The Erosion of the Family

By Charles Colson

According to the Census Bureau, the 1990s saw a marked increase in every kind of household, except one: the traditional two-parent family. Demographers tell us that we're in the midst of a redefinition of the American family. But what are the consequences of this "redefinition?"

The data from last year's census showed that married couples, with or without children, comprise a lower percentage of American households than ever before. In fact, people living alone outnumber traditional "married-with-children" families.

At the same time, the number of households with "unmarried partners" rose seventy-two percent. And, at least one-third of these have a minor child living in the home. There was also a rise in single-parent households.

Demographers cite several possible reasons for the changes. The first is divorce. Although the divorce rate has leveled off, it remains at historically high levels. People are also postponing and even foregoing marriage.

Whatever the reasons, as Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins puts it, "the central place of marriage in our family system is eroding." And that erosion has consequences that affect all of us -- especially our kids.

In her book, Love and Economics, Jennifer Roback Morse tells us there's an "impressive body of evidence" pointing to the difficulties faced by kids raised in single-parent homes and step-families. On average, they complete fewer years of schooling and are more likely to drop out of school; they're more likely to "commit delinquent acts" and abuse alcohol and drugs than kids growing up in intact families.

These are only a few of what researchers call "adverse outcomes" associated with the erosion of the two-parent family. You name the problem and chances are that it's more likely to occur in single-parent homes and step-families than in two-parent families.

By any measure, the rise in the number of children being raised in "unmarried partner" households is a disaster waiting to happen. For example: A cohabiting boyfriend is thirty times more likely to abuse a child than a father married to the child's mother.

But even when abuse isn't an issue, the uncommitted nature of such a relationship affects the child. Brown University's Frances Goldscheider, as reported recently in the Washington Post, says the higher rate of break-ups among unmarried couples "causes instability in children's lives." Obviously!

Which makes me ask: If these changes are so bad for our kids and our society, why are Americans embracing them? Because, in this culture, personal autonomy is considered life's greatest good. It's the one value that trumps everything else.

While we say we love our kids and want what's best for them, too many parents won't let that "love" get in the way of their personal lifestyle choices, or their self-gratification. We're expected to support everything from reformulated gas to tax cuts "for the good of the children." Yet, staying together for the sake of those same kids is, by today's standards, too much to ask.

Well, figures can lie, but they lie a lot less than we do. And these figures ought to tell us where our hearts really are. Which is why Christians need to help their neighbors understand what these numbers are saying about our choices -- and the consequences for those we love.

Charles Colson is chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
His daily commentary can be heard on radio stations throughout
the United States.


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