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interview: barbara dafoe whitehead

Talk about this demographic shift [in families] that's taken place over the last 50 years, and the sort of import and urgency, if you feel that.

... In 1960, the vast majority of all American children grew up in family households with both married parents present in the household. Today, the majority of American children will live either in a single-parent household or a stepparent household during some point in their childhood. That represents a major change in the family experience of kids today. Many of those children will spend most of their childhood in single-parent households, and an increasing number of children will also grow up in no-parent or foster care.

We don't like to think of it this way, but marriage is an institution that covers more than just the private intimate sexual and romantic relationships between two freely consenting adults.

So why should we care? What's the difference? What's happened as a result of that change in the family?

The big change in family, of course, has had dramatic impact on child well-being, on children's opportunities, life opportunities to have a good start in life, to grow up in a fairly economically secure family and to have a foundation of emotional security as well. We know from the evidence that these high rates of family breakup damaged kids -- sometimes over the short term, sometimes over the long term -- in their educational, economic and emotional life prospects. So that's the big concern, a consequence of these high rates of family change and disruption.

Why this change in family? What's led to that over the past 40, 50 years?

Three big factors contribute to these recent family trends. One is high rates of divorce. Half of all marriages today are projected to end in divorce, and that's first marriages. There's an even higher rate for second marriages. [The second factor is] unwed childbearing -- many families form without marriage occurring at all. Then there is a growing level of father absence from family households. Even in families that are separated or divorced, fathers frequently drop out of kids' lives. So these are some of the factors that are most important in the changes for children.

photo of whitehead

Whitehead is the co-director of the The Marriage Project and the author of The Divorce Culture: Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family. In this interview, she traces the history of the often-polarizing political debates over marriage and family. She tells FRONTLINE that she believes that "We've reached a consensus that marriage is important; it matters to kids," but it is a point where "we have little experience, few policy models to follow." This interview was conducted on Aug. 27, 2002.

What's caused that? What's caused the high divorce rate, fathers dropping out?

Most people now agree that the causes are complex. They're both economic and cultural. The two forces converged, beginning in the 1960s, and continued to affect family life and certainly the formation of families to the present time.

The economic factors that are typically cited as contributing to these disruptions in families are low-income jobs, the decline of unions as a source of economic security for people who don't have higher education, the disappearance of highly paying jobs from areas where people who don't have affluent backgrounds or higher education now live, mainly the inner city. Also simply the patterns of the economy that are more fluid, dynamic and make it harder and harder for people to hold one steady job throughout a lifetime.

Then, of course, there are factors that are related to economic well-being: the absence of health insurance for families with children, the difficulty, crime, violent neighborhoods, communities that are not well supported in the larger society. So those are some of the economic factors that I think play into it.

And the cultural factors?

The cultural story is that people changed their mind about the importance of marriage to children. They changed their mind about whether parents should stay together in a marriage that's less than perfect for the sake of their children. They dramatically changed their mind about the relationship [of] sex [and] parenthood to marriage, so that those things that were tightly connected to marriage now sort of operate independently of marriage.

Those changes were broad. They began in the 1960s. They were the same in Hollywood as they were in Watts, in a way. They affected people's attitudes and behaviors quite profoundly, and their family behavior. We saw evidence of that over time.

So you're saying there's not one factor or even just two factors that have contributed to this kind of crumbling of family or this change in the way we view marriage?

There's been a polarization in the discussion about family changes and family trends between those who want to attribute much of the difficulty to jobs and changes in the economy, and those who want to look to changes in marriage and family life. Those sides very often never can agree on anything. But much of the research now persuades me that the two are very much involved in a kind of interplay. The causal arrows point in both directions, so that some of the economic factors have cultural consequences and the cultural factors have economic consequences for children and for families.

Just to revisit this demographic shift, how big a problem do we have? Clearly it's something that you paid a lot of attention to. But why is it something that the rest of us should care about?

