Victories in the marriage debate

Posted: Mar 28, 2006 7:05 PM
History is written by the victors. So it is particularly fitting that New York's own Institute for American Values (where I was once an affiliate scholar) should release two scholarly reports on the marriage debate by Norval Glenn and Tom Sylvester. Professor Norval Glenn is one of the nation's top family scholars, a sociologist at University of Texas-Austin widely respected for his methodological rigor.

Report No. 1, "The Shift," is a painstaking effort to investigate the widespread perception that expert opinion on whether and how much marriage matters actually changed in response to new scientific data.

Glenn and Sylvester analyzed every study on family structure that appeared in the premier Journal of Marriage and Family between 1977 and 2002. They conclude that yes, between the late '70s and the late '80s, a definite change is visible: Scholars began to report increasing concern about the effects of divorce and unmarried childbearing on children.

In the middle of all our culture wars, let us pause a moment to celebrate something uniquely American. Faced with an unprecedented increase in family fragmentation and fatherlessness, widely celebrated by elites at the time as an example of human progress and liberation, Americans took a hard look at the evidence, scientific and personal, and asked: Is this good for children?

Objectively, the answer is no. Divorce and unmarried childbearing hurt kids and communities. They aren't really great for women (or men) either.

The decline of marriage is now visible all over the Western world. But America is the only developed country I know where that fact has launched a serious intellectual and cultural effort to find new ways to strengthen marriage. One likely result of this "marriage movement" (I would argue) is a modest but real decline in the divorce rate, and even something of a leveling off of increases in out-of-wedlock births. Ideas have consequences, and in the marriage debate it is the ideas of Norval Glenn, and other scholars loosely gathered around the Institute for American Values' circle, that have triumphed.

Report No. 2 by Glenn and Sylvester is "The Denial." It analyzes "common arguments" used by scholars to downplay the importance of family structure for children.

Over the course of 30 years of marriage debating, some arguments have been essentially "retired." Few scholars now say contemporary increases in father absence are "nothing new and alarming." Early enthusiasm about the capacity of "social fathers" (or as David Blankenhorn once memorably called them, "nearby guys") to substitute for actual fathers has faded for two reasons: First, because so few children in single-mother families "enjoy close, involved relationships with 'social fathers.'" Second, because statistically speaking, "living with a step-parent or a cohabiting boyfriend is associated with higher risks of behavioral problems as well as physical or sexual abuse."

But perhaps the most persistent argument used to minimize social and scholarly concern about the consequences of family fragmentation is the "not necessarily" argument: The absence of marriage doesn't always, categorically, lead to bad outcomes for children, scholars say. Of course it doesn't. But as Glenn and Sylvester note, this style of argument is very rare in the social sciences. "In our examination of JMF articles, we found no examples of authors pointing out, for instance, that growing up in poverty does not inevitably result in poor child outcomes. Nor do scholars apparently feel obliged to emphasize that low levels of maternal education do not necessarily lead to educational difficulties."

It's hard to argue with Glenn and Sylvester's conclusion: "The restriction of the 'not necessarily' statements to conclusion about negative family structure effects suggests that some scholars feel a particular discomfort about reporting or accepting evidence for such effects."