A snapshot of the health of American families

Lyman Stone breaks down some of the latest data on American families:

Nearly 4 in 10 children in America are not residing with their own two, married parents (biological or adoptive). This is according to the recently released 2018 American Community Survey, the largest annual social survey carried out in America. As recently as 1960, less than 2 in 10 children lived apart from two married parents, a reality which was approximately stable as far back as 1850. But while the present situation leaves many children bereft of the care, attention, and material benefits of a married household, it’s actually not as bad as it has been in the past: since 2014, the share of children living with two married parents has risen ever-so-slightly, from 61.8% to 62.3% in 2018, and data from early 2019 in the Current Population Survey suggest that 2019 will show further improvement. The period from 2011 to 2019 is the longest period of stability or improvement in children’s living situations since the 1950s. …

Overall, the decline in the share of kids growing up in married, two-parent households seems to have stopped for now, and there’s even been a modest recovery. But much of this change is purely compositional: Asian, Hispanic, and multiracial kids are growing as a share of children thanks to immigration and intermarriage, while African and Native American kids are not. As a result, the nationwide aggregate is improving. But among specific groups, the trends are less optimistic. Particularly for Hispanic and Native American kids, family conditions have deteriorated markedly over the last two decades.

Lyman goes into greater depth in his analysis, but the takeaway from my perspective is that there’s general reason for hope even as I suspect this stability might be a result of our healthy economy as much as any particular set of life choices within American families.

Forgetting what work is for

Pew: “The share of adults who have lived with a romantic partner is now higher than the share who have ever been married; married adults are more satisfied with their relationships, more trusting of their partners.”

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Fascinating that we have troubling recognizing this: “being in a committed relationship” and “having a job or career you enjoy” require the same virtues. And yet we prioritize work over people in ranking what we believe we need for a fulfilling life.

Alienated America

I listened to Tim Carney’s appearance with Kathryn Jean Lopez recently, where he speaks at New York’s Sheen Center for Thought & Culture on his latest book, “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse:”

He references Chris Arnade’s work over the past few years in chronicling the parts of America that those of us in cities are increasingly alienated from, and over the course of the conversation addresses why he believes some communities went hard for Trump, and why others went hard the other way.

In short, communities where life was basically good or great had no reason to deviate from the status quo (Hillary Clinton), but for the many communities where life is not great or downright terrible, it was time to break the system. This is to riff off the Flight 93 thesis, and it’s also to echo Chris Arnade’s conclusions from years among the alienated after a career among the comparative elite.

Americans and spiritual illiteracy

Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux write:

Millennials may be the symbols of a broader societal shift away from religion, but they didn’t start it on their own. Their parents are at least partly responsible for a widening generational gap in religious identity and beliefs; they were more likely than previous generations to raise their children without any connection to organized religion. According to the AEI survey, 17 percent of millennials said that they were not raised in any particular religion compared with only five percent of Baby Boomers. And fewer than one in three (32 percent) millennials say they attended weekly religious services with their family when they were young, compared with about half (49 percent) of Baby Boomers.

A parent’s religious identity (or lack thereof) can do a lot to shape a child’s religious habits and beliefs later in life. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that regardless of the religion, those raised in households in which both parents shared the same religion still identified with that faith in adulthood. For instance, 84 percent of people raised by Protestant parents are still Protestant as adults. Similarly, people raised without religion are less apt to look for it as they grow older — that same Pew study found that 63 percent of people who grew up with two religiously unaffiliated parents were still nonreligious as adults.

But one finding in the survey signals that even millennials who grew up religious may be increasingly unlikely to return to religion. In the 1970s, most nonreligious Americans had a religious spouse and often, that partner would draw them back into regular religious practice. But now, a growing number of unaffiliated Americans are settling down with someone who isn’t religious — a process that may have been accelerated by the sheer number of secular romantic partners available, and the rise of online dating. Today, 74 percent of unaffiliated millennials have a nonreligious partner or spouse…

Andrew Reed and James Matheson, two British ministers who visited America in 1834, wrote that, “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.” John Adams famously believed that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And Benjamin Franklin believed that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” It’s not nothing that Americans are becoming a spiritually illiterate people.

