Human Formation and the American Family

Henry Potrykus

6/1/2012 12:01:00 AM - Henry Potrykus

According to the International Adult Literacy Survey, 25 percent of men in the United States cannot locate information in written text – they can’t read a bottle of pills to find out how many to take. What accounts for this massive shortfall in basic literacy? Since we’re still teaching basic literacy in our schools, the answer must lie elsewhere. And it does: with the erosion of the American family.

Many who write on childhood development have a poor understanding of how it relates to education outcomes and the larger economy. Policy-makers typically promote education or workforce programs without understanding the effectiveness of these programs relative to the importance of marriage and strong families.

Last month in The Washington Post’s “On Parenting” blog, psychologist Rebecca Ryan advocated focusing on education or employment programs instead of strengthening marriage because she concluded that they are “stronger correlates” with child development than parental involvement.

This is a remarkable assertion. A father’s interaction with children is vital. Careful “experiments” show that when a parent reads more to a child, the child’s reading scores rise. An extra day a week can move an average child up to about the 70th percentile of his class. Dr. Ryan’s own research found that a married father spends more time with his children than either an unmarried or cohabiting father. Being alienated from a child affects how much time a father spends with him. No rocket science required there.

Dr. Ryan also states that a father’s education level and earning potential are strongly correlated with his marital status.

What is the best way to get and keep men earning more? In our research at the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, we find that marriage is a cause for the growth of an individual’s earning potential – that is, the growth of his human capital. Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof has concluded the same.

Human capital consists of those skills, capacities and know-how contained in the human person and valued in the labor market. In one way, Dr. Ryan is right: a father working does impact his performance at work and at home. Getting men working through the channel of marriage might be more acceptable to Georgetown academics than its best competitors: Cutting unemployment benefits and allowing for a free and open labor market without the barriers of political correctness or barriers to firing.

If we set aside philosophy and morality for a moment, education that doesn’t form human capital amounts to nothing more than a piece of paper, or mere credentialing. Because Americans have more than $1 trillion in student loan debt, it’s apparent that this credentialing is a massive net tax on the labor market and constitutes a huge drag on household wealth. Policy-makers should realize that education incentives can only exacerbate this problem.

This leads policy makers back to the central challenge facing the American economy: How do we form human capital? Education does this, but it must be primed with good early childhood formation within the family, or else it is – quantifiably – a waste of money, as Nobel Prize economist James Heckman has shown.

Second, work itself forms human capital. As an employee gains skills and becomes more proficient, his value as a worker increases substantially over time – and, thus, his contribution to the economy increases.

Finally, both of these points are tied together by marriage, which helps cause human capital’s formation, and does so by encouraging both work and education.

Strengthening marriage and the role of parents in the development of their children will do much more than ineffective education and workforce social programs. In strengthening the family, we will see the economy grow and once again rediscover the core strength of the United States: the intact married family.