Thursday, January 31, 2013

Obama the marriage president? -- Jan. 31, 2013 column


President Barack Obama made history and gladdened many hearts when he endorsed gay rights and gay marriage in his second inaugural address.

Just think what additional good he could have done had he also endorsed marriage generally.
I know. The tired phrase “marriage between one man and one woman” has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the political and religious right. But that need not scare the president or anyone else from talking about its benefits to individuals and society.  Married people live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives than singletons, studies show.

And you don’t have to be Rick Santorum to know that marriage is a grand anti-poverty program. Many studies have shown that If people marry before they start families, the children fare far better. This isn’t a news flash.

In 1965, an obscure assistant secretary of Labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report for President Lyndon Johnson about the breakdown of the black family. Moynihan warned that the crumbling family structure left many households headed by single women and these were more likely to be stuck in poverty. He hoped the report would be the impetus for a national strategy to break the cycle of poverty.

But Moynihan’s report was leaked to the press, causing an uproar. Any hope of a national conversation was lost as critics lambasted Moynihan for blaming the victims of poverty, insulting single moms and ignoring supports in the black community. His controversial report  notwithstanding, Moynihan went on to serve 24 years in the U.S. Senate. He died in 2003.

The problem of the collapsing American family has only gotten worse since the Moynihan report.

“Nearly 50 years later, the picture is even more grim – and the statistics can no longer be organized neatly by race,” says Isabel V. Sawhill, a budget expert and scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Moynihan’s bracing profile of the collapsing black family in the 1960s looks remarkably similar to a profile of the average white family today.”

Sawhill writes in the latest Washington Monthly: “White households have similar—or worse—statistics of divorce, unwed childbearing, and single motherhood as the black households cited by Moynihan in his report.

“In 2000, the percentage of white children living with a single parent was identical to the percentage of black children living with a single parent in 1960: 22 percent,” she says.

While Moynihan saw family formation as a racial divide, Sawhill says it’s increasingly a class issue.

“Because the breakdown of the traditional family is overwhelmingly occurring among working-class Americans of all races, these trends threaten to make the U.S. a much more class-based society over time,” she writes.

When educated, middle-class couples form two-parent families, they’re able to give their children “time and resources that lower-and working-class single mothers, however impressive their efforts to be both good parents and good breadwinners, simply do not have,” Sawhill says.

In his autobiography, “The Audacity of Hope,” Sen. Barack Obama writes that liberal policy makers and civil rights leaders, in their urgency to avoid blaming the victims of historical racism, wrongly labeled Moynihan a racist and “tended to downplay or ignore evidence that entrenched behavioral patterns among the black poor really were contributing to intergenerational poverty.”   

As president, Obama has approached making families stronger by focusing on the responsibilities of fatherhood, usually around Fathers Day. In June 2010, he announced a nationwide Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, but he conceded that it’s hard for government to change attitudes or behavior.

“Now, I can’t legislate fatherhood – I can’t force anybody to love a child. But what we can do is send a clear message to our fathers that there is no excuse for failing to meet their obligations,” he said.

That may be sound social policy, but it doesn’t make anyone’s heart sing.   

As Obama and other leaders promote the value of gay marriage, they shouldn’t be silent on the value of marriage between a man and woman. It’s not either-or. Both are good.    

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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