At last we agree: fix the family

By Dan Quayle, former Vice President

June 1994 – America’s ongoing discussion of family values reminds me of something that George Orwell once wrote: “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

Especially in the world of politics and policymaking, repetition is an absolute prerequisite for change and success. So without apology, I will again state the obvious:

As a nation, we have a crisis of family breakdown. Too many of our children are born into fatherless homes. Children of unwed fathers and mothers, regardless of the age, race and social class of their parents, generally do not fare as well as children born to married parents. The odds are overwhelming that they will face lives of material, emotional and spiritual poverty.

The statistics of this national tragedy are worth noting and memorizing: Today, nearly one-third of our children are born out of wedlock. In our inner cities, the illegitimacy rate is as high as 80%. For years, conservatives and liberals have spoken and written about the black underclass. Many people may therefore be surprised to learn that family breakdown is not just a crisis of the inner city. In fact, in total numbers, there are more babies born to single white women over the age of 30 than to black teenagers.

Interestingly, President Clinton has now joined the discussion of family values and apparently intends to make this issue a priority. I hope he stays with it, because we need the President to lead the discussion. Rhetoric matters, even if his remedies may fall short of solving the problem.

It is heartening to see more leaders of all political persuasions publicly saying what people once said only privately – that a whole host of social ills, from crime to welfare dependency to drug addiction, cannot be cured without strengthening families and reversing the illegitimacy trend.

But beyond lamenting this national scandal, what can we do?

Ultimately, men and women will have to reawaken to their responsibility for the children they bear. Boys and girls must be taught again that they should marry before bringing children into the world. Government can’t implement this moral reawakening, but it can and should encourage those who make the right decisions, while discouraging those who make harmful choices. This is the basis for a sound family policy agenda:

• First, let us put our money where our mouth is. Our tax laws are brutal to the average family with children. For the past half century, inflation has eroded the dependent exemption for children. Today, it is a woefully inadequate $2,350. If the exemption had been indexed for inflation after World War II, it would now be worth more than $8,000 for each child. Many federal programs are automatically adjusted for inflation – Social Security is a prime example –but our children are treated like second-class citizens. It’s time to index this tax exemption.

• Second, we should eliminate the marriage tax penalty, especially for the working poor. Under current law, an unmarried man and woman, each making $15,000 a year and supporting a child, would receive a tax rebate of about $650, thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit. If they marry, however, their combined income of $30,000 would mean a tax bill of over $2,000. This is terrible social policy. There should be no economic penalty for marriage.

• Third, we need radical reform of our welfare system. The debate now is focused on getting people off the welfare rolls in two years. This is shortsighted. We need to remove the incentives to getting on welfare in the first place. The respected conservative sociologist Charles Murray argues for eliminating welfare altogether for single mothers. The prospect of forced reliance on family, friends and neighbors for support, he argues, will both revive social disapproval of illegitimacy and deter pregnancies before marriage.

This is a draconian solution, but there are intermediate steps that are more politically acceptable. Underage mothers, for example, could be required to live with their parents in order to receive assistance. Parents of underage fathers could be held responsible for child support payments until their son reaches majority. The parents of teenagers, both boys and girls, should be held responsible as grandparents until their children reach majority.

This may sound harsh, but the current system is a disaster. We must recognize that we are not going to reduce the welfare rolls until we reduce the number of births out of wedlock. The poverty rate for children in fatherless households is five times higher than for children in two-parent households. We can’t afford marginal reforms. Unlike the health-care system, there is a crisis of the welfare system.

• Fourth, we need to fix our failed public education system. A good education not only equips young people to meet the financial demands of family life, but it also encourages them to delay parenthood by giving them real prospects for the future. Unfortunately, our public education system is a slave to mediocrity. It is overly bureaucratic and resists reform. Bill Clinton made the correct decision in choosing where his daughter went to school. Every parent should have the same opportunity, not just those who can afford to pay private school tuition.

We give financial aid for higher education directly to students. We should do the same for primary and secondary students. Far from ruining public education the competition that this creates will give our many talented public school teachers and principals the opening they need to create quality schools.

• Finally, we should not be afraid to speak the truth with conviction. We have been quite successful in our national crusade to get people to quit smoking. Year after year of public service announcements, laws and social pressure that highlight the harm of smoking have worked. Americans smoke less. Maybe we would see similar results in a national campaign to address the plight of children born out of wedlock.

It’s wrong to father children you can’t support. Children are put at risk when they are raised fatherless. We should not mince words in teaching young people the virtues of chastity, fidelity, self-control and responsibility.

It may take us a generation to turn this crisis around – it took longer than that to create it, after all. But happily, there is less controversy on this subject today than when I made many of these same points two years ago. The growing consensus is a reason to hope that we can move beyond talk and finally act.