I think this problem is huge, and it's huge, not because it has to do with sort of decisions that adults make in their intimate lives, but because of the impact on kids. Particularly because I think everyone agrees that our society today is highly complex. It requires, in the nurturance of children, a lot of time, a lot of investment, both public and private. To have family breakdown and disruption at the level that we currently have it means that there just is less private -- that is, family -- investment in children. So what this cashes out to is our measures of decline in child well-being, even as we agree that it's more than ever important to increase public investments in kids.

I'm sure you get this reaction, when you tell people that you're co-director of this Institute on Marriage. They probably kind of roll their eyes. So what do you come back and say to them?

[Laughter]. We don't like to think of it this way, but marriage is an institution that covers more than just the private intimate sexual and romantic relationships between two freely consenting adults. Marriage is a primary social institution for rearing children. To have that change, and change so dramatically in a very short period of time, obviously has big effects. It has effects on kids. It has effects on adults. But those effects fall disproportionately on children and on the poor. So that's why I'm concerned about it, because there is a dramatic impact and measurable impact on the lives of children.

I want to go back and sort of work our way up to the present, sort of the most logical thing. So this issue was visited in 1965 by Moynihan. Tell me a little bit about Moynihan's report and what happened when it was released.

What's now famously known as the Moynihan Report really was unveiled, I think, June 4, 1965, by President Johnson at a commencement speech at Howard University. ... In that speech was a call for a broad-based, comprehensive effort to improve and strengthen family life, for African-American families in particular. ...

It's sort of interesting to reflect on what the Moynihan Report was. If you go to the library and dig it out, it's this skinny little government document, not at all fancy, 78 pages long -- a very thorough-going analysis of social scientific trend data as it bore upon patterns of marriage and childbearing in the African-American family at that time.

What Moynihan said in his report was that we've passed an important stage in our national life, where we've been very concerned with winning civil rights for African-Americans. Now we're reached a juncture where we have to look beyond individual civil rights; look at what's happening to the family and understand how we can achieve equality of results, equality of outcome, of social and economic equality as against individual civil rights. So he turned his attention to what was going on in what he called in his report "the Negro family," but the African-American family in America at that time.

He said there was disintegration going on among at least half of African-American families. He focused on male patterns of employment, which is something people forget. He looked at the high rate of joblessness among African-American males and said that, because of this, they were unable to satisfactorily fulfill their roles as husbands and fathers.

Now, what was interesting about Moynihan was that he didn't look at individuals. He really took the family as a key social unit and said, "We have to do something to strengthen families." He used some very direct language in his report. He said the disintegration of the African-American family creates a tangle of pathologies that make it more difficult to achieve economic and social progress. He linked those tangle of pathologies to high rates of unwed childbearing, high rates of marital separation and divorce within the African-American community, and the growing absence of men from family life.

I think these were quite new ideas about what we had to do to, what was going on that was antithetical to our ideal of social and economic progress. Then, of course, this was just his analysis of the problem.

He also called for very broad-based, comprehensive social and economic reforms, mainly, again, focused on the problem of joblessness. That was the content of the report, and I probably am not doing it full justice. When you read it, it's a powerful piece; not only of social science analysis, but of rhetoric. He's very plain and powerful in the language that he uses to describe the nature of the problem. I think it was as much the power of the rhetoric as the social science data that both generated controversy and marked a new stage in the discussion about family life in America.

Tell me about that reaction to the report, though, because it was pretty heated. It was more than just a controversy, I think.

Oh, I remember this. I'm old enough to have lived through this time. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of course, was a part of a Democratic administration. ... A lot of the attack on Moynihan came from the left. Feminists didn't like what he had to say. Some academics attacked him. Though the original speech had been vetted by several African-American leaders, they went after him for not appreciating the strengths of the African-American family. Many of the people who were part of the liberal coalition went after the so-called Moynihan Report with a vengeance.

