Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Elephant's family

David Brooks essay in the Atlantic "The nuclear family was a mistake" has a lot of interesting ideas. We used to (1800s) largely live with extended family. In the mid 20th century we moved to mom, dad and kids, the nuclear family that David thinks is a mistake. Now we increasingly live the widely parodied Life of Julia (Taranto scathing review at WSJ, guide to parodies at Atlantic), individuals whose main relationship in life is to the federal government.

One aspect, tangential to the main theme, struck me. In all our economic discussions about inequality, when we stop shouting at each other, we come down to a commonsense middle ground: There are lots of obstacles in the way of economic, personal, and social advancement for Americans who start on the lower end of the economic ladder. Free marketers tend to point to government obstacles -- horrible schools in the thrall of teacher unions, land use policies that make it impossible to live near better jobs, social programs whose disincentives to work or move to work make that an impossible choice, and so on. Government-run-things advocates ask for more programs, a 58th job training program, UBI, government jobs, government provided housing, more money to the teachers unions, government-run pre-k and day care, gushers of money, and so on. Still, we get to a comfortable point that we agree on a problem, and we're talking about various ways to fix it.

Into this comfortable discussion, Brooks' essay points to the elephant in the middle of the room.  People on the lower economic end in this country start their lives in chaotic families.
In 1970, the family structures of the rich and poor did not differ that greatly. Now there is a chasm between them. As of 2005, 85 percent of children born to upper-middle-class families were living with both biological parents when the mom was 40. Among working-class families, only 30 percent were. According to a 2012 report from the National Center for Health Statistics, college-educated women ages 22 to 44 have a 78 percent chance of having their first marriage last at least 20 years. Women in the same age range with a high-school degree or less have only about a 40 percent chance. Among Americans ages 18 to 55, only 26 percent of the poor and 39 percent of the working class are currently married.
 In 1960, roughly 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women. Now about 40 percent are. The Pew Research Center reported that 11 percent of children lived apart from their father in 1960. In 2010, 27 percent did. Now, if you are born into poverty and raised by your married parents, you have an 80 percent chance of climbing out of it. If you are born into poverty and raised by an unmarried mother, you have a 50 percent chance of remaining stuck.
Nothing, nothing, in our pleasant dirigiste anti-inequality debate adds up to these kinds of numbers. A year of government run pre-K while not even talking about these facts is like handing out bandaids to cancer patients.

Brooks goes on to a later stage in life, the difficult transition to adulthood. 
Extended families provided men with the fortifying influences of male bonding and female companionship. Today many American males spend the first 20 years of their life without a father and the next 15 without a spouse. Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute has spent a good chunk of her career examining the wreckage caused by the decline of the American family, and cites evidence showing that, in the absence of the connection and meaning that family provides, unmarried men are less healthy—alcohol and drug abuse are common—earn less, and die sooner than married men.
This is not a new insight, really. It's just the great unmentionable. When in any inequality discussion did anyone point to the fact that hordes of children are growing up in chaotic family lives as the central problem, and the central thing that has gotten worse in the last decades? When in any job training discussion do we point out that young men growing up alone learn from their gang? Even elephants need families to grow up, and young elephants raised alone are ill-behaved and unmoored.

It is the great unmentionable:
Highly educated progressives may talk a tolerant game on family structure when speaking about society at large, but they have extremely strict expectations for their own families. When Wilcox asked his University of Virginia students if they thought having a child out of wedlock was wrong, 62 percent said it was not wrong. When he asked the students how their own parents would feel if they themselves had a child out of wedlock, 97 percent said their parents would “freak out.” 
But if we do not mention it, we're wasting our time.

A central question for all of us is the disincentives that government programs have had for families. As I see it, the life-of-Julia experiment has this disincentive. It's not a new or partisan view -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan started in the 1960s pointing out that giving welfare conditioned on no men being present was a huge mistake.

Brooks goes quickly to culture.  But culture also responds to incentives.

