What Should Be Done?

The lambent visionaries who scripted the Sixties promised that Americans would be much better off after they had shed restrictive marital roles. So why, a half century later, are social scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) concluding that in cutting their marital ties, Americans have actually been shredding the social safety net for those most in need?

The malign effects of marital disintegration stand out clearly in the review that UCLA scholars recently completed of a series of studies limning the demographic changes incident to “reorganization of US family life due to high rates of divorce, childbearing outside of marriage, cohabitation, and remarriage.” Of particular concern to the analysts are the implications of these demographic changes “for the help parents and children give each other throughout their adult years.” Those implications, as it turns out, are quite sobering.

In the first place, as they look at parents and children, the analysts adduce evidence that the retreat from wedlock, the divorce revolution, and the explosion in out-of-wedlock births has “increase[d] both generations’ need for family assistance among those already disadvantaged.” Lamentably, the very changes in family life that have increased need for family assistance have made that assistance much harder to find.

Researchers see fatherless children as a particularly vulnerable group losing access to family assistance: “Children born to cohabiting mothers and those whose mothers are not in a coresidential union (i.e., not cohabiting and not married) frequently lose ties to their biological fathers when their parents’ relationship dissolves, as most nonmarital unions do.”

Even when a divorced mother does remarry, her children typically receive less than full support from their new stepfather. As the UCLA analysts explain, “Compared with obligations between biological parents and children, responsibilities of stepparents and stepchildren are weaker and more variable than those between biological parents and children.”

To be sure, by collecting child support payments, government officials have tried to compel absent fathers to provide for their children. But even if absent fathers do make these payments, they stop doing so when their children reach age eighteen. And the evidence indicates that “divorced fathers . . . are less likely to give their adult children money than are married parents, even after differences in socioeconomic status are taken into account.” 

Nor are children the only ones at risk in the new world of broken and non-existent marriages. The researchers see troubling indications that adverse family trends are making life difficult “when parents reach old age and their need for assistance increases,” especially among disadvantaged populations.

It is easy to see why aging parents might not receive full support from adult children who have seen them divorce or avoid marriage in the first place. Nor do cohabiting unions provide a secure basis for intra-family support: “Parents and offspring in cohabiting unions may be less likely to help each other in ways that family members do,” the UCLA analysts remark, “because they do not think of cohabiting partners as part of their family.”

In short, the UCLA researchers see trouble in the social world re-shaped by a dwindling number of enduring marriages, trouble for both children and aging parents: “Demographic changes in kin availability and the rise in step-kin and quasi-kin ties increase the need for assistance among those already more disadvantaged. At the same time, these changes fray the family safety net by introducing ambiguity about who is entitled to draw on the safety net and who is obligated to provide it.” The researchers recognize the fundamental reason for this fraying of the family safety net: “the churning of couple relationships in both generations blurs the boundaries between who is in the family and who is not.”

The entire country suffers because of this disintegration of the family safety net. But the UCLA researchers understandably stress the plight of the poor, an intensifying plight that puts ever-greater distance between them and affluent Americans. The UCLA analysts conclude that recent changes in family life “exacerbate differences between the socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged in the availability of kin support.” These differences naturally deepen these researchers’ worries about “the growing inequality among US families.”

Americans are paying a high price for having accepted the anti-marriage, anti-family slogans of the Sixties.

(Judith A. Seltzer and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Demographic Change and Parent-Child Relationships in Adulthood,” Annual Review of Sociology 39 [2013]: 275-90.)