Our Biggest Challenge: Fragmented Families

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© 2014 Robert Osburn

Having spent 29 years engaged with international students who come to the USA for study, I’ve heard more than my share of cross-cultural and cross-national comparisons.  Some are humorous, some sting.  For example, as one Mainland Chinese student expressed it a few weeks ago, “I just can’t understand why Americans love sweets so much!”   I confessed before the group of 20 or so international students that I love my sweets, especially that tall glass of chocolate milk (over)loaded with chocolate powder.

What surprises me is that none of the international students (in my memory, at least) have brought up the fact that so many American marriages end in divorce.   That fact has much more to do with America’s prospects than whether we like our triple fudge brownies and have waistlines to prove it.

According to Dr. Mitch Pearlstein, author of the new book Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future (2014), our prospects aren’t all that sweet unless we do something about our miserable family fragmentation rates.  By the term family fragmentation Pearlstein includes everything from divorce to co-habitation to out-of-wedlock childbirth to single parenting to other forms of family disorganization associated with dysfunction.  Pearlstein interviewed 40 thought leaders from America’s Left and Right coasts, as well as in between, to ask for their take on America’s future in light of this reality.

Optimists are scattered amongst the 40, but the large majority of the interviewees are gloomy.   For most of them, the American future will be an endless iteration on today: “a place where problems caused and exacerbated by family breakdown are managed, not fixed, and where have-nots have harder times becoming haves” (p. 82). Endlessly redundant studies have demonstrated clearly, as does Pearlstein in his first book on this subject, that children raised in fragmented families have poorer outcomes, on average, educationally, economically, and maritally.  Minneapolis public schools, ground zero for a population that includes 80% of African-American children (for example) born out of wedlock, spends over $21,000/year to educate each child in its district and yet they have the worst academic outcomes of almost any district in Minnesota.  Edina, an affluent suburb on Minneapolis’ southwest flank where fragmented families are much rarer, has some of the very best academic outcomes in Minnesota, and yet spends only $14,000 per child. 

Why are families in Minneapolis so much more fragmented than those in Edina? This is where fundamental assumptions matter more than mere data and outcomes research.  Those who believe that economics is the fundamental driver of human society will argue that families fragment because they are poor.  And since we know that fights over money are the number one cause of divorce, there is some---only some---truth in this claim.  But, as Pearlstein and others like him will remind us, this explanation fails, for one reason, because it does not account for the fact that even rich kids raised in rich families suffer educationally and economically later in life if their parents split.

Those who believe that power is the fundamental driver of human society will argue that American society is fundamentally premised on perpetuating inequality and ensuring the privilege of those already in power.  They cast their hopes on an ongoing social revolution, but almost 50 years after the cultural revolution of the 1960s, they have few successes.  Their problem, in my opinion, is that their revolution was tied to a sexual revolution that legitimated forces that, in turn, fragmented and destroyed families.  These scholars will have to repudiate the sexual revolution if they have any hope of turning around the power dynamics that they believe fuel educational and economic failure.  (See Myron Magnet’s powerful book The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties Legacy to the Underclass for a thorough explication of the tragedy of the sexual revolution.)

Pearlstein offers a third explanation: culture.  He has long been consistent in arguing, correctly I believe, that the assumptions, ideas, symbols, practices, and worldviews that shape societies are more powerful than politics or economics when it comes to creating social outcomes.  Thus, he says, communities with unhealthy cultures of fighting, crime, sexual laxity, drug use, resistance to education, and other attributes associated with the biblical definition of foolishness (see the Book of Proverbs) create the conditions that fragment families.  In turn, the victimized children of these fragmented families suffer horribly. 

In case it isn’t clear: I believe Pearlstein is utterly right on target.  He doesn’t discount the economic and political explanations, but he gets at the real problem.  He should be read, he should be taken seriously, and we should look forward to his third volume where he (by self-admission, an incurable optimist) will attempt to articulate the difference that religion can make for America’s terrible family fragmentation problem.  Meanwhile, many of us will continue fighting for marriages (that is, working hard to keep married couples from divorcing) while also seeking to exemplify the beauty of married life shaped and structured at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ.  There, Jesus submitted Himself to death at the hands of His enemies so that He could love us and “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).   Not surprisingly, the themes of submission and self-sacrificing love are at the heart of the Apostle Paul’s admonitions concerning marriage (Ephesians 5:21 -32).

Our collective sweet tooth is not our real problem as Americans; it’s the tragic state of too many of our families (or quasi-families).  Pearlstein has his finger on this as well as anyone I’ve read. 

Read him, do some weeping, and then prepare to repent.