The quasi-comic confrontation this week between fictional Murphy Brown and real-life Dan Quayle can be put to serious purpose if only the nation will get serious. American society is being afflicted by an epidemic of dysfunctional families. It is a problem that is short-circuiting the pursuit of happiness -- condemning millions to sorrow, poverty and lost opportunity.
Statistics don't tell all of the story but they are a starting point. In the 19 years between 1970 and 1989, the number of children under 18 living in single-parent households doubled from 10.8 percent to 21.5 percent. During that same period, most of these children found themselves in that situation because of divorce (up from 3.3 percent to 8.2 percent) and from being born out of wedlock (up from 0.8 percent to 6.7 percent).
In addition, millions of other children are in two-parent families where they suffer sexual, physical and emotional abuse that now appears to be more widespread than previously suspected. Married people who stay together do not always get along together, to their children's detriment.
The reasons for family dysfunction are manifold. Conservatives blame the welfare system for family breakup among the poor and permissive lifestyles fostered by the mass media for family breakup among the middle and affluent classes. Liberals attack government policies that make life difficult, especially for the poor and the inner cities.
In a society so troubled, it was perhaps inevitable that "family values" would become an issue to be exploited and exposed in the current political campaign. Mr. Quayle made it happen by condemning the "Murphy Brown" TV sitcom in which an affluent, single woman impregnated by her ex-husband decides to have the baby rather than an abortion, which the vice president opposes.
That this whole episode took place in the context of Mr. Quayle presuming to lecture inner-city blacks on the subject of children having children by citing a TV program epitomizing affluent white feminism only made the situation that much more bizarre. But there are still positive results that can be gained.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic hopeful, called for initiatives to hold parents accountable for their children. His agenda: earned income tax credits for the poor, required work for long-time welfare recipients, a crackdown on deadbeat parents, a family leave law and expanded Head Start programs. President Bush, plainly uncomfortable about his running mate's provocations, reiterated the urban package put together after the Los Angeles riots. Independent H. Ross Perot found the whole situation "goofy."
Obviously, politicians are angling to use the family-values issue for their own advantage. Despite that fact, a national focus on matters so profoundly affecting individual lives and the welfare of children would be beneficial. America can find its bearings only if its citizens find theirs.