Jubilees

Ben Holland writes on the ancient practice of jubilees and debt forgiveness:

In ancient Babylon, a newly enthroned king would declare a jubilee, wiping out the population’s debts. In modern America, a faint echo of that idea — call it jubilee-lite — is catching on.

Support for write-offs has been driven by Democratic presidential candidates. Elizabeth Warren says she’d cancel most of the $1.6 trillion in U.S. student loans. Bernie Sanders would go further -– erasing the whole lot, as well as $81 billion in medical debt.

But it’s coming from other directions too. In October, one of the Trump administration’s senior student-loan officials resigned, calling for wholesale write-offs and describing the American way of paying for higher education as “nuts.’’

Real-estate firm Zillow cites medical and college liabilities as major hurdles for would-be renters and home buyers. Moody’s Investors Service listed the headwinds from student debt -– less consumption and investment, more inequality — and said forgiveness would boost the economy like a tax cut.

While the current debate centers on college costs, long-run numbers show how debt has spread through the economy. The U.S. relies on consumer spending for growth -– but it hasn’t been delivering significantly higher wages. Household borrowing has filled the gap, with low interest rates making it affordable.

And that’s not unique to America. Steadily growing debts of one kind or another are weighing on economies all over the world.

The idea that debt can grow faster than the ability to repay, until it unbalances a society, was well understood thousands of years ago, according to Michael Hudson, an economist and historian.

Last year Hudson published “And Forgive Them Their Debts,’’ a study of the ancient Near East where the tradition known as a “jubilee” — wiping the debt-slate clean — has its roots. He describes how the practice spread through civilizations including Sumer and Babylon, and came to play an important role in the Bible and Jewish law.

Rulers weren’t motivated by charity, Hudson says. They were being pragmatic — trying to make sure that citizens could meet their own needs and contribute to public projects, instead of just laboring to pay creditors. And it worked, he says. “Societies that canceled the debts enjoyed stable growth for thousands of years.’’

Forgiveness was good for the economy, would be a modern way of putting it.

I’m reading Chuck Marohn’s “Strong Towns” right now, and he makes the case for both incremental reforms in our communities. But he also points out the impossibility of the present financial commitments of our cities and towns, citing the example of Ferguson, wherein approx. $800,000/year has been spent on paying creditors, and approx. $25,000 was spent repairing sidewalks.

We’re going to need some form of jubilee, and how we come to accept that is going to be less about partisanship than it will be about sober, political reality. At present, neither those of us in suburban HOAs nor those of us in hollowed out city neighborhoods can properly pay for the services we require. We can either embrace reforms now or have them thrust upon us.

New political priorities

John Burtka IV joins a growing chorus in calling for Republicans to turn from their concern with the economic and return to the human person and the family:

It’s time for Republicans to think anew about the family. For the past thirty years a conscious decision was made to prioritize financialization, cronyism, and globalization over social cohesion and broad prosperity. If conservatives believe that family is the foundation for a healthy civilization, it’s time that they protect the institution from external forces unleashed not by creativity but by deliberate policy choices promoted by elites on Wall Street and in our nation’s capital.

Thanks in large part to stagnant middle class wages, burdensome student loan debt, and rising housing costs, family formation is being delayed, and the building block of our society is crumbling. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, fertility rates in most Western countries have dipped below the replacement level of 2.1 children per family. In approximately fifty years, there will be more people on the planet over the age of sixty-five than under the age of fifteen for the first time in recorded history. …

If social conservatism is to have a future in American politics, the Republican Party must become pro-life for the whole of life, and the most popular place to start would be to support paid family leave. Across party lines, 74 percent of Americans support paid family leave. Family policy is an area that is very important to the president’s daughter, Ivanka, and there are a growing number of Republicans in the Senate like Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Joni Ernst and Bill Cassidy who have introduced family leave proposals. Support for such policies is also picking up steam among conservative think tanks and publications like The Daily Caller, American Affairs, and the American Principles Project, as an appetite for a pro-worker, pro-family agenda grows on the Right.

Most importantly, implementing pro-family policy the right thing to do because it provides vital support needed for middle class families who have been suffering at the hands of market forces that have hollowed out our heartland and crushed the American dream. President Trump promised to end the forever wars in the Middle East and rebuild America. There is no more urgent place to start than by rebuilding the American family and the time to act is now.