And the result was?

The result of all of that furor, very intense, very personal sometimes, was that nobody wanted to go near the question of family structure, of what the consequences of family breakdown were, for at least a decade.

[Do you think the Moynihan Report was prophetic in a way?]

Yes. I think the Moynihan Report was prophetic in two key respects. First of all, it put this whole question of family structure on the table, both in the society and particularly in politics. The second way that it really anticipated future trends was that it very successfully connected economic well-being, economic factors, with changes in family life, so the two weren't separate, independent variables that had nothing to do with each other, but actually were very closely related. Oh, and there's a third way that it was extremely prophetic. It anticipated a much later debate on fatherlessness, on the absence of fathers in their family roles from children's lives and from children's households.

There was one way, though, that it wasn't prophetic.

There's only one way that I think it didn't anticipate what was to come. There was a sentence, just one sentence in the Moynihan Report. What it said, roughly, was that the white family is stable and likely to continue so. In that way, unhappily, Moynihan did not see far enough into the future to anticipate what was going to happen to white families as well. ...

Moynihan recently remarked that the biggest change of the last half-century has been about the family. I don't know whether you agree with him.

Yes. It's hard to overestimate the magnitude of the change in family life in the last half or even the last third of the twentieth century. It's not only that it has been far-reaching, affecting large numbers of children, a million children affected by divorce over the course of 25 years, about a million more who were born outside of marriages, but also that these changes have been so very rapid. Typically, families do change. But usually we mark family change over the course of decades or centuries or even era, eons. But here in the space of 25 or 30 years, we have radical change in family life, in a key social institution called marriage and in the way children are reared in America. It's a huge and historic change.

You talk about how this conversation has died for 10 years and it really re-emerged. But it re-emerged in a way that's kind of unexpected, which is that the Christian right, conservative right, sort of took ownership.

... Right. The silence on the Moynihan Report was broken with the emergence of the religious right in the early 1980s. They saw this as a moral matter, a matter of poverty of values, and took command of the issue. Liberals, the progressive left, dropped out of the conversation entirely.

What happened with Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown?

In 1992, shortly after the riots in Los Angeles, Dan Quayle gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California that was famously known as "the Murphy Brown" speech. The reference to Murphy Brown occurred, I think, on page six or seven of a seven-page speech. But in this speech, he condemned the television character Murphy Brown for choosing to have a child out of wedlock and contributing to the friend toward fatherless families. He had a lot of other things to say, but this is what everybody remembered.

And again, tremendous furor ensued over this single reference to Murphy Brown. She was a character people knew. Many people had sympathized with her struggle over whether to have the baby and whether the father of the child would marry her. But this became another kind of political benchmark in the debate about family structure.

Criticism of Quayle for raising these questions, of course, was as intense as it had been for Moynihan, but from a different quarter of the political spectrum. Dan Quayle obviously was attacked by pundits and politicians on the left. His speech shaped the family values theme and the debate over family during the 1992 election. So again, the family matters became intensely polarizing and controversial. ...

People jumped to the defense of Candice Bergen, the actress who played Murphy Brown, to Murphy Brown as a television character, to the right of single mothers to have children if they could afford them as another lifestyle choice, to the idea that men walked away from families, what was a single mother to do, to the idea that "Good for Murphy Brown; she didn't decide to have an abortion."

So the criticism came fast and furious from a number of different perspectives but mainly, of course, from the left.

Tell us a little bit about your own sort of visceral reaction and maybe even what you thought about it.

The sort of political and public reaction, especially from the left, to the Dan Quayle speech, was universally negative to the point of ridicule. I read the Dan Quayle speech. I thought he had a point. I thought he had a couple of valid points.

One was that, of course, we did have an epidemic of unwed childbearing. We did have more and more white single mothers having children on their own. We did have men who were no longer part of their children's lives. One big point in the Quayle speech, of course, was that there was a growing epidemic of fatherlessness. So I thought he hit -- he resurrected, actually -- some of the points about father absence from family, and connected these points to changes in our popular culture.

