The Unmet Political Challenge of Family Breakdown

From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation

  • Mitch Pearlstein
  • Rowman & Littlefield, 2011; 165 pages, $50.00

On January 12, 2012, CNN News ran a headline, “Forced To Wear Sign: Dynesha Lax ‘I Lie, I Steal, I Sell Drugs.’”The story leads off:

The mother of a troubled 14-year-old boy, Dynesha Lax, has forced her son to a wear a sign and stand on a street corner for his crimes since the courts are not helping to make him straighten up.

Lax said she doesn’t know what else to do and she is tired of her son’s unlawful behavior and multiple arrests.

So the fed-up mother made a sign that read, “I Lie, I Steal, I Sell Drugs, I Don’t Follow The Law,” forced the boy wear it and walk down the street near their home in Indiana on Tuesday.

Two aspects of the video version of this story jump out. First, this mother is desperate. She didn’t set out to humiliate her son for sport; she is at the end of her rope:

I decided he broke the law and they only gave him a few hours community service. . . . What more can I do? They put him on probation and when they did probation they were quick to talk about the 300 some dollars you have to pay in fees, but nobody’s trying to help me fix my son.

Second, the boy’s image chilled me to the bone: his eyes were dead.

I have seen that dead look in a child’s eyes before. That is the look of the attachment-disordered child, the child without a conscience, the child who does whatever he can get away with, who has no connection with other people. I wrote about attachment disorder in Love and Economics in 2001 when I still harbored hope that fiscal conservatives and libertarians could be persuaded to take family issues seriously. The operation of the free market and the free society depends on citizens having a conscience and governing themselves. If Americans can’t control themselves, the government will have to control them, just to keep some minimal order in society. Moreover, where and how do children develop consciences? In the first two years of life, by being in relationship with an attentive and responsive mother, a mother who is also married to the child’s father. This is why the natural family is the essential foundation of the free society: without married men and women taking personal responsibility for and care of their own children, we end up with way too many children who lie, steal, do drugs, and don’t obey the law.

I also have experience with desperate parents who are sometimes frightened of their own children. People who have never dealt with a seriously disturbed child can be quite clueless about them. The reaction to Ms. Lax’s unusual punishment illustrates this:

There were actually some more encounters with police for the teen as a result of the punishment when some who saw him wearing the sign called the police. However the police did not stop the punishment for him. Officers said, “The mother is completely within her rights to make her son stand on the side of the street. It’s unconventional, but not illegal.”. . . The upset Lax added of her son being forced to wear the sign, “I’m hoping that having him out here is going to make it sink in. It wasn’t for it to be a joke or anything funny. He just had to stand out here two hours and suddenly it blew up. Then again they’ve got their way of parenting and I’ve got mine. My object is to save my son.”

The dilemma of this desperate mother illustrates both a strength and a weakness of From Family Collapse to America’s Decline.The strength of this book is that it connects the dots between family fragmentation and problems for children, problems that lead not only to poor schooling outcomes but also, ultimately, to loss of American economic power and competitiveness. Pearlstein accomplishes this competently and sensitively, with all the right caveats about not blaming the victim.

The weakness of this book is its unclear target audience. On one hand, Mitch Pearlstein is a no-holds barred advocate for the permanence of the family, a critical institution that prevents heart-breaking situations like Lax’s. On the other hand, he seems to be continually looking over his shoulder at his liberal critics. In principle, this is a good idea. However, even with his chatty, discursive style, he will still be subjected to criticism or indifference from committed members of the Life-Style Left. So while Pearlstein is deeply committed to increasing family stability, he can’t figure out a way to make it palatable enough to be implemented in today’s political environment. The politically correct members of the Life-Style Left refuse to take the slightest responsibility for the poor outcomes on every conceivable measure of child-well-being experienced by the children of unwed mothers, including the higher levels of criminal behavior by fatherless boys.

