Most foundations have a strong preference for funding direct service programs rather than such general endeavors as research and public education, especially when it comes to children’s well-being. The reasons are obvious—the beneficiaries are children, their needs are palpable, results are immediate and can be measured.
During the last decade and a half, however, a number of foundations have blazed a new trail and supported research and public education in the child-related area of marriage and the family. The payoff for this support has proved to be enormous. This is the story of what happened, a story of remarkable success on the part of a few foundations that risked going out on a big limb.
Elephant in the Room
The story begins in the 1980s, when child poverty, youth delinquency, and teen pregnancy began to skyrocket, especially among the poor and minorities. Tremendous gains in gross domestic product and the expansion of the welfare state in the decades after the Second World War seemed to have no effect on child poverty; in fact, the problem was growing worse. By 1985 the child poverty rate was 22 percent—almost precisely what it was in 1965—after it had declined to a low of 15 percent in 1970. What was going wrong?
Scrambling for an answer to this conundrum, the mainstream media and most of the academic community fell back on the old standbys: persistent and institutional racism, income inequality, and lack of government support. Completely overlooked, willfully or not, was the serious weakening of America’s family structure during those years. The divorce rate had more than doubled between 1960 and 1985, and the out-of-wedlock birthrate had quadrupled. Broken homes had grown like wildfire; doleful news articles about “latchkey kids” popped up on TV and in the papers. These trends were most pronounced among blacks, but family structure rather than race accounted for the difference. For example, black children who grew up in married families were more similar to white children from the same family background than to black children in single-mother families.
Moreover, in the 1980s, whites had developed the same rates of dysfunctional family problems that blacks had had in the 1960s when the issue of family structure was first raised by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his 1965 report “The Negro Family.” Broken homes were by far the most important factor in the skyrocketing child poverty rate of the 1980s: Children from broken homes, compared to children from intact families, have six times the chance of growing up poor. For other youth problems like delinquency and teen pregnancies, the rates for broken-home children are two to three times what they are for children from intact families.
Yet the elites in media and academia refused to face up to the relationship between child poverty and divorce and illegitimacy. Any serious consideration of family structure was off the table. Divorce was declared a liberating movement for adults that only minimally affected children. Out-of-wedlock births were viewed as the unintended and not particularly negative result of new freedoms for women. Even the term “broken homes” was shunned. Instead, we were told that there are many different kinds of families, each good in its own way, and any attempt to raise questions about the effects of different family structures is intolerant. To raise questions about fatherlessness was seen as an assault on cherished sexual freedoms, and a focus on the dissolution of black family structures was derided as “blaming the victim” of racism and inequality.
For powerful ideological reasons, our intellectual leaders and media scribes misconstrued or chose to overlook one of the great social changes of our time. This lapse had serious implications for public policies about child poverty and other youth problems. If the real cause of child poverty was the decline of the two-parent family—in essence the weakening of marriage and the growth of fatherlessness—public policies were doomed to failure unless they grappled with that issue. The decline of the two-parent family remained the elephant in the room of child and family policy.
In the late 1980s, a few private foundations began to enter the fray. The data on changing family structure were there, but they needed refinement and, especially, they needed to be injected into the public domain. The academic community seemed to have little interest in doing this either on its own or with government support. Similarly, the issue was completely off the radar screen of the largest foundations in America. So a small but impassioned band of academics and intellectuals concerned about the decline of the family and its devastating consequences on children made personal visits and appeals to a few innovative foundations. There, we found creative thinkers with receptive ears. The battle over changing the cultural debate—what came to be called “the war over the family”—was joined.
Among the pioneering foundations that became involved were the Achelis and Bodman, Bradley, Donner, JM, Randolph, and Scaife Family foundations. What prompted them to take the plunge? Joanne B. Beyer, president of the Scaife Family Foundation, has a succinct answer. “When we were drawing up our purpose statement in the mid-1980s,” she said, “we came to realize that for almost all of the outstanding social problems of the time—child poverty, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and so on—the family was at the center. The family affected them all, and was in turn affected by them all.”
Joseph F. Dolan, now executive director of Achelis and Bodman, put it in more personal terms: “When I was growing up in integrated housing projects in Hartford years ago as a kid, everybody had a working father and marriage was normal. Drugs, guns, violent crime, obscene language, and high school dropouts were rare. When I attended a major nonprofit meeting in New York City in 1986 as a representative for the JM Foundation and suggested that single parenthood and children out of wedlock were ruinous, I was booed! But the JM Foundation stood its ground.”
