Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics
Roberto Rivera on the Truth About Loving Our Kids
I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a geek. No, I’m not a “carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, [such] as biting off the heads of live chickens.” I mean the contemporary sense of the word: a person whose curiosity and enthusiasms meet with the disapproval of others. My frowned-upon pursuit is statistics. I love baseball partly because the numbers mean something. And it’s not just baseball. You can’t really understand American culture unless you, as they say on Marketplace, do the numbers.
That’s why I’m a sucker for the Statistical Abstract of the United States and why I love browsing through page after page of Census Bureau data. I won’t say that figures never lie, but I will say that they are a lot less misleading than we are. I admit that you can’t reduce life to a mathematical model. However, if I had to choose between the numbers and position papers from interest groups—whether left or right—I’d trust the numbers to provide me with a picture that more closely conforms to reality. That’s because the data from the Census or the Abstract does one thing exceptionally well: It exposes the gap between our rhetoric and our actions.
A good example of this function is the data released this past spring by the Census Bureau on households and families. We Americans never tire of saying how much we love our children. Nearly every policy proposal is justified by an appeal to our kids’ well-being and future. Think of the woman on The Simpsons who, at every Springfield town meeting, yells, “But what about the children?” Now it barely qualifies as parody.
For instance, former Clinton Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner was famous—some would say infamous—for making every proposed regulation a test of how much we love our kids. Browner wasn’t alone in the Clinton administration in her “it’s for the children” brand of politics. Her mentor, former Vice President Gore, introduced new anti-smog measures by telling Americans that “we’re moving forward on our greatest challenge . . . and that is to provide a better and safer and healthier world for our children and their children to come.”
It isn’t only environmental policy. Remember the “soccer moms” of a few years ago? They’re still here, only they’re called “suburban voters” now. Whatever they’re called, they’re still considered the key to presidential elections. And the key to the key, as we’re constantly being told, lies in issues that affect the well-being of their kids: education, health care, gun control, day care, and so on. Whether we’re talking about the Kyoto Protocols or urging Oregon State University to use as its mascot a less aggressive cartoon beaver that won’t scare children, the message is always, “There’s nothing we won’t do for our children.”
Well, except get married, or stay married. During the 1990s, the number of people living alone, for the first time in history, exceeded the number of people living in two-parents-plus-children households.
The Rest of the Numbers
As several conservative commentators have pointed out, this statistic isn’t as significant as it might first appear. As John Leo of U.S. News & World Report noted, postponing marriage, combined with longer life expectancy, makes it likelier that people will live alone at some point in their lives. Using the total number of households as the basis for comparison ensures that even if the total number of traditional families rises in absolute terms, they would still seem to be falling behind. What’s more, there’s plenty of reason to suspect the motives of some of the media outlets trumpeting the news.
But conservative reassurances about the effects of media bias aren’t so, well, reassuring—especially when you look at the rest of these numbers. It’s hard not to agree with what Johns Hopkins’s Andrew Cherlin told the Washington Post: “The central place of marriage in our family system is eroding.” What the numbers show is the growth of what Jennifer Roback Morse, in her book, Love & Economics, calls “replacements” and “substitutes” for the two-parent family. The single fastest growing households are ones comprised of “unmarried partners.” These grew 72 percent, to 5.4 million households. What’s more, at least one-third of these households contain at least one minor child.
But it wasn’t only unmarried partner households that experienced growth. Single-parent households continued to rise. In fact, every imaginable kind of living arrangement saw its share of the total number of households rise during the nineties—except the two-parent kind. What we’re left with is that only 62 percent of American children live in a traditional two-parent family—a figure that is virtually unchanged from the early nineties.
Stated differently, despite a much-ballyhooed drop in the divorce and illegitimacy rates, the average American kid’s chances of growing up in a two-parent home haven’t changed in the past decade. Not only are 4 in 10 of them growing up in what Roback Morse calls a “substitute,” the best estimate remains that one in two American kids will spend some part of their growing-up years without one of their parents. And I don’t find any of this reassuring.
Now, even if we had kept our yaps shut about how much we love our children, the erosion in the status of the two-parent family would be worth commenting on. There’s solid evidence that society as a whole, and not just kids, is better off when two-parent families are the dominant form of household. You name the “adverse outcome” and, as Roback Morse reminds us, its incidence rises as more and more kids are living in “alternatives” to the two-parent family.
Even living arrangements that don’t involve children, such as living alone, are problematic from a social point of view. As the Post put it, “For some [demographers and sociologists], the growing number of one-person households fuels concerns about social isolation.” It’s more than social isolation. What binds a nation filled with people who live, as well as bowl, alone?
Building on Love & Economics’ analysis, it’s possible that all this living alone is a consequence of the erosion of the two-parent family. As Roback Morse notes, it’s the family that teaches the child about trust, commitment, and the permanence of relationships. Is it really a surprise that the first generation for whom their parents’ divorce was, if not normative, at least commonplace, chooses to live alone as adults?
How We Live
But we did open our yaps. So the question is: If we love our kids so much, why don’t we live as if we do? It’s not as though there’s any real doubt about what’s best for kids.
Even people who publicly disagree with Jennifer Roback Morse or Maggie Gallagher, such as The Nation’s Katha Pollit, don’t argue with the numbers. Instead, they argue from experience—a mode of “reasoning” that many Christians are all too familiar with. In this argument, every divorce was a gut-wrenching experience, chosen only after heroic forbearance and the realization that a fate worse than death was the alternative.
And research confirms what should be intuitively true: If single-parent or stepfamily households are problematic for kids, unmarried partner households are a disaster. A cohabitating boyfriend is 30 times more likely to abuse a child than a father married to the child’s mother.
Again: why do we do it? Because however much we love our kids, there’s something we love a lot more: our personal freedom. In the Age of Oprah, all love, all relationships, and all obligations are contingent. Specifically, they’re contingent upon being found compatible with our understanding of what’s best for us, a.k.a. “our needs.” If our marriage isn’t meeting those “needs,” then we believe that we have a right to leave, even if there are children involved. Oh yes, we will do everything possible—or so we tell ourselves—to minimize the impact on our kids, as long as it doesn’t include staying.
What’s remarkable is how unremarkable this contingency has become. It’s like the background radiation left over from the Big Bang; it’s everywhere. Almost everyone, including Christians, thinks in terms of “needs.” Almost everyone, including Christians, sees the world in terms of what James Davison Hunter calls “therapeutic categories.” Of course, we won’t admit this to ourselves.
But while we can and do lie about what’s most important to us, our choices don’t—choices that come together as data for geeks like me to pour over, and manifest themselves in the damaged lives these choices leave in their wake.
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“Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics” first appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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