Rebuilding civil society in New Orleans

Jennifer Roback Morse
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Posted: Sep 12, 2005 12:00 AM

We all know that rebuilding the physical infrastructure of New Orleans will require tremendous resources. But rebuilding the civil society of the Big Easy will require just as much effort, and has so far gotten almost no attention. That's because most of our opinion-making elites do not want to see that marriage is the cornerstone of civil society. And the images of Katrina demonstrate this, if we are willing to see.

 We saw photos of women, children and elderly people struggling first, to get out of the hurricane?s path, and later, to get help. We heard reports of groups of young men seemingly without consciences, preying on victims, stealing guns and even shooting at rescuers. This is about family, not race. 

  It is not a pretty sight: generations of women without husbands, grandmothers, mothers and children, dealing with the greatest natural disaster in our nation?s history. We shouldn't be surprised to see many such families: the 2000 Census data for Orleans Parish shows that female-headed households with children under 18 actually outnumber married couple households with children.

The color of the mothers isn?t the issue. The issue is the inherent difficulty of trying to raise children alone.

 The problems with unmarried child-rearing transcend race. The children of unmarried parents have poorer life-chances than the children of married parents, in just about any dimension you can name. Health, education, mental health, and wealth are all greater among children whose parents are married and stay married. The propensity to use drugs, drop out of school, get in trouble with the law and commit violent crimes are all greater among children who grow up without both parents. Even accounting for differences in income, education and race, the children of married parents do better than the children of the unmarried.

 If we could think about families without politically-correct blinders, it is pretty easy to understand the disadvantage of non-married child-rearing. Marriage not only helps bridge the gap between men and women; it also builds long-lasting connections across the generations. We are all born as helpless infants. Married parents work together to bring kids to adulthood. Adults grow up to be capable of taking care of themselves and their own children. As parents age, they become gradually more dependent. Their adult children help to take care of them. In the natural rhythm of life, the married couple takes care of themselves and their own relatives, and still have something left over to help other people who may need them. The married couple is the most basic unit of social cooperation.

 But a woman trying to raise a child by herself needs the help of other people.  If she is poor, she may rely on help from the government or her own mother. If she is middle-class, she will rely on her employer and her daycare provider. She seems to be taking care of the children herself.  In fact she is deeply dependent on these commercial relationships which have taken the place of a personal relationship with the child?s father.

 The men and their resources have been completely cut loose from the family. Men who could be contributing to the support of their children, not just financially, but in every other way, are on their own. And men on their own are more likely to be involved in crime than men with wives and children; boys without fathers are more likely to join gangs than boys with dads in the home. These generalizations hold for both races. One study even showed that the percentage of single mother households is a greater contributor to a neighborhood?s crime rate than the percentage of non-whites. Those unattached men prowling the streets of New Orleans with stolen weapons are related to those mothers trying to survive alone.

 Marriage attaches mothers and fathers to each other and children to their parents. The parents have the greatest natural interest in the welfare of their own children, and the most intense motivation for helping them. Marriage harnesses the motivations and energies of ordinary people to serve the common good of raising reasonably socialized children. So much of our culture has given up on the idea of lifelong spousal cooperation in favor of immediate individual satisfaction, that we have trouble seeing that marriage is worth the effort. The truth is that we throw away a tremendous amount of human wealth every time we bust up a family. The Beverly Hills rich can afford to squander wealth: poor hurricane refugees can not.

 It is time to say that this is wrong. It is wrong for parents to discard or abandon one another. You can mix and match your racial or gender stereotypes. As far as I?m concerned, it is just as wrong for a rich white guy to think himself cool for having a new series of kids by a new younger woman, as it is for a ghetto thug.  It is just as wrong for a rich white woman to use a sperm donor, because she doesn?t want to be bothered with a relationship with a man, as it is for a poor black woman to kick her child?s father out of the house so she can collect welfare. Neither sex has a monopoly on virtue; no race has a monopoly on vice.

 Maybe the suffering of Katrina?s victims and the need to rebuild civil society in New Orleans will help us give up our ?anything goes? mentality about the family.