On the positive side of the ledger: Pearlstein clearly connects the dots. He shows how family fragmentation is linked to poor academic outcomes for children. He reviews the latest research, which makes this book very useful to anyone who cares about evidence. He shows in turn, how this low academic achievement hurts the life chances of young people, and impairs their ability to participate in the wider labor market. He connects the final dots, showing that this poor human capital in turn hinders America’s ability to compete in the global market place. One may surmise that Pearlstein hopes to persuade fiscal conservatives that family issues really are fiscal issues.

Pearlstein is sensitive, in that his descriptions never suggest that the victim is to blame. This is a book that a liberal could read without gagging too badly. While this posture may seem like a strength of the book, it remains a weakness. It is doubtful that liberal academics and legislators will be persuaded to abandon their view just because Pearlstein talks nicely to them.

New Allies for Social Conservatives

I suggest that Pearlstein, as well as all Americans concerned about family decline, spend a bit more time with the victims themselves: Dynesha Lax, for instance. Reading between the lines of the CNN news story, it is plain that she is at the end of her rope. She may well be frightened of her son. “If he is this unmanageable at 14, what will he be like at 20?” she must be asking herself. Also reading between the lines, she appears to be the Alternative Family Form most beloved by the Life-Style Left: the unmarried lower- or working-class mother. She is not the Wicked Stepmother, the Evil Foster Mother, or the Oppressed Married Middle-class Mother.

I have spoken at gatherings of abstinence educators where the audience was mostly or entirely African-American. They know that the sexual revolution is destroying their families and their communities. One middle-school teacher told me, “We teach in our spare time.” They have little or no time for teaching because they are so absorbed in dealing with dysfunction from the students’ families and with the drama of teen sexuality. I have also met any number of middle-class African Americans who tell me about the families they grew up in. Their parents stayed married happily for a lifetime, raising large families. They have happy memories of functional childhoods. They are sickened by what has happened to their communities.

So I feel sure that there is a constituency in minority communities for social policies that promote greater sexual restraint before marriage. The key is to talk with them as friends and allies, co-workers for the truth, rather than talking down to them, enlightening them from on high. The truth is that they need new friends who can offer more than their current crop of political allies on the Left. The liberals claim to represent the poor yet they remain deeply committed to the sexual revolution, despite the harm it has done to the poor.

But the further truth is that advocates for the family need new friends as well. Many fiscal conservatives and libertarians are highly resistant to seeing family issues as the fiscal issues they are. I’ve been trying to convince them for the past ten years, with minimal success. One would think the Left would favor sexual restraint out of a sense of social justice: It would help the poor. Likewise, one would think that the Right would favor sexual restraint, out of a sense of fiscal responsibility: it is simply not possible for the taxpayers to continue funding family breakdown. Since fiscal conservatives seem unwilling to help strengthen the family, family advocates should be looking for new friends among low-income, working-class, and minority communities.

Why should it be so difficult to build a coalition to prevent tragedies like Dynesha Lax’s and her son’s? People are naturally reluctant to admit mistakes. Let’s face it: the vast majority of American adults today have plenty of sexual mistakes in their past. In fact, the dividing line in people’s attitudes—a dividing line that seems to reflect differences in religious practice—may in fact be about one’s willingness to admit past sins. Those who are religiously committed allow themselves to be changed by the experience of deep regret and acknowledging that they were wrong. This experience is common to all major faith traditions. Nonetheless, many Americans continue to cling bitterly to the fantasies of sexual liberation in spite of all the evidence that acting on these notions has not delivered freedom or happiness. Certainly, evidence that these ideas have been harmful to others will not persuade someone who won’t be persuaded by the evidence in their own lives, right under their noses.

I’m glad Mitch Pearlstein wrote this book. I hope he will keep “clutching his head” and declaring, “We’ve been committing suicide and we can’t do this anymore.” Whether this is enough, in today’s politically charged climate, to make substantial changes in public policy is not clear. As he rightfully admits, “Only God knows.” But surely, no change will come without him and lots of others recognizing the terrible folly of anti-family policies.

Dr. Morse is founder and president of the Ruth Institute, a project of the National Organization for Marriage, based in San Marcos, California.