Indeed, changing the cultural debate was not easy. In 1992, for example, the Washington Post announced on the front page that, according to “a searching reevaluation by social scientists,” the “conventional two-parent household may be far less critical to the healthy development of children than previously believed.” The “searching reevaluation” was complete nonsense, but this article was a kind of media capstone to years of discussion of how, as one writer claimed, the very institution of the family distorts and devalues “the diverse means by which people organize their intimate relationships.” The idea was that adults should be left alone to organize their intimate lives as they see fit.
The Quayle Effect
In the end, it was Dan Quayle who first broke through the media silence on these issues. In May 1992, on Mother’s Day, the Washington Post in its Outlook section published a provocative article by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead about a celebrated, unwed TV mother, Murphy Brown. Among the article’s readers was Dan Quayle’s wife, Marilyn, who liked it so much that she passed it on to one of her husband’s speech writers. Quayle criticized the TV show’s casual attitude toward fatherless childrearing, spurring a national debate. This was the first time that the nation as a whole would seriously discuss issues like the dramatic rise of unwed births and single parenthood. For the most part, Murphy Brown’s behavior was firmly defended by the media—partly, of course, because her nemesis was the conservative Dan Quayle.
Another early breakthrough came in late 1992, when the New York Times accepted an op-ed I had written, “The Curious Case of the Two-Parent Family.” The piece highlighted the compelling social science evidence for the importance of two-parent families and raised the question of why, in view of this evidence, the decline of two-parent families was being taken so lightly. The editors provocatively retitled the piece, “The Controversial Truth: Two-Parent Families Are Better,” but ran it on a slow news day, December 26. Nonetheless, it provoked a firestorm of criticism from well-known family scholars, who derided it as “misguided nostalgia for ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ land” and accused me of “needlessly stigmatiz[ing] children reared in families that don’t meet the ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ model.” The opening shots had been fired.
The debate was already heated when Barbara Dafoe Whitehead decided to elaborate upon her Washington Post op-ed thesis. In April 1993, the Atlantic published her long article reviewing all of the latest research on the negative consequences of divorce and unwed births. By that time, major long-term studies of the effects of divorce had verified what most parents knew in their hearts—divorce seriously hurts children.
The article began on the front cover of the magazine: “After decades of public dispute about so-called family diversity, the evidence from social science research is coming in: The dissolution of two-parent families, though it may benefit the adults involved, is harmful to many children, and dramatically undermines our society.” The editors of the Atlantic stirred the pot by titling the piece, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”
It proved to be one of the most widely read articles the Atlantic had ever published, generating a flood of letters to the editor. In one of the letters, eleven leading “divorce scholars” took Whitehead to task for allegedly overplaying the social science findings, stating that “the evidence . . . suggests that divorce does not cause serious long-term problems for the large majority of children who experience it.” The Atlantic chose not to publish the letter, but it probably represented the prevailing view of most marriage and family researchers at the time. Despite the enormous impact of this article, most professionals in the field remained unconvinced.
A Coalition Comes Together
Regardless of the compelling evidence, lone voices and a few scattered articles could not by themselves change the culture. The issue needed to find institutional advocates. A huge step in this direction was made with the formation of the Council on Families in America in 1992, under the aegis of the New York-based Institute for American Values. (Major funders of the institute include the Lilly Endowment and the Achelis and Bodman, Bradley, and Earhart foundations.) Here for the first time was a group of like-minded scholars and leading intellectuals who could speak with one voice and receive media attention. One of the members of this group was Judith Wallerstein, whose work on the long-term effects of divorce on children was eventually to achieve wide acceptance by the cultural elite. Another was Don Browning, who later, with the help of the Lilly Endowment, was to develop the influential Religion, Culture, and the Family Project at the University of Chicago. A third member was Leon Kass, another University of Chicago professor who now heads the President’s Council on Bioethics.
Since the council ran the gamut of ideology, including such liberals as Sylvia Ann Hewlett, President of the National Parenting Association; William Galston, a domestic affairs advisor to President Clinton; and “Miss Manners” Judith Martin, it was no easy task to meld everyone’s opinion into a coherent statement. But its 1995 report, “Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation,” left no doubt as to where everyone stood:
The divorce revolution . . . has failed. It has created terrible hardships for children, incurred unsupportable social costs, and failed to deliver on its promises of greater adult happiness. The time has come to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage and to rebuild a family culture based on enduring marital relationships. . .. We must reclaim the ideal of marital permanence and recognize that out-of-wedlock childbearing does harm.
