SMITH: Decline of nuclear family underlies growing problems

March 11, 2017

Pick your poison. Heroin. Prescription painkillers. Excessive alcohol. Suicide by cop.

Increasingly, such poisons are glaring evidence of troubling trends among America’s working-class poor, especially white, middle-age Midwesterners.

For the first time since 1993, life expectancy declined last year. We also know the dismal statistics of stagnant incomes and “underwater” homeowners—again, especially among the nation’s working poor—since the Great Recession.

Some say these trends fueled President Donald Trump’s victory last November. That might or might not be true. But these unmistakable trend lines have spawned a body of thoughtful and alarming literature anyone interested in public policy needs to study.

Perhaps the most interesting work is the surprising best-seller “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance. This is a moving, compelling “memoir” of a 31-year-old Ohio lawyer who details his turbulent life growing up next door in the Buckeye State. Again, many pundits declare reading this book explains Trump’s victory.

If that book is the elegant, qualitative lament of white, middle-class decline—and it is—then Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” is the compelling, quantitative, academic chronicling of the same trends. Both works detail the addictions, loss of work ethic and economic struggles of the formerly robust blue-collar core of the American experiment. Both trace the trouble to family dysfunction and (glancingly) pine for the days when religiousfaith was more normative in American family life.

Let me briefly indulge the desire to say, “We told you so.” For decades, pro-family groups like the Indiana Family Institute, Focus on the Family and faith leaders of all types and beliefs have decried the decline of the nuclear family and predicted a harvest of tears. The harvest is here, and the tears are indeed bitter and unceasing for many. This is profoundly sad and troubling. There is no joy in this report.

But those of us truly in the fight for the right reasons do not despair. First, we must be optimists or we would not accept routine and withering public disparaging as we share the simple truth that family formation matters. Second, we take heart that other voices are describing the problems outside our circle, and we see the promise and potential of new, more robust coalitions to help reverse the loss of a child-centric culture, where children live longer and enjoy greater prosperity than their parents. Neither Vance nor Murray are religious-right acolytes.

It is for these reasons IFI recently created the Andrew Smith Center for Family Prosperity. Among its chief undertakings is a partnership with the American Conservative Union, America’s oldest think tank, to study and detail 57 factors at the core of family prosperity. Some are traditional IFI concerns—marriage rates and adoption policies—but many are broader topics. This expanded set of factors includes markers such as graduate and professional degrees and net domestic migration in Indiana.

The initial study, released last year, ranked Indiana 28th among the 50 states in overall standing. This year—the data was just released—shows us slipping to 31st. (All the data and the methodology are presented at www.familyprosperity.org.)

The center will increasingly make the argument that family is central to a healthy and prosperous society in the language of economics. It is a message all Hoosiers of good will need to hear and heed as we come to some sober assessments about the limits of government and the ability of our public officials to pass enough laws and appropriate enough dollars from us to fix the ache in the heart of the heartland that is leading to such despair and dysfunction.•

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