Again, here, I think he made an important connection, because the patterns of celebrity culture, the changes in sort of the norms by which not only celebrities governed their lives, by which increasingly all Americans sort of set standards for their own life, were enormously influential by the 1990s. In picking a popular TV character, talking about her behavior as a single mother, I think he was capturing some of what was going on in American society at large.

You mentioned that Quayle was sort of doing this moral preaching and his lineage was sort of right. Yet, here you go and write this article that Quayle was right.

... My piece was not an effort to defend Dan Quayle as much as it was a piece that was designed to say he's pointing to some important family trends that we have to be aware of; especially people on the left, who I think genuinely are concerned about child well-being.

So making the connection -- which Dan Quayle did not make strongly enough, in my view -- between changes in adult behavior and the impact on the well-being of children, where I think he was at least pointing in a direction that others needed to explore and think carefully about; that we couldn't any more afford to just brush this off as sort of something that was being passed off as moralizing by the right. Rather, that these were trends and patterns that were, by this time, pervasive in the society, harmful to children and deserved some attention in the political realm. So for that reason, though I'm a Democrat and think of myself as progressive and liberal, I decided to plunge in with an article that essentially said, "You know, he was right."

What was the reaction?

I did not anticipate the reaction to the Dan Quayle article. It was angry, it was one of condemnation, that The Atlantic [Monthly] particularly would publish such an article, especially for a publication that had sort of liberal credentials, that anybody would attempt to defend Dan Quayle, even if only in the title of the article. So furious, angry letters from all perspectives to The Atlantic and eventually to me, as I read through them. So again, a huge controversy over a little article.

Yet in some ways, the Quayle speech in your article signifies a gradual shift in this conversation about families.

Right. Paradoxically, I think that the family values theme -- that was so much a part of the Republican presidential campaign in 1992 -- the political judgment that that was a loser, that that failed, that that was somehow one of the reasons that Clinton won, allowed some room then for Democrats to have this conversation in a way that they hadn't. The Republicans lost on sort of family values as a matter strictly of morals, right and wrong behavior. But, gee, there's something here, and we have to begin to address it. Not the very least because, increasingly, polls and survey research was demonstrating that this was increasingly a public concern, too, and in two particular respects.

The public was tremendously concerned about unwed teenage motherhood. It wasn't this epithet of welfare queens as much as it was the idea of teenage prom queens who were mothers or pregnant that seemed to generate a great deal of public interest in this discussion. The other sort of galvanizing issue that didn't go away, even as family values faded as a political slogan, was father absence -- that men were abandoning, financially and emotionally, their children as a consequence of divorce or unwed childbearing. These two questions would not go away. Then, when Clinton became president, it was now time for Democrats to duke it out on some of these family questions. ...

Did this sort of re-emergence of this conversation about the family also have to do with the fact that it was not particular to the African-American community?

By the 1980s, and certainly by the 1990s, the problems with the family that Daniel Patrick Moynihan had identified as distinctive to the African-American family had now become widespread and pervasive throughout all families in this society. So the problems of fatherlessness and divorce and unwed childbearing problems weren't problems that you could say were "them" problems; they were "us" problems. They had to do with all of our families. It was this spreading of family behaviors that were judged to be harmful to children that galvanized and inspired another debate about family structure in the 1990s.

So here we are now today, and the conversation is all about marriage. How did that happen?

I think the interest in marriage and in strengthening marriage that now occupies the welfare reform authorization debate and family policy in general, has to do with a growing consensus that, all other things being equal, it's better for kids if they can grow up in a stable family with two married parents than if they grow up in any of the fast-growing alternatives to that. Even as recently as the early 1990s, this was not at all conventional wisdom

But I think throughout the decade, based on some powerful social science evidence, more and more people increasingly came to accept this as part of the working consensus on families. When you say, "Gee, it's good if kids can have two married parents," inevitably, you begin to say, "What about marriage? And what's happening to marriage? Actually, if we want more people to be married and happily or stably married, how in the world do we do that?" I think that's the logical progression in the debate. But I think we haven't yet answered that question about marriage itself, and how we encourage stable marriages for children. ...

