By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Now that the dust has settled on her break-up with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver is back working at NBC News. She is also the force behind a think-tank called the Center for American Progress and The Shriver Report, a web site that describes itself as “a multi-platform nonprofit media initiative led by Maria Shriver that seeks to modernize America’s relationship to women.” Its goal is to “convene influential voices and bold ideas from across the cultural spectrum” in order to “document the most significant societal trends and transformations in American life and the impact they have on women.”
W. Bradford Wilcox observes, in the online edition of National Review on February 22, that the latest edition of Shriver’s web site, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink, “has garnered positive notice in liberal circles for advocating a progressive agenda — encompassing everything from expanded family leave to a higher minimum wage — that is designed to help women and children struggling to make it in modern America.”
Bradford Wilcox disagrees. He calls the report “surprisingly regressive.” His objection is based on the report’s push for the “government, business, and other institutions” to accommodate themselves to what The Shriver Report calls the “profound change in the makeup and reality of American families.” The report is talking about single motherhood; its recommendation is for society to “adapt to this change and deal with it.” In other words, to find ways to provide for single mothers the support system that used to be provided by the nuclear family.
I have found myself tempted at times by such thoughts. I can remember being at a restaurant near New Haven, Conn., on an afternoon a few years ago, after graduation ceremonies had taken place at a local high school. I was struck by the sight of table after table of minority families celebrating the occasion, mothers, grandmothers, aunts — and no fathers. Everyone was happy and proud. The missing fathers seemed irrelevant. The families were well-clothed, well-fed, confident, and at ease with themselves. This was the new mainstream in that neighborhood, the new definition of family, one that did not include a father. It was clear to me that, whether I liked it or not, this situation was not going to change anytime soon.
The question is how we should respond as a society to that change. The Shriver Report calls for us to “embrace the reality that, for a substantial and growing share of poor and minority women, childrearing is primarily women’s work.” Wilcox writes, “The report would have the nation make its peace with the growing share of families headed by single mothers — now about 24 percent of families.” What that means is that the country needs to accept an expanding welfare state, one that will provide housing, food stamps, income assistance, support for college educations, and medical care for these families, which cannot be expected to provide for themselves in the manner of a traditional nuclear family of old.
It is this scenario that Wilcox calls “surprisingly regressive.” He sees it as a surrender, one that accepts that poor children will “remain stuck in an intergenerational cycle of poverty, without the same shot at the American Dream as their more affluent peers.” He is convinced that expanded government programs cannot replace the father in these homes and that these children “are less likely to enjoy the shelter, security, and economic resources of a two-parent home.” To support this position, he points to a new study from Harvard economist Raj Chetty that calls family structure “the strongest and most robust predictor of economic mobility for lower-income children across the country.” Wilcox argues further that the “Shriver Report’s public strategy of accommodating single-parent families only locks children into the very poverty that Shriver decries.”
Maria Shriver would disagree, of course. She would argue that her report does not seek to make permanent the dependency status of single-mother families. She would insist that the expansion of government assistance she is calling for is meant as a temporary measure, as a bridge that will one day lead the children from fatherless homes to become productive and self-supporting members of society. The question is whether that claim is realistic; or if increased government assistance will lead to a comfort level with single-mother families that will make it the new normal. I keep thinking of those families at graduation day in the restaurant near New Haven. There was no sign of any urgency in that room to change the understanding of a family to the two-parent model of the past.
No one with a heart or a conscience would recommend that the children from single-mother homes live like the urchins in an Oliver Twist movie. But someone with a heart and a conscience would also see the danger of placing obstacles in the way of the children from these homes ever becoming productive members of society. It is putting our heads in the sand to deny that an overly generous array of government programs can do that; that they can become a crutch. It is not enough for a government program to mean well. If it does more harm than good we have to face that fact.
Wilcox is convinced that Maria Shriver’s report is an example of a program like that, one that it will do more harm than good. He writes:
“Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress are clearly motivated by the noblest of intentions: to lift an estimated 70 million women and children in America out of poverty and economic insecurity. But unless they pay more attention to articulating and advancing an agenda that will also strengthen two-parent families, their intention is not likely to be fully realized. That’s because genuine progress in advancing gender equity, equal opportunity for all Americans, and child welfare depends on finding a way to renew the equality and stability of men’s connection to family life — especially in the poor and working-class families where marriage is in retreat. In other words, the nation’s most vulnerable women and children are not likely to push ‘back from the brink’ of economic and social marginalization until we can renew their ties to men and marriage.”
Of course, finding a way to do that is America’s version of the riddle of the sphinx. It calls to mind Winston Churchill’s quip about Russia being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It would require a moral reawakening that would rival any of the “Great Awakenings” in the American past.
Anyone know how to bring that about?
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