Economic opportunity matters, but economics have become the sole measure of social health at the same that as the fracturing and fragmentation of family and community life have hollowed out so many parts of America. We need a shift in priorities.

Burtka touches on the experience of Hungary over the past decade, and on the reality that only conservatism provides a meaningful path forward for both human thriving and the protection and stewardship of the environment. We need a new Republican Party. And we need a New Democratic Party too, for that matter.

Optimism for social welfare

Tyler Cowen offers an optimistic perspective on Social Security’s stronger than expected future:

…over the next 75 years, about 17% of scheduled benefits are currently unfinanced. [Charles] Blahous estimates that the U.S. could cover that gap if the Social Security payroll tax were raised from 12.4% to 15.1%.

Now, you might have strong views about the wisdom of that kind of tax increase, but you should acknowledge that this is a very different reality than a bankrupt system. With Social Security on full cruise control, and with no forward-looking reforms, today’s younger earners still are slated to receive more than their parents did — just not very much more.

Dean Baker, an economist to the left of Blahous, also has studied Social Security. He estimates that retirees 30 to 40 years from now will receive monthly checks that are about 10% higher in real terms than today’s benefits. And keep in mind those are estimates per year. To the extent life expectancy rises, total benefits received will be higher yet.

To be clear: It may well be a bad thing when the Social Security trust fund is depleted, and Social Security is financed fully from current government revenues. …

I’m not saying everything will be fine in the future. The U.S. is vastly underperforming relative to its potential. But the claim that post-boomer generations will be left holding the bag, through a bankrupt Social Security system, just doesn’t add up.

A more interesting issue than the future of Social Security is whether we can imagine and implement a better and more solidarity-focused system of social welfare than we have today. I think that would look a lot more like what some European nations are experimenting with, nations like Hungary and Italy. And I wonder whether a new social welfare system would help encourage more Americans to see themselves more as the authors of their own destiny, supported and upheld by their neighbors, than as victims of circumstance amidst a frothy global economy, recipients of abstracted but desperately necessary national benefits.

Common good capitalism

I’m heading to Notre Dame this morning, where I’ll spend the rest of this week. I’m on a layer in Chicago at the moment, sharing some scenes below and catching up on reading—specifically Marco Rubio’s speech on “common good capitalism” at the Catholic University of America this week.

Michael Pakaluk reflects on Rubio’s speech:

“Free enterprise made America the most prosperous nation in human history,” [Sen. Rubio] said, “But that prosperity wasn’t just about businesses making a profit; it was also about the creation and availability of dignified work.”

Yes, one can see a certain secularization of Leo’s thought in such interpretations, perhaps inevitable in a politician’s thought. For Leo, rather, the goal of society is to make persons virtuous, to enable them to seek holiness easily and attain heaven.

Also, there seemed a persistent neglect of the role of virtue throughout Rubio’s speech. A student brought this up in the question-and-answer. “You say that people need dignified work so that they can support a family, but,” he asked, “don’t people need to be committed to each other in marriage first for there to be a family?” Rubio seemed unprepared to discuss the role of virtue, or better types of education for social unity. …

The main target of his attack, although not named, was the widely adopted “shareholder theory” of corporate management made famous by Milton Friedman. This is the normative claim that, as the shareholders of a business are its owners, and management serves owners, the sole goal of management should be to maximize shareholder value – then leave it up to the shareholders to use their profits, if they wish, for laudable social goals. The managers themselves should care for nothing other than increasing the share price. According to Rubio, this theory has kept companies from reinvesting profits in the workers, who helped create those profits, and in communities.

Rubio was famous (or infamous) for saying during his run for President that the nation needed fewer philosophers and more plumbers and welders. He now jokes that he would soften that assertion, as he has become more philosophical himself. But perhaps not philosophical enough. A serious shortcoming of his address was that it did not name or systematically refute the theories he was grappling with. He never mentioned Friedman or the theory of shareholder value. He did not say how his theory of “Common Good Capitalism” differed from so-called “stakeholder theory.” He did not even say what he meant by a “common good.”

