By Timothy S. Goeglein
Earlier this year, I was invited to one of Washington’s premiere think tanks for a public policy discussion on a new piece of federal legislation that will likely be introduced this Fall. The impact on American families would be significant. People with a wide-range of ideological views were at the briefing.
The discussion was barely ten minutes old when one of the participants asked, “I wonder how President Trump will feel about this bill? After all,” she said, “he is only the president.”
Many in the room began to break out into a series of guffaws and eye-rolling laughter, suggesting the president really didn’t care much about legislation or the legislative process. For the next 15 minutes, the topic of the legislation was buried in favor of a wider dialogue rooted in Washington D.C.’s favorite parlor game: predicting President Trump’s success or failure, his personal style, and how his decisions impact the country.
The denizens of the Beltway are preoccupied with President Trump’s views on everything.
We are conditioned to believe that President Trump (or whomever is president at the moment) is almost always the leading indicator of our nation’s fate and direction. Instead, it seems to me the health or illness of our most important social institutions is a much better barometer of our country’s future and legacy than who sits in the Oval Office.
Here is a case in point. The federal government is in the business of pumping out reports and studies in a nearly endless cavalcade. One could spend a lifetime reading and digesting reports from government experts, most of which are dry as dust and forgettable.
But a remarkably important (and mostly-ignored) report appeared earlier this year from the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) which is a bipartisan group comprised of House and Senate members on Capitol Hill. This report takes a penetrating and sophisticated look into four areas of American life — families, communities, employment, and faith.
The JEC report objectively and fairly assesses the relative strengths and weaknesses of each sector, jointly called ‘social capital’ in the report.
The economics analyst Robert Samuelson writes “…social capital is an obscure academic term that essentially signifies the ability of people to work and play together – to cooperate and connect with others. The stronger a society’s social capital, the less isolated and powerless people feel. The news here is cautionary; our social capital is depleting.”
The JEC report should be mandatory reading for any American who feels strongly about the future of the cohesiveness of marriage, family, and parenting; about the relative strengths or weaknesses of our religious commitments as a nation; about what is actually happening in America’s work places; and about our civic and social life across thousands of communities nationwide.
This report, and other recent studies, get to the heart of what is happening in the cultural and social DNA of the United States and transcends presidential politics of either party.
For instance, the report uses data to illustrate the upward trajectory of illegitimate births and the downward trajectory of marriage. The most recent out-of-wedlock birth and single-parent numbers are startling: more than one-third of all kids in the United States are being raised either by a single mom or dad, or by no parent at all.
It is astonishing when you compare that as recently as 1970, only 15 percent of American babies were born outside of marriage. In that same time period, births to unmarried moms has climbed from ten percent 45 years ago to a whopping 40 percent now.
The news about marriage is equally concerning. In 1970, there were nearly 77 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women who were 15 years of age or older. As of 2015, that number is down to only 32 marriages per 1,000 — the lowest marriage rate ever recorded in American history.
Intact families are indispensable and irreplaceable institutions for which there is no substitute. A country comprised of large percentages of them equates to a country of greater personal contentment and stability in the social sphere. When one-third of all kids are being raised by single moms or dads, higher levels of social instability and dysfunction naturally follow. The social fabric is torn.
For millions of American kids today, domestic chaos is a way of life. When the bottom comes out of intact families and marriages, government at all levels seeks to replace what moms and dads are designed by God to do more effectively, efficiently, and economically.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deepens the findings of the JEC analysis. It concludes that America is experiencing what The Washington Post calls “a baby crisis. The number of women giving birth has been declining for years and just hit a historic low … the number of births fell 1 percent from a year earlier, bringing the general fertility rate to 62 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 … A country’s birthrate is among the most important measures of demographic health.”
What this means is, for population stability, the number of births needs to be at what social scientists call ‘replacement level’ – the ability to replace a workforce that is aging and to retain a viable, healthy economy. Millennials are much less likely to have babies than the two previous generations, the CDCP report says, which will have ramifications for America’s future.
The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies recently published “The Millennial Success Sequence” written by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang. The writer George F. Will summarized the findings: “First get at least a high school diploma, then get a job, then get married, and only then have children … only 3 percent who follow this sequence are poor … policymakers must rethink their confidence in social salvation through economic abundance.”
What is stunning is that 55 percent of those between the ages of 28 and 34 – they are the leading edge of the Millennial generation — have had children outside of marriage. Among baby boomers, by comparison, that number was 25 percent.
These findings suggest much of the destiny of America is rooted less in material or political choices and more in spiritual and behavioral factors.
Closely related to the moral ecology of child-bearing and child-rearing is the reality of the 21st century employment picture and trend lines. This is a major part of the JEC study. The report finds that millions of women have now entered permanently into the workforce. By 2015, nearly 75 percent of women between the ages of 25 to 54 were working outside the home either on a part-time or full-time basis. That is a massive increase from 1948 when the number was only 35 percent.
