Of family decline and the importance of traditions

According to historian Paul Johnson, many analysts of American society consider the decline of the family and of family life — and the growth in illegitimacy — to be the decisive single development in America during the second half of the 20th century. It’s easy either to decry that decline in dramatic terms or to dismiss it as unimportant, a mere illusion in the minds of cultural conservatives. No need exists to overstate the case, to issue dire warnings of degeneracy and immorality or to primly utter hints at history repeating itself, to darkly allude to the collapse of the Roman empire or to the fall of any great civilization without regard to the aptness of the analogy. But neither does it serve a positive purpose to deny the reality. The family has been in decline and Johnson provides the evidence to prove it. From his A History of the American People:

Up to 1920, the proportion of children born to single women in the United States was less than 3 percent, roughly where it had been throughout the history of the country. The trendline shifted upwards, though not dramatically, in the 1950s. A steep, sustained rise gathered pace in the mid-1960s and continued into the early 1990s, to reach 30 percent in 1991. In 1960, there were just 73,000 never-married mothers between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. By 1980 there were 1 million. By 1990 there were 2.9 million. Thus, though the illegitimacy ratio rose six times in thirty years, the number of never-married mothers rose forty times. Illegitimacy was far more common among blacks than among whites. The difference in black-white marriage rates was small until the 1960s and then widened, so that by 1991 only 38 percent of black women aged 15-44 were married, compared to 58 percent of white women. A significant difference between the number of black illegitimate children and white ones went back to well before the 1960s, though it increased markedly after the 1960s watershed. In 1960, 24 percent of black children were illegitimate, compared with 2 percent of white children. By 1991, the figures of illegitimate births were 68 percent of all births for blacks, 39 percent for Latinos and 18 percent for non-Latino whites. At some point between 1960 and 1990, marriage, and having children within marriage, ceased to be the norm among blacks, while remaining the norm among whites (though a deteriorating one). The jump in the illegitimacy rate in 1991 was the largest so far recorded, but it was exceeded by subsequent years. By the end of 1994 it was 33 percent for the nation as a whole, 25 percent for whites, and 70 percent for blacks. In parts of Washington, capital of the richest nation in the world, it was as high as 90 percent.

Updated statistics are scarcely more hopeful. For example, one in four children today lives with just one parent. Pretty grim.

But in Russell, Kan., on this Sunday before Labor Day, the view of the family is anything but grim. Fifty-seven years ago, my grandfather and his 11 siblings gathered in this dusty, windy town for a family reunion — and, every year since then, Dennings have gathered over Labor Day weekend, sometimes in a home, sometimes at a park, sometimes at a hotel to eat their fill of food (galuskies! sauerkraut! homegrown, self-canned pickles!), contentiously talk politics (we don’t all agree, but we all have opinions!), throw the football or bump the volleyball, exchange hugs and experience that rare and wonderful sensation of the unconditional acceptance of being surrounded by family. Just three of the founding 12 siblings are still alive and I frequently meet relatives I never knew I had, but the reunion somehow always remains the same. Every year, I learn something new.

This year, for example, I learned that one of the Navy SEALS shot down in a helicopter over Pakistan — pilot Bryan Nichols — was from Hays, Kan., and graduated from the same high school as my father. My mother’s cousin Sari and her daughter Rachel told me the story of his funeral — how hundreds of high schoolers sat stock still and listened to 30 minutes of testimonials from fellow servicemen, testimonials attesting to Nichols’ status as a “heroes’ hero,” the SEAL other SEALs called when they got in over their heads, how Patriot Riders waved flags, flag upon flag upon flag streaming down the street, how the day of Nichols’ funeral was to have been the day he returned on leave. They both had goosebumps as they related the memory.

I also listened to a voicemail message from Tim Pawlenty on the phone of my cousin’s son, Bryan. Pawlenty said “Peace out” — not the sort of farewell you’d expect from Mr. “Vanilla.” And I found out I’m not the first of my relatives to appear on Fox and Friends. My great-uncle Carroll, on a trip to NYC to visit his daughter, once presented Steve Doocey (a Kansan himself) with a bottle of Gates’ BBQ sauce (the best!) on air — and earned a hug from E.D. Hill. Pretty sure my brief exchange with Doocey grading the performances of the debt ceiling players doesn’t compare.

It all reminds me of something I’m fond of repeating but frequently forget the meaning of: Policy matters because people matter and the health of the person is at the heart of healthy policy. Personal responsibility and a disciplined work ethic will always precede a healthy economy, for example. Marriage and family policy is a tricky area — worth legislating because society has a definite stake in the health of the family, yet fraught with unintended consequences. But, culturally speaking, the way to successful family life is one family, one day at a time — just as the way to a 57-year tradition is one year at time.