Each year for the past 30 years, the answer for American kids has been a little bit worse. Divorce rates rose, marriage rates dropped, unwed childbearing soared, until on any given evening, the best estimates were that 40 percent of American kids went to sleep in a home without their dad.
So consistent and powerful were these trends that many well-meaning family scholars declared that they were, as distinguished poverty researcher David Ellwood wrote in the late '80s, "largely unstoppable."
Then suddenly, in the late '90s, something seemed to have changed.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report by Allen Dupree and Wendell Primus, which showed that since 1995 the proportion of children living with a single mother had dropped by 8 percent. A study by the Urban Institute found that between 1997 and 1999, the proportion of African-American children living in married-couple families (including stepfamilies) increased from 34.9 percent to 38.9 percent, an astonishing and unexpected jump in just a two-year period. A Child Trends study authored by Sharon Vandivere and colleagues reported that between 1997 and 1999, the proportion of children living in single-parent families (including single-father and cohabiting families) dropped from 27 percent to 25 percent.
What happened? In the mid-'90s, three things happened: The Democratic Party threw in the towel on the Murphy Brown debate, with President and Mrs. Clinton both reiterating that on average, children do better when parents stay married.
At the same time, family scholars began to step up warnings that this represented not just folk wisdom, but the consensus of social science research. In 1995, for example, a prominent group of social scientists, the Council on Families, released a report to the nation warning about the risks of divorce and nonmarriage to children's well-being.
And of course, in 1996 Congress passed landmark welfare reform legislation. In the mid-'90s, we began to change our minds, and then our laws, about marriage.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.