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Boy Damaged

Family values have long divided conservatives from liberals. While the former are dismayed by the decline of the traditional family, the latter are relaxed – and, at times, more than relaxed. Back in the 1990s, Anthony Giddens – the original New Labour guru – argued that “high rates of separation and divorce are probably here to stay, but one can see many ways in which these could enrich, rather than destroy, social solidarity.”

These days, the rose-tinted spectacles have come off. Indeed, you’d need blinkers to ignore the evidence that family breakdown has a negative impact on the life chances of children. Liberals also have to confront the fact that the further you go down the income spectrum, the greater the decline in marriage and paternal involvement. To be concerned about rising inequality, but not family structure, is increasingly untenable.

However, there is a loophole in this debate. By blaming the decline of the traditional family on economic rather than cultural factors, liberals can engage with the issue without conceding anything to the conservative side of the ‘culture war’.

In an article for Slate, Jordan Weissmann believes that his fellow liberals need to give a bit more ground:

“…Our Kids, the new book by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam… argues that the American Dream® of equal opportunity for all is in danger due to the growing class divides between college graduates and everyone else…

“Of the values-versus-economics debate, he says simply that, ‘The most reasonable view is that both are important.’”

Fair-minded conservatives should be able to agree that the contraction of economic opportunity for working class men doesn’t do much for their marriageability. Fair-minded liberals, however, should accept that this cannot be the whole explanation:

“…we can look back to the Great Depression as an historical counterpoint to the trends we’ve witnessed in recent decades. With mass unemployment, the marriage rate tumbled during the 1930s, ‘showing the perennial importance of economic stability in the marriage calculus.’ At the same, however, the birth rate also fell, and unwed childbearing remained rare. ‘In that era, men and women postponed procreation as well as matrimony,’ Putnam writes. “No marriage license, no kids’ was the cultural norm.”

One can make geographical comparisons too. For instance, rates of lone parenthood in the US and UK are significantly higher than in other OECD nations such as Japan, the Netherlands and Italy. Whether we’re comparing eras, countries or social classes, it is clear that cultural norms make a big difference to family structure.

Though liberals and conservatives can find common ground on the desirability and causes of family breakdown, that doesn’t mean they can agree on what to do about it. For instance, Mr Weissmann is at pains to stress his differences with conservative commentators:

“Instead of pining for the past, we could be doing far, far more as a country to reduce material need for low-income families. Rather than try in vain to revive the idea of early marriage, we could also do more to educate working-class women about how to safely and effectively use contraception to avoid accidental pregnancies and encourage them to put off children until a bit later in life…” 

Of course, encouraging working-class women to “put off children until a bit later in life” (i.e. until they and their partners have the necessary means) could itself be portrayed as ‘old-fashioned’. Nevertheless, there’s evidence to suggest that society may be ready and able to turn back the clock. In both Britain and America, teenage pregnancy rates have declined steeply following the recession. Rather than being attributable to freer access to contraception or abortion, the best explanation is a toughening of attitudes among the young to welfare dependency.

Perhaps there’s hope that our social problems can be solved and not just compensated for.

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