Occupy the Family Home

Polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans are pessimistic about the direction of our country.  It would be tempting to link our current malaise to the economy alone.  But it’s not just families’ finances that are broken.  In many cases, so are the families themselves.

For years, various media outlets have published right track/wrong track polls that attempt to capture the mood of the American people about the direction of the country. 

According to the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 21% of Americans believe we’re headed in the right direction, while 74% think we’re on the wrong track.  Numerous other polls show similar numbers.

The economy is partially to blame.  After all, we are in the midst of the longest and deepest economic decline since the Great Depression.  Jobs are scarce, public deficits continue to spiral out of control and the prospects of recovery seem dim. 

But understand this:  Significant majorities of Americans believed we were on the wrong track during recent times of economic boom.

In December 2006, for instance, when the unemployment rate was at 4.4%, the right direction/wrong track split in the CBS/New York Times poll was 24%/70%, nearly identical to today.  Polls by Pew, Gallup and other outlets show similar results.

In December 2000, when unemployment dipped to 3.9%, only 39% of Americans believed the country was headed in the right direction, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Clearly, our country’s pessimism about its future is rooted in something much deeper than our fluctuating economy.

Politicians often talk about jobs as if they’re panaceas for what ails the country.  But while a functioning economy is necessary to instill hope for future prosperity, it is hardly sufficient.  Functioning families are just as important.

Pat Fagan of the Family Research Council estimates that most American children (55%) reach adulthood with parents who have rejected one another, either by not marrying or through divorce or separation.

Parents and children from intact families perform better on almost every measure.  Children are more likely to graduate from school, less likely to engage in risky behavior, and are healthier and happier than their peers from broken families.

The small things done every day in healthy families matter.  A new report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse shows that teenagers who regularly have dinner with their families are much less likely than others to smoke tobacco, take drugs, drink alcohol or have friends who do.

The responsibility of caring for others fosters more savings and more prudent economic behavior overall.  This helps explain why married couples are more likely than the unmarried to be Republicans.

Broken families are contributing to our government debt crisis.  A 2008 study found that divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers $112 billion a year.

Education reform has been a hot-button political issue for years.  Our children are falling behind in almost every subject, leaving school unprepared for a changing economy.  Many of the reforms being discussed—from more school choice and merit pay for teachers to year-round schooling—deserve serious consideration.

But even the best of these reforms will provide only marginal benefit for children from broken homes.  Government can help ensure that children from poor and chaotic homes get to and from school and receive at least one nutritious meal a day.

Government cannot ensure that a family member will be present at the morning bus stop, giving a child a hug and a kiss before she steps onto the school bus.  And government can’t ensure that parents will be at home with their children in the evening, helping him with his homework and making sure he goes to bed on time.

While no government program can make up for the breakdown of the family, our laws and policies can at least reflect the knowledge that strong families are crucial to a strong economy.

With a few notable exceptions, most politicians are reluctant to talk about family life.  It’s much easier to rail against job cuts than it is to risk coming across as self-righteous by “moralizing” about how people should raise their families.

But candidates who aspire to lead a broken country cannot neglect the moral crisis at its foundation, and the ways public policy can alleviate it.

New research shows that divorces with the greatest potential to hurt children happen in marriages that have the greatest potential for reconciliation.  A proposal called the Second Chance Act would combine a one-year waiting period for divorces, with education about the option of reconciliation.  Though such laws would be passed at the state level, candidates at all levels would do well to endorse this innovative proposal.

Savvy candidates would also call for the end to marriage penalties that still exist in our tax code, as well as the existing penalties for welfare recipients who marry.

The Republican presidential candidate who can make the conservative economic case effectively has a decent chance of a narrow win.  But the GOP hopeful who can provide an economic roadmap while also talking about family life has the potential to win in a landslide.

More importantly, he or she could ignite an ongoing discussion that would have a lasting effect on our future.