Speaking at a commencement at Howard University in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a profound statement about the underlying prerequisite for every ambitious public and private initiative under way at that time.
"…unless we work to strengthen the family," he said, "to create conditions under which most parents will stay together — all the rest: schools, and playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern, will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation."
The sanctity of the traditional nuclear family as a model for child rearing already was beginning to come under attack in those days. A counter-cultural movement was afoot among the nation's young adults, emphasizing self-gratification over moral restraint.
Soon, popular media on television and in movies would abandon the underlying assumption that the standard two-parent family was the norm, focusing inordinate attention not only on exceptions to that rule, but on the problems that accompany dysfunctional family units.
The 1980s and '90s saw a resurgence in government concern over the declining strength of traditional families. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan said, "Strong families are the foundation of society. Through them we pass on our traditions, rituals and values. From them we receive the love, encouragement, and education needed to meet human challenges. Family life provides opportunities and time for the spiritual growth that fosters generosity of spirit and responsible citizenship."
Today one wonders, where has this concern for the traditional family gone?
Exceptions to the nuclear family always have existed, as have success stories of children raised by single parents or under other nontraditional circumstances. But these are statistical outliers. And yet it seems as if few today are prepared to stand up for traditional families in the public square for fear of sounding politically incorrect.
Meanwhile, 41 percent of all children born in the United States in 2010 were born out of wedlock. That compares with 7 percent about the time LBJ gave that commencement speech.
Research is clear on the consequences of this trend. Children raised without married parents are more likely to live in poverty, to have poor health and to perform poorly in school than those raised in traditional, nuclear families. Over time, this not only puts a strain on social services, it will begin to break down society's civil fabric and economic power.
Those who study social issues have not ignored this problem. Interestingly, both the conservative Heritage Foundation and the more left-leaning Brookings Institution have published papers arguing that successful marriages are an answer to poverty. Brookings said returning to 1970's marriage rate would reduce poverty by about 25 percent. Heritage said a child born into a traditional home has an 82 percent better chance of escaping poverty.
Where, then, are government incentives to promote marriage and family?
In Utah, a Marriage Commission has operated on a shoe-string budget for several years, offering courses to help engaged couples understand how to build lasting marriages and to help existing couples work through their problems.
But the state Legislature is considering removing what little funding the commission receives, and the group's federal lifeline through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding is drying up, as well.
Other states have laws in place reducing the cost of a marriage license for couples that complete marriage preparation courses.
But so much more could be one.
Both the Johnson and Reagan quotes above were taken from the introductory pages of a report titled, "The family: preserving America's future." It was commissioned by President Reagan as a way to determine how government at all levels could be more supportive of families.35 comments on this story
Reagan followed the report with an executive order in 1987, requiring government agencies to file family impact statements before making any decisions that affected families. He asked those agencies to identify whether decisions would harm a family's well-being and then explain why such a proposal should be submitted.
This emphasis didn't stop the decline in traditional marriage and family, but it might have had an effect if allowed to continue with renewed emphasis.
Clearly, what is needed are public and private initiatives aimed at changing the culture. To retreat, or to sit back and accept the alarming dissolution of traditional families, is unacceptable.