Yet when you talk about marriage, people tend to roll their eyes.

People roll their eyes. They kind of get nervous and uncomfortable with the idea that somehow we have to get into the business of helping people get married or help them date in a way that will sustain marriage. The fact of the matter is, though, we've achieved a consensus that marriage is important; it matters to kids. We don't know how to make marriage work for more people. We really are at a point where we have little experience, [few] policy models to follow. How do you get people to have good marriages? It's a big question that we now, I guess, will have to confront. ...

So what do you make of this marriage movement?

The marriage movement is a new thing. It's a little bit hard to get a handle on. It is very disparate, and includes policy people, religious people, therapists and some, I guess, academic types, all of whom are united mainly by desire to prevent divorce, strengthen marriage, help kids. But it has no single leadership or guiding mission other than marriage.

It seems one of the common threads that I've noticed is this sense that marriage is somehow skills-based, and if you can teach people the right skills, they'll get married or stay married.

Yes. There's a saying, "You can't be something with nothing." So one of the things that is available and sort of ready to deliver to people is teaching them skills, just as we teach people job skills. I think that's the analogy. So part of the marriage movement is dedicated to education, particularly in communication and conflict resolution skills. ...

As a result of the last round of welfare reform, government has a mandate to promote marriage, to actually encourage people to be married. That's where we now stand. The challenge is to figure out, how do you do that? How do you actually promote, how does the government promote strong and lasting marriages? This is new terrain for the government, surely.

And how does it?

I don't know how the government does it. I honestly think this is terra incognita. We don't know. We don't really know how to do this.

I think Moynihan actually fairly recently said, "If you think government can change family, you know more about government than I do," suggesting that maybe this isn't a place for government.

Yes. Government has a place in marriage, of course, but it's in a different sense. There have been a few things, yes. You're getting me into territory that I am as confused about and ambivalent about as somebody you'd pull off the street. I'm not sure that we know how to do this, that we should be doing it in the way that is now being proposed. A lot of job skills training programs don't work, either, but we continue to do it.

So is part of it simply a matter of getting it on the agenda? The only value I can see is really that this now is a public responsibility. People now understand that this is important, that it's not any more a matter of debate; this is a way that we recognize and institutionalize some kind of consensus. But as to the nuts and bolts of it, I have no idea. ...

What the conservatives often seem to say is we need to be judgmental about this. It's not a free-for-all; it's not whatever you want, I'm OK, you're OK. Is it OK to be judgmental about this? Should we be?

I think you regulate behavior, especially family behavior, two ways. You pass laws and you use sort of social norms, certain kinds of pressures, social consensus to direct people -- not in a coercive way, certainly not as coercive as the law -- but to sort of guide people into what the social norms are, what social opinion holds to be positive and beneficial. So if you want to call that judgment or imposing somebody else's values on someone else, I guess you would call it judgment. ...

Is stigma another tool we should be using?

Some people make the argument that stigma or shame is a tool that we should be using in order to get people back into married-couple families. I don't agree with that, mainly because children feel that shame and families feel that shame. Also from the evidence, we know the valiant effort that a lot of single parents and their children make in order to have a good life together. So, no, I do not think that should be in our arsenal of responses to family breakdown in America today. ...

It's very important to find ways in our public policies, in our public rhetoric to, on the one hand, support and strengthen marriage, and on the other hand, value and support single-parent families. These are not irreconcilable ends. We can do both. But very often one slips out of our gaze as the other one becomes more prominent in the foreground, and we have to keep both in mind. ...

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