The significant relationship between family structure and economic outcomes (poverty, social immobility, unemployment, etc.) is well documented. However it’s interesting that many popular conservative and liberal voices agree that family structures don’t matter for economic well-being in society. Rush Limbaugh loves to scream passionately through his golden microphone that anyone can make it in this country, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. For Rush, economic outcomes are all about will power and individual merit. The reasons why some fail is a combination of personal incompetence and government impediments. Judging by his emphases, family structures are irrelevant to economic well-being.
Likewise, many popular liberal pundits agree with Rush in a real sense. They tell us that all children need is love, family structures don’t matter. Families come in all shapes and sizes; who and whether you marry and the structure of your family are purely private matters of no social consequence. They explain economic hardship as a function of poor education, insufficient government services and economic injustice. Family structure rarely makes an appearance, despite its statistical centrality.
Both discount or ignore family structures to suit their greater political fears. That is, they each fear that conceding the tremendous importance of family structures will work against their most cherished political dogmas. For Rush and other movement conservatives, admitting that family structures matter tends to cast doubt upon the inexhaustible virtues of the market economy or the notion that every American has an equal chance at success. If family structures matter, Rush will be confessing that social conditions are real barriers to social mobility and are not likely to be resolved merely with economic deregulation or tax cuts. If things like poverty are not merely a function of personal choice but social conditions like family structure, won’t that feed the left’s political agenda of expanding government public assistance programs?
For liberal pundits, admitting that family structures matter is tantamount to modern sin. Such a confession feels like a tacit endorsement of an ideal family structure (the traditional family) and a moral repudiation of its alternative forms. If family structure matters, then the notion that all family structures are equal in the sense of being morally equivalent appears dubious. If family structure matters, won’t that feed the right’s temptation to judge the sexual choices of others?
Thankfully, more and more thoughtful people, including our president on his better days, on the right and left are seeing this glaring and obvious error and are willing to come to terms with basic sociological reality. Though it is ironic that they agree to ignore it, it is also tragic since millions of children face hardship as a result of our collective indifference. Perhaps we should be driven more by compassion for the poor (whatever form that may take) than fear of violating our favorite ideological tribes.