After our recent gathering of experts in Canberra for the 2020 Summit, I did not recall seeing any reports about one very pressing social problem having been discussed – the breakdown of marriage and family. This issue certainly deserves our best thoughts and action, yet was conspicuous by its absence at the Summit.
While a family and community group was one of ten groups at the Summit, no reports indicated any discussion of what we can do to curb the growing number of dissolved marriages and broken families. Of course given that the Summit was made up, it appears, of bureaucrats, lobbyists, academics and our cultured elites – and very few ordinary Australians – it is not surprising that our most pressing social problem was barely even mentioned.
Things might have been different if the people at the Summit happened to be the first 1,000 names found in the white pages, instead of all the usual suspects. Then real issues, and perhaps real solutions, might have been forthcoming.
But political correctness and radical social engineering have such a stranglehold on our intelligentsia and cultural/social elites, that talk of family breakdown is routinely ignored or mocked. ‘Good riddance’ is generally how our elites view the news of disappearing families and declining marriage rates.
Yet despite their dislike of the institutions of marriage and family, the social science data continues to inform us that broken families mean broken societies, broken individuals, and broken children. The research on this is as overwhelming as it is alarming.
Consider a recent cry for help from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Britain. Members of this group are demanding that proper recognition be paid to the impact of family breakdown on the education of our children.
English teachers warned that the decline of marriage and family is leading to widespread underachievement and discipline problems in schools. As one press report put it, “Growing numbers [of students] are being brought up in splintered families by mothers with children by different fathers, leading to behaviour and mental health problems including eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, a teachers’ conference heard. They are more likely to lead ‘dysfunctional’ lives themselves, creating a ‘toxic circle’ that no amount of investment or initiatives directed at schools can reverse.”
The reports cite one teacher who argued that “40 to 50 per cent of youngsters born in Britain this year face a greater risk of failing at school because they will be born to unmarried couples or single parents.” He continued, “Family stability, or the lack of it, is an important determinant of a child’s education outcomes. This means that we have a significant problem in Britain because we already have worrying levels of social dysfunction and family breakdown and the situation is getting worse. The great sadness is that the consequences of an unstable family background are felt long into adult life. Those who under-achieve in their education are more likely to go on and live dysfunctional lives and be unable to support a stable family life for their own children. In short, as a society we are in danger of creating an expanding, perpetuating and toxic circle.”
American commentator Charles Colson recently penned two pieces on this issue. He argued that the erosion of marriage in Britain is escalating, with severely damaging results: “According to a new report by Britain’s Office for National Statistics, the proportion of Britons getting married ‘has collapsed to a record low,’ and that is a quote. One critic of the current government called it ‘a disaster for children, families, and society.’ But, unlike natural disasters, this disaster is completely man-made. In 2006, there were approximately 237,000 weddings in Britain – the fewest since 1895, when Victoria was still queen and Britain’s population was about half of what it is today. In fact, ‘the proportion of men and women getting married is below any level found since figures were first kept nearly 150 years ago’.”
This has occurred, says Colson, because of deliberate government policies and ideology. The government has sought to promote the idea that all family structures are equal, and none is better than another. It has even sought to have the word marriage removed from state documents. Marriage-lite substitutes such as heterosexual cohabitation and homosexual civil unions have all been promoted and encouraged.
And this is all bad news “because the links between crime and family breakdown are so well-established nobody could deny them anymore. Likewise, the link between marriage and children’s well-being is not a subject for debate – it is documented. And as marriage declines, so does the birth rate.”
Colson asks, “So, why do societies persist in this?” The answer is clear: “Their worldviews demand it. Their commitment to personal autonomy and sexual freedom will not permit them to make the needed sacrifices to promote healthy families.”
And the situation in the US is much the same: “The Institute for American Values and the Georgia Family Council have just released a sobering study titled ‘The Taxpayer Cost of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing.’ The study notes that while the debate on marriage usually focuses on its social, moral, and religious qualities, marriage is also an ‘economic institution.’ It is a ‘powerful creator of human and social capital.’ In other words, healthy marriages produce the kind of people who are better able to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately, as the report documents, there are fewer healthy marriages in America now than there were 25 years ago. Between 1970 and 2005, the percentage of children being raised in two-parent families dropped from 85 to 68 percent.”
He continues, “The principal causes of this drop were the high divorce rate and the increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births. While the number of divorces has declined slightly in recent years, the percentage of children born to unmarried mothers has continued to grow. As I said earlier, the costs of this family fragmentation are not limited to the children. As one expert wrote, ‘Divorce and unwed childbearing create substantial public costs, paid by taxpayers.’ How much? A minimum of $112 billion a year. That is more than a $1 trillion a decade in ‘increased taxpayer expenditures for antipoverty, criminal justice . . . education programs,’ and lost tax revenues. What is more, the ‘human and social capital’ lost from family fragmentation has an economic impact that goes far beyond government expenditures.”
In both the US and Britain “a decline in marriage and an increase in family fragmentation coincided with the introduction of legally sanctioned substitutes for traditional marriage (like civil unions and, now, same-sex marriages).” And the huge social costs of all this are now showing up big time.
Concludes Colson, “Even the best ‘marriage-strengthening’ program cannot compete with the message ‘marriage doesn’t matter.’ That is why, if you want to make a dent in the social and economic costs of family fragmentation, the first order of business is to promote and strengthen traditional marriage and accept no substitutes!”
Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. When we get the silly idea in our heads that family structure does not matter, and that individual rights trump all other considerations, such as the greater community or our children, then we are asking for, and getting, trouble. The news items presented here simply add to 35 years of social science research on this topic.
The question is, when will our intellectuals, policy makers and social experts wake up to this information, and start turning things around before it really does become too late?