After 1995, the central ideas and issues of the foundation-supported efforts on behalf of marriage and the two-parent family became a social movement. Pro-family groups were formed, the rhetoric began tangibly to affect behavior, and the public debate about family issues moved in a positive direction faster than we could have predicted. There was an important progression of ideas in the public debate: children are hurt by divorce and illegitimacy; fathers are important; and marriage is essential. As the media and the public finally began to understand the danger that family breakup posed to children, the next stage was to convince them that fathers were essential to family life. Once that intellectual hurdle was overcome, the next (and current) stage of the debate was to forge the link between engaged fathers and strong marriages.
1996 proved to be a pivotal year for family issues, although it would be misleading to link it entirely to the earlier foundation-sponsored pro-family efforts. President Clinton devoted nearly a third of his State of the Union speech to family topics (without once, however, using the “M word”: marriage). A major contributor to the text was Clinton advisor and Council on Families in America member William Galston. And most importantly, a bipartisan welfare reform bill was passed which for the first time took seriously the need to change family structure among the poor. Three out of the four legal goals of the welfare reform law were marriage related: promote “marriage, encourage . . . two-parent families, and reduce . . . out-of-wedlock births.” As subsequent years would show, welfare reform proved to be a remarkable success story in the annals of public policy.
Since 1996 a “marriage movement” in America has blossomed, supported in part by foundation dollars. The Internet-based Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education was founded by Diane Sollee, a former official of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. The coalition focuses on helping people stay in relationships through skills training and has sponsored highly successful national conferences with pro-marriage themes. The Marriage Savers group, founded by religion columnist Mike McManus and his wife, Harriet, has had an impact in many communities around the nation, by focusing on having churches better educate people preparing for marriage.
Conservative institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council have developed or strengthened a focus on marriage and family issues, and public intellectuals such as William Bennett and James Q. Wilson have recently written important books on marriage. In several states, notably Oklahoma, Arkansas, Utah, and Florida, governors have embarked on broad-based campaigns to strengthen marriage and lower the rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce. In the year 2000, led by the Institute for American Values, a marriage movement “statement of principles” was released that now has over 2,500 signatories. It received support from both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in that election year.
Change in the academic world has been slower but equally impressive. Many of the same scholars who signed the letter of protest about Whitehead’s Atlantic article huddled in 1994 to develop what amounted to a counter-statement about the effects of divorce. Three years would pass before the statement was finalized and the results published, during which time important new research about the effects of divorce took much of the wind out of the group’s sails. Indeed, in the final version of the statement, it is difficult to detect much if any disagreement with Whitehead:
Overall, most children of divorce experience dramatic declines in their economic circumstances, abandonment (or fear of abandonment) by one or both of their parents, the diminished capacity of both parents to attend meaningfully and constructively to their children’s needs, . . . and diminished contact with many familiar or potential sources of psychosocial support . . . as well as familiar living settings. As a consequence, the experience of divorce is a psychosocial stressor and a significant life transition for most children, with long-term repercussions for many.
The media has also begun to come around. As one sign of the times, in a stunning admission to the media in the late 1990s, Candice Bergen of “Murphy Brown” fame said that Dan Quayle had picked “the right theme to hammer home.” The body of his speech was “completely sound,” she told the Los Angeles Times, adding of the show’s single-parenting plot, “I didn’t think it was a good message to be sending out.”
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of a turnaround in journalistic attitudes came in the pages of the New York Times in August 2001. Under the headline “2-Parent Families Rise after Change in Welfare Laws,” reporter Blaine Harden wrote, a powerful consensus has emerged in recent years among social scientists, as well as state and federal policy makers. It sees single-parent families as the dismal foundries that produced decades of child poverty, delinquency, and crime. And it views the rise of such families, which began in the early 1960s and continued until about five years ago, as a singularly important indicator of child pathology. . .. From a child’s point of view, according to a growing body of social research, the most supportive household is one with two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.
Has any of this effort made a tangible difference in people’s behavior and helped to halt family decline? It may well have. We should never underestimate the power of research and good reporting to enlighten and change minds and hearts. By the second half of the 1990s, the percentages of single-parent families and teen pregnancies were dropping, especially in those populations at greatest risk. Crime rates were diminishing, including youth crimes. And child poverty has been steadily decreasing and now is below 16 percent, the lowest level since 1979. Indeed, many experts are now talking about a “family turnaround.”
Only in America, where private foundations flourish, could this story have taken place. My hat is off to those courageous foundations that bet on the small band of academics and intellectuals who didn’t toe the party line on the notoriously controversial and difficult topic of family breakdown. Of course, as one of the beneficiaries, I’m not unbiased on the matter. But I believe that future Americans will look back and count the family wars of the late 20th century as one of philanthropy’s finest hours.
David Popenoe is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and co-director with Darbara Dafoe Whitehead of the National Marriage Project.