We are indeed not homo economicus, either individuals facing a market or individuals facing the array of government programs. Especially as we grow and mature, we are a social animal, homo of the family, of the extended family, of the village. Now absent.


Response to Jeremy:

This is an excellent point, other than the snarky tone ("convenient"). I did not claim an exclusive list, just a starting point. The war on drugs, and the disastrous effects of the criminal justice system on many lives is surely a contributor. Here's a place I'm for a lot more government spending. Efficient law and courts are infrastructure too. In order to catch criminals, we do not need to ruin this many lives of innocent people. And we could do a darn better job of catching criminals too -- crime rates in low-income neighborhoods are shocking, destroying business, opportunities, incentives and lives.


  1. I have not had time to do more than skim the Brooks article. It does not appear that he is familiar with the historical and anthropological literature on the subject of family structure. I did not see names like Peter Laslett and Emmanuel Todd. Just a couple of links:

    Home » Volume IV., No. 6. » Current » America, England, Europe - Why Do We Differ? - 28 November 2013 - James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus

    America 3.0 by Michael J. Lotus James C. Bennett https://www.amazon.com/America-Michael-Lotus-Bennett-2013-03-08/dp/B019TLQ4GO

  2. "A central question for all of us is the disincentives that government programs have had for families." "Brooks goes quickly to culture. But culture also responds to incentives."
    I think this post is very accurate for our days. In my country, Chile, there is a discussion about the economic system (called "neo-liberalism") that even came us to discussing about change our Constitution. One of the accusations to the system is this promotes the individualism and that the market "has get inside in every aspect of social life". I think this vision is partial incorrect, almost completely incorrect.

    I think there has been in whole world, not only Chile or the States, policies that have produced a substitution effect of the community by the state. For instance, in Chile the governments since the return to democracy had committed with solve the housing deficits that affects specially the poorest people of the country. The policies adopted were focused in the state gives houses and in following this governments built entire neighborhoods. Nonetheless, this houses were abandoned or rented because was located far to the city and far to the original neighborhoods of the beneficiaries. An example how ignore market forces drives to a disastrous policies.

    I used this example because the original idea of serve the people necessities ended in a worse situation which the community was disolved and people did get apart of the opportunity net that community and the city give. Anyway, the rhetoric that government can improve the life quality of the persons, the common good and even defeat individualism have resurged a nostalgia of Welfare State.

    I'd like to read some post of you about this issue. The United States has characterized by the support to a free-market economy and a society based in the community. Nowadays both of these are deteriorated.

  3. I don't buy it.

    Nuclear and non-nuclear families have always been horrible. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, wife beating was common entertainment. That was one of the causes of support for Prohibition. Wife beating didn't stop until television came along.

    Of course I see the case about incentives. But hell, even when there wasn't a welfare state, all this was no fun.

  4. I'm not clear on exactly what the problem is according to you? Is inequality the problem, and you're saying it's caused by (lack of) family structures? Or is family structure the problem? Do you believe that changes to family structure are not at all due to individual choice?

    Hopefully the goal of policy is to accommodate as wide a range of circumstances, and preferences, as possible. Trying to get everyone to conform to some bygone ideal is likely futile.

  5. Convenient that you choose to ignore the prison reform movement, which heavily criticizes industrial incarceration and its effect on family life. 2.3 million people are imprisoned, ~540,000 of imprisoned people haven't even been convicted of anything and are locked up in pretrial detention because they can't afford to pay the corrupt cash bail.


    2 million children have parents who have been locked up for extremely long sentences and now privatized prisons are cancelling visitation and charging prisoners exorbitant fees just to call their family-members. Our mass incarceration system may not have been designed to destroy families, but it's doing a pretty good job of it.

    1. If you mean crimes without victims, such as drug, gambling, prostitution, etc. I am all for releasing all of them.
      If you mean murders or robbers, you are just repeating socialist, patronizing, propaganda...