The best refutation of Friedman’s principle is found in Catholic social thought under the heading, “the universal destination of goods.” The principle actually comes from Book II of Aristotle’s politics, and so one may cite it freely without the risk of being considered a theocrat. It states that in a good society property is owned privately, but that, as no property ultimately is solely one’s own, the use of that property should always be direct to the good of others and the common good. Friedman says rightly that a company’s managers have purely a fiduciary responsibility, and yet not solely to the owners. Similarly, the owners have a fiduciary responsibility as well, often to others, but ultimately to God. Thus, all the way up and down the line, form the lowliest worker to the owner with the highest net worth, the capital invested in the company must be regarded as for common benefit and used with that purpose in view. But, again, Rubio never identified this principle so essential to his policies.

And yet in a broader context these are small quibbles. Something is wrong in our society. We all know that. The worldwide movements of populism and nationalism show it. It’s more than prudent to turn to Catholic social thought for a diagnosis and for finding ways out. Each will do this in the manner appropriate to his state and expertise.

William Barr on religious liberty

I had been hearing about William Barr’s recent Notre Dame address on religious liberty, and recently watched it and including an excerpt below.

Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.

They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.

By the same token, violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world consequences for man and society. We may not pay the price immediately, but over time the harm is real.

Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.

But religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. It does not do this primarily by formal laws – that is, through coercion. It does this through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules – its customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.

In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.

I think we all recognize that over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack.

On the one hand, we have seen the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system and a comprehensive effort to drive it from the public square.

On the other hand, we see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism.

By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.

Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.

In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.

Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.

As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more casualities in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War.

I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.

Among these militant secularists are many so-called “progressives.” But where is the progress?

We are told we are living in a post-Christian era. But what has replaced the Judeo-Christian moral system? What is it that can fill the spiritual void in the hearts of the individual person? And what is a system of values that can sustain human social life?

The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.

Scholarship suggests that religion has been integral to the development and thriving of Homo sapiens since we emerged roughly 50,000 years ago. It is just for the past few hundred years we have experimented in living without religion.

We hear much today about our humane values. But, in the final analysis, what undergirds these values? What commands our adherence to them?

What we call “values” today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.

We want more than we have

Sen. Marco Rubio writes that the most important measure of American strength is her people and her families. The economy is a way to measure the health of American’s people, but it is not useful in and of itself as a measure of prosperity. If this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s because accountants and bureaucrats have captured the positions of political and economic power:

There are many factors that contribute to children’s well-being, but none is more important than strong families. We know this because it’s in our DNA, of course; stable, two-parent families have been the bedrock of all successful civilizations throughout all of history. …

But a true cultural revival requires us to also recognize the inextricable connection between culture and the economy. Shifts in American trade and fiscal policy have profoundly affected American family formation and child-rearing. The growth of capital-light sectors means that companies earn more profits off of less physical investment — which in turn means that short-term profits are quickly directed to shareholders, with fewer middle- and working-class jobs.

America’s shift to a post-industrial, services-based economy also means that jobs that do exist increasingly require expensive training and education. For many working-class, would-be parents, pursuing them means spending years and financial resources to acquire a credential — resources that in a more productive economy could be devoted to spending time with family. On top of this, the more recent rise of the gig economy means even less consistent wages, benefits, and schedules.

Americans routinely report wanting more kids than they have. It’s no surprise that, lacking stable employment opportunities, our marriage and childbirth rates have fallen.

Instead of an economy based on financial and intangible assets, we can shift economic incentives to the number-one driver of dignified work: more domestic business investment. By developing productive, long-life capital assets like new machinery, equipment, and assembly lines, we create enduring work opportunities for Americans.

More stable, productive work means more stable, productive families — and better outcomes for children.

And even if one is skeptical about this line of reasoning, there is a more practical cause for concern about how we structure the American economy and what it means for children’s welfare: the United States cannot compete against China’s 1.3 billion people if we condemn 73 million American children to the sidelines of the future economy.

We want more than we have—not economically, and not even really materially, but socially and culturally. We sense our poverty in critical aspects of our lives, and too many alleged thought leaders believe that economic solutions are the answer to a spiritual malaise of the sort that Jimmy Carter diagnosed and to which Ronald Reagan turned out to be a cure.

I increasingly think we need a new Great Awakening to renew America’s sense of itself as a people with a future.