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Family Policy Is Economic Policy

The welfare state as we know it would not exist without fractured families.

When asked about connection between America’s economic and social policy, the Ethics & Public Policy Center’s Mary Eberstadt is blunt: “The welfare state as we know it would not exist without fractured families.” She further noted that other countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, that are 20 years ahead of the United States in becoming social-democratic welfare states are all going bankrupt. The government is no substitute for family, at least if you want to stay solvent.

As the shutdown has made more obvious, the government is no substitute for family here either. We now expect Social Security, rather than children, to care for the aging. We expect food stamps and Head Start to care for fatherless children and husband-less mothers. We expect disability and unemployment to cushion men whom marriage and children do not propel towards work. We expect schools to monitor children on and off campus because there’s no one at home to do it.

Eberstadt was speaking at an event sponsored by the The Values & Capitalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, along with some of the top thinkers on American family fragmentation including the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox, and former AEI writer Nick Schulz.

Wilcox highlighted the effects of our decaying culture on men, who are now the second sex by nearly every measure: high school graduation, college enrollment, mobility, workforce participation, and so forth. About the only thing men have gotten out of the sexual revolution is lots of uncommitted sex, but in so doing they’ve lost their reasons to live.

Schulz discussed how his interest in economic prosperity led him to study our burgeoning family collapse. In short, the two are strongly related, as his little book discusses, but economists don’t like to talk about the plain results of their research in that domain because the subject is touchy.

The Moral Majority and related culture wars of the 90s, along with loosening social mores, have made politicians shy away from social issues. But our cultural norms, particularly the drastic increase in fathering children before marriage, are helping drive our economic collapse. Government can’t do a lot to bolster families, the panelists agreed, but what it can do it should. This might look like reform conservatism or libertarian populism or some other blend that eliminates government preferences against marriage and work.

While culture may be the most difficult thing to consciously change, it’s happened before. Smoking, Eberstadt noted, just a few decades ago was rampant. Marriage is far more consequential than smoking, but because of that its centrality is easier to establish. More people need to start making that case. This is one campaign that could use kids’ faces without prostituting them.

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