    2. I would be freeing all non-violent drug offenders. Many social commenters call for this as if it will mostly fix the problem of mass incarceration.

      - the standard line: "2.3M people locked up. Half of them are non-violent drug offenders.. easy fix.."

      Except those stats are not true, yet repeated everywhere.

      Just over 40% of federal prisoners fit that category. But most people are locked up in state and local prisons/jails.

      If you free all non-violent drug offenders you end up with 1.9M prisoners in the US. And it’s still a heavily incarcerated nation. When you look at the mix of state prisoners, the % that a reasonable person might think are dangerous to society is pretty high.

      Anyway, I realize that I’m not contradicting anyone’s point. Just commenting on a false idea that is commonly repeated. I agree with decriminalisation of lots of things, especially drugs. Its impact on prisoner population won’t be nearly as big as expected.

  6. My father died when I was 10, had no extended family, but social security survivor benefits and a UCLA that was then still affordable for poor people really helped.

  7. Interesting topic.

    I am not sure that industrial or post-industrial societies, whether in China or the United States, can be termed family-friendly. People must migrate to where the jobs are, and even if they own a small farm they cannot compete due the economies of scale in agriculture. Extended families are torn asunder by the need to find a job.

    We are seeing declining birth rates in all industrial and post industrial societies. For example, women in Hong Kong and South Korea have less than one baby, while birth rates in the United States recently dropped below replacement value. Some of this has to do with exploding housing costs, due to property zoning.

    The recent solution to populations that do not reproduce has been to import a new working or employee class. Or,it may be that importing a new employee class lowers wages below the point that families can be raised. The cost of raising a family must be offshored.

    Recently, some formerly conservative economists and thinkers are beginning to reassess government policies towards families. It is an interesting question whether free trade, free markets, and industrial and post-industrial societies are family-hostile.

  8. Attachment Theory and the work out of the Oregon Social Learning Center has tried for the last 40 years to bring up the point you made into the mainstream, to get people to understand that secure attachment in family life makes a huge difference:

    "When in any inequality discussion did anyone point to the fact that hordes of children are growing up in chaotic family lives as the central problem, and the central thing that has gotten worse in the last decades?"


  9. I grew up in a NW Indiana steel town. The Mills in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago served as attractors for the migration North that drew Black and Hispanic families. The children of those families completed high school, went to college or learned a trade. Urban renewal, the war on poverty and the decline in marriage changed that.

  10. Misogyny and overzealous religion killed the joint family. Joint family was a place where the younger women had to provide lifelong servitude and give up power to have a happy family (I came from one and can give countless examples and stats). Misogyny is why a fatherless family is a better option ...

  11. "When in any inequality discussion did anyone point to the fact that hordes of children are growing up in chaotic family lives as the central problem, and the central thing that has gotten worse in the last decades?"

    Charles Murray has been saying this for years. It's the central theme of Coming Apart.

  12. Actually, Brooks is no demographer. The Western Demographic System, as it is sometimes called, has always been organized around the nuclear family. There were extended families, but they were not the predominate pattern...and the rules of family formation (i.e., cultural norms) in Western Europe and America militated against extended families.


  13. The comments by Frank and Rudy suggest a world where millions of women have wanted for decades to break free from subservience to males. The growth of affirmative action and the shrinking of blue collar jobs has given them their chance, like it or not.

    By the way, this was predicted 100% by George Gilder in his little known book, Sexual Suicide, in the late '70's.

  14. Thanks for a great post John. Though fairly new, there is a growing literature within macro on family structure and inequality. See Greenwood et al. (2016) https://www.nber.org/papers/w17735.pdf, Caucutt, et al. (2018) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1xYhUlJTamFOa2p2DzmyuJUUfpNNZVqMA/view, Blandin and Herrington (2020) https://drive.google.com/file/d/12fZXyNij_8nwDLNfxbWdg_tLIfvGA4xL/view, Moschini (2020) https://egmoschini.github.io/Moschini%202020.pdf. There is much more work to do.


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