed child-raising co-ops as a solution. But co-ops work best in a close-knit group that shares key values. Which raises an obvious question: If a community’s values cannot sustain nuclear families, how likely are they to sustain much larger close-knit groups?
Similarly, others have proposed more local volunteerism and neighborliness. But most people learn the value of these qualities from examples they observe early in life, of adults undertaking responsibilities. So, many Fishtown kids are not observing these examples.
And if there is one thing that outsiders simply cannot provide, it’s more local volunteerism and neighborliness.
Next: When going to work every day died in Fishtown . . .