So Quayle Is Pro-Family -- Big Deal!

WILEY A. HALL

April 18, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Alantic magazine, in great big triumphant letters on the cover of its April issue, proclaimed that Dan Quayle was right when he said the break-up of the traditional, two-parent family was bad for children.

Scorned and ridiculed last year for taking issue with the living arrangements of Murphy Brown, an unwed expectant mother in a television sitcom, Mr. Quayle's supporters reportedly are finding vindication in a growing body of scientific studies.

''Children in single-parent families are six times as likely to be poor,'' writes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in the cover article. ''They are two to three times as likely as children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems. They also are more likely to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teen-agers, to abuse drugs and to be in trouble with the law. Compared with children in intact families, children from disrupted families are at a much higher risk for physical or sexual abuse.''

Well, if Mr. Quayle was right about this, so, too, was every civil-rights leader worth the name: the Benjamin Hookses and the Jesse Jacksons and even the Al Sharptons of the world.

Political leaders from both the right and the left, the Democrats and the Republicans, were right about it, too.

Teachers and social workers and child-welfare advocates were right, as were physicists and engineers and computer programmers.

For that matter, so were my mother and my father, and every one of my aunts and uncles and my first, second, and third cousins.

So was the elderly lady who lived down the street and the hip young upwardly mobile couple who live next door.

So was the guy who pumps my gas and the grocery clerk who packs my bags.

I didn't ask the drunks hanging out on the corner, but if I had, I'm sure they would have seen the situation clearly as well.

Somewhere, somehow, there may be somebody who disagrees -- social scientists identify a lunatic fringe of from 10 to 14 percent of any sample who will take issue with anything. But generally speaking, the observation that children are better off in intact, rather than disrupted homes, is what my own children would call a ''no-duh.''

To imply that Dan Quayle, out of all the thinking people of the world, was right on this issue is so nonsensical that it is almost offensive.

For the record, Mr. Quayle was not ridiculed and scorned because he stated the obvious, but because he wasted the public's precious time looking for scapegoats. The factors that lead to the increasing numbers of single-parent families are too complex to attribute to Murphy Brown, Hollywood or the allegedly empty-headed permissiveness of the so-called liberal elite.

And the real issue is not who or what broke up the family but what is to be done now. Can the trend be reversed? Can society, specifically through government programs, do anything to soften the economic and psychological blow to children living in households headed by one parent? Should it try?

Discussion of these questions quickly disintegrates into name-calling and finger-pointing.

In one corner are conservatives who tend to believe that the trend can only be reversed by strengthening traditional values of family responsibility, hard work and monogamy. In keeping with the stereotype of the conservative mind-set, value-building is primarily a private-sector activity.

In the other corner are liberals who back efforts designed to cushion the economic impact of ''mistakes'' as well as programs that attempt to build enough support systems to allow people to get back on their feet. Funding for such efforts usually comes from public monies -- in keeping with the stereotype of the typical liberal.

What both sides apparently fail to see is that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive -- indeed, they complement each other. One approach is preventive. The other approach affords the opportunity of an escape hatch.

Obviously, fewer couples will choose to commit themselves to ++ the trials and triumphs of a relationship in a society that glamorizes promiscuity. Fathers will not feel the need to work hard to support their children unless they are taught to do so as young men.

Just as obviously, a society that traps people in poverty after a mistake is doomed to spiral into oblivion. Job training, day care, substance-abuse counseling offer people the opportunity and support they may need to work their way out of poverty.

There also exists a natural division of labor in who should undertake these two tasks. The teaching and reinforcement of values properly falls in the domain of individual families and their communities. Government tends to be clumsy and counterproductive when it tries to teach values -- which is what we will find after we evaluate the current craze for ''welfare reform'' based on sanctions for behavior we disapprove of.

Similarly, the private sector has never been as supportive of families as it has needed to be.

So, was Quayle right as asserted by Atlantic magazine? No. The former vice president was combative and divisive where no division was necessary. He was very, very wrong.

Wiley E. Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

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