More stunning, though, is the drop-off of men in the same age-range who have departed the labor force all together, and especially among men with lower levels of education. The sociologist Nicholas Eberstadt has written widely on this topic and the JEC study buttresses his conclusions that “nearly one in six prime working age men [have] no paid work at all – and nearly one in eight is out of the labor force entirely, neither working or even looking for work. This new normal of ‘men without work’… is America’s invisible crisis.”
The third part of the JEC report studied the role of religion in America. Its findings were of particular interest because while it confirms a robust national commitment to faith – our nation remains the most faith-based, faith-oriented country in the developed world – the trend lines suggest our fellow citizens retain a less-firm commitment to what is described as ‘organized religion’ or traditional, denominational Christianity.
Here is a key comparison. Forty years ago, 70 percent of adults were members of churches or temples. More than half of them attended services at least monthly. But today in America, just over half of our citizens actually belong to a church or synagogue and monthly attendance has fallen more than 10 percent, down to about 40 percent.
By global standards, Americans’ faith commitments remain relatively high, but compared to the faith-quotient of just 40 years ago, the fall-off has been sizable.
One of the most intriguing sections of the JEC study is also one of the most difficult to interpret – the concept of ‘community’ and the ability to measure its relative health or illness. But one of the findings can be confirmed with certainty: Americans broadly distrust some of our most important institutions.
Not even four in ten of those asked in a Gallup survey said they had a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of trust in the Supreme Court (36 percent), public schools (30 percent), banks (27 percent), newspapers (20 percent), big business (18 percent), and Congress (6 percent).
This skeptical trend line is further reflected in the numbers of registered voters. About 72 percent of Americans of voting age were registered in 1972; today that number is down to 65 percent. What is driving this apathy across our national landscape?
Perhaps it is the political class’ habit of telling our citizens that economic growth, better education, and technological innovation will help recalibrate America toward a path of national health, stability, and confidence. This sounds reasonable.
The paradox is that even though the United States is more affluent and more educated than it has ever been, the social/cultural levies comprising our social capital have been seriously breached. Some of our most vital foundations have been cracked and are hurting.
It is difficult to measure the impact of moral relativism and cultural secularism in a federal study, but those ideas have had a significant impact on our civil society however broadly or narrowly measured. The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s has contributed significantly to the unraveling of the social contract comprised of strong nuclear families, upward mobility, and personal responsibility. Children have often been its victims.
Social regression in contemporary America, powered by family disintegration, is especially acute in our inner cities and rural communities, and it has led to, among other things, acute poverty and drug addiction that unequally impacts children.
The New York Times reports: “From 2003 to 2012 … the number of babies born dependent on drugs [via their addicted moms] grew nearly fivefold in the United States. Opioids are the main culprit, and states like Kentucky are particularly hard-hit: 15 of every 1,000 infants [there] are born dependent on opioids.” There were 33,000 deaths from opioids in the United States in 2015 alone.
Philanthropy Roundtable magazine says: “More than four out of five of the U.S. counties designated as ‘persistently poor’ today are rural.”
Studies have consistently shown that a son or daughter born into a middle class family or above is six times more likely to attain a college degree than one who grows up in poverty. In fact, family structure has a greater impact on education levels than race, income, or any other factor. The home life of students matters deeply.
Dr. Peter H. Schuck, an emeritus professor at Yale University’s Law School, has written an important book on many of the issues and trends studied in the JEC report. He writes, “The family is the essential core of any society, and the steady decline of two-parent households is probably the single most consequential social trend of the last half-century … Children of any race with no father at home are now almost five times more likely to be poor than children of married parents. Children in female-headed households account for well over half of all poor children. Indeed, the single best predictor of low upward mobility in a given geographic area is the faction of children with a single parent.”
Family cohesion or brokenness is now the definitive barometer of the health or illness of the social fabric of our country.
Christians living in America have never had a more opportune time than now to bring into the public square the centrality of our faith and ministry. The tangle of social pathologies that is threatening to crush young lives needs not only great minds and tender hearts but also the Gospel of Jesus Christ to help save, strengthen, and refresh broken marriages, families, and parents. The political class cannot redeem the country even with the best of intentions.
The economic writer Robert Samuelson wisely concludes: “To some extent, the future of the United States depends on Trump. But it depends even more on how these social and economic trends evolve – how we cope with them and whether we become a more cohesive society or a more contentious one. Trump is not destiny. For better or worse, we are.”
A revised version of this article was published in Citizen magazine.
Timothy S. Goeglein is the Vice President of External Relations at Focus on the Family in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the political memoir The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era.