Slouching Away From Gomorrah

Pete Wehner and Yuval Levin chart the enormous gains in various social indicators since the early 1990s. The one great anomaly is the family, which remains roughly where it was:

Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.

In the life of any society, the place of the family is central. That fact alone makes these last statistics significant, and seriously complicates the picture of dramatic progress in other, related realms. Indeed, the two starkly divergent trends, taken side by side, should cause us to reconsider certain common assumptions concerning just how culture, behavior, family, and society interact, and how they change.

Wehner and Levin don't really have a coherent explanation for this - especially since social conservatives have long argued that the breakdown in traditional family structure is the core reason behind other social ills, such as crime. Perhaps it isn't in all social settings. Perhaps living in sin for a while before marriage is actually a social good for some; perhaps lower rates of marriage are not the end of the world - as many victims of awful marriages can attest. Perhaps child-birth outside marriage is not necessarily a bad thing if the relationship is solid and care for the child is secure. Perhaps, in other words, holding the family of the 1950s up as the standard by which all family structure should be measured is not, in fact, very helpful. I don't know, but it seems one obvious inference from the data worth exploring further.