Robert W. Patterson: Republican plan ignores the American family crisis

When it unveiled its Pledge to America last month, the GOP had every reason to feel upbeat: The Republicans' “governing agenda” contains a lot of good. But its preoccupation with fiscal matters shows that most Republican leaders remain blind to the elephant in the room.

Our nation is plagued not so much by an economic crisis but by a meltdown of the social sector, rooted in the marriage-based family, without which capitalism and constitutional government would not be possible. The crowding out of this fundamental sphere of American life — in which we interact with each other without contracts, explicit exchanges, expectations of reciprocity or force of law — began in the 1970s and is responsible for a malaise that even a robust private sector cannot resolve.

Granted, the Pledge acknowledges the “unraveling” of the “social fabric” and even promises to stop federal funding of abortion. Still, nothing in the Pledge calls for reversing a generation of court decrees and public policies that have devastated life-long marriage, the natural family and civil society to a far greater degree than any of the policies of President Obama have harmed the economy.

That's unfortunate, given how changes in the composition of households since 1970 (see the first chart) have helped bring America to her knees. Since Richard Nixon was president, we have not experienced any growth in the kind of households that count the most for prosperity: those composed of married parents with dependent children.

Meanwhile, the number of “nonfamily” households has more than tripled, as have single-parent households (not on chart but which now number 10.5 million).

In fact, the second illustration demonstrates that a rising GDP is an illusion when the social sector stands at risk. In the mid-20th century, when the social sector was flourishing, household income kept pace with GDP with only one wage earner in the vast majority of households. But in the generation starting in the Reagan era, although GDP increased at the same pace as the postwar period, the median income of married parents chugged along at a dramatically slower pace.

The disparity between the two eras suggests that the GOP fixation on economic issues alone will not move the country beyond the Great Recession and that the family will not automatically recover once the economy rebounds.

Paraphrasing President Abraham Lincoln's observation that labor predates capital, the economy is the fruit of the family and never could have existed if the family had not existed first. The family is the superior to the economy and deserves much higher consideration.

All the evidence screams out for the new Republican Congress to embrace polices that dramatically favor monogamy, family formation and fertility over such risky and economically draining behaviors as divorce, single parenthood, cohabitation, promiscuity and abortion.

Such a focus would resonate with one of the greatest Republican presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. Alarmed by rising rates of family breakdown and declining fertility in his time, the 26th president observed in his 1906 State of the Union Address, “This whole matter is one of the greatest sociological phenomena of our time; it is a social question of the first importance, of far greater importance than any merely political or economic question can be.”

TR, a father of six, would also likely blame our debt and entitlement liabilities on the Baby Boom generation, which did not follow its parents and “bring into the world, and rear as they should be reared, children sufficiently numerous” to keep the nation and economy “going forward.”

A pro-family growth agenda would require greater leadership and persistence than simply repealing ObamaCare, preserving the Bush tax cuts and reducing spending. But if the Republican team wants to usher in an era of growth that benefits all Americans, it needs to put a simple phrase at the top of its “governing agenda”: It's the family, stupid!

Robert W. Patterson is a research fellow at the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and is editor of “The Family in America.” He served in the George W. Bush administration as a senior speechwriter at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Small Business Administration.

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