Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Wednesday, Mar. 21, 2018
Tags: Audio, Birth Rate, Divorce, Marriage, Poverty, Single Parenthood, Toys R Us
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, March 21, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Does marriage make a difference? Dueling articles in major newspapers debate the link between single parenthood and poverty
Even if you did not know that marriage is one of God's good gifts to all of us human creatures, even if you didn't know that marriage is deeply embedded in creation, even if you did not respect a Biblical worldview or a biblical understanding of sexuality, gender, and marriage, at the very least, you would have to know that marriage makes a decisive difference in individual lives and, cumulatively, in a community. That's why when you look at a recent debate not only between two writers, but between two newspapers, something big really is going on here.
The two newspapers? The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the dueling articles have to do with whether or not single parenthood is a problem. The first salvo was sent in an article in The New York Times. It was dated February the 10th, the authors David Brady, Ryan Finnigan, and Sabine Hübgen. The article is making the argument, here's the headline, "Single Mothers Are Not the Problem." The three authors, with David Brady as the lead author and researcher, tell us that single mother families are not the problem, that single parenthood is not the problem, that having children out of wedlock, having children without respect to marriage is not a problem.
The argument is largely drawn from statistical data, and they use that data in order to make the argument that even if single parenthood, and that means, in this case, single motherhood, were to disappear, poverty would not disappear, but the main point of the article wasn't really statistical at all. It wasn't sociological, it wasn't economic. It was moral. The argument was that single motherhood should not be stigmatized. It shouldn't be stigmatized even though this is an entirely secular argument, it shouldn't be stigmatized they say, because even if we could eliminate single mother-headed households, the basic sociological pathologies would continue.
They go on to say that single motherhood simply shouldn't be understood as a major risk factor in poverty, and certainly, it shouldn't be considered something that society should frown upon. Let's make clear that when we're talking here about single parent-headed households, we are talking about households in which children have emerged without reference to marriage. We're not talking about other causes or other reasons why they would be a single parent household.
When I saw that article in The New York Times, I recognized it was primarily making a moral point and not making that point very well. I also recognized that the authors were playing fast and loose with poverty statistics, but the case was actually convincingly made just a few days ago in The Washington Post, a paper that you could argue rivals The New York Times for influence in American society and especially inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C.
What makes this article even more interesting is that it is written by Robert J. Samuelson, and Samuelson is by no means a cultural conservative, but the article that he wrote dated March 18 has the headline, "Don't Deny the Link Between Poverty and Single Parenthood." He goes on to say, and I quote, "Anyone who has raised children knows that it is a messy trial-and-error process with an emphasis on error. It's hard enough to do well with two parents, a reasonably stable and sane marriage and reliable income. When there's only one parent with a meager income, the burdens mount and feed on themselves." He continues, "That's one reason the growth of single parent households is rightly regarded as a cause of poverty," but then he references the article that appeared days earlier in The New York Times, and then he basically takes it apart line by line, argument by argument, almost word for word.
Samuelson goes right after The New York Times article arguing that it was deliberately misleading and that basing any debate, he says, on misleading analysis is not worthy. He goes on to say, quote, "That's my complaint against the Times' essay. Its hypothetical and admittedly unrealistic thought experiment that eliminating poverty among single mothers wouldn't have much effect on overall poverty is wrong, according the government's own figures from the Census Bureau."
Samuelson openly accuses the writers in The New York Times of misrepresenting the data and picking and choosing in order to make their case. What he doesn't say, but makes also very clear, is that there was a moral argument behind The New York Times article that isn't sustained by the date that it was cited even by the authors.
He continues, quote, "Single parent households have less money and less time for children. To be sure, many single parents are heroic, but it's a struggle. Studies tell us," says Samuelson, "that children raised by single parents are significantly more likely to have children young, to drop out of high school, and to work less as young adults." He was there citing W. Bradford Wilcox the University of Virginia and Isabel Sawhill of The Brookings Institution.
Samuelson, who is well-versed on economic issues and often writes on those issues for The Washington Post concludes, quote, "It cannot be good news that births to unmarried women have risen. In 2010," he says, "72% of Black births were to unmarried women, up from 38% in 1970. For Hispanics, that rate was 53% in 2010, up from 37% in 1990. For whites, 36% in 2010, and 6% in 1970." His conclusion? "We are condemning more of our children to precarious upbringing, and that is," italicized here, the word is, "that is a problem." End quote.
Now, at this point the Christian worldview also helps us to think clearly about this reality. For example, the Christian worldview helps us to understand that once a child is born, that child is a gift, that child is to be welcomed, and every single human life, every single human person is to be celebrated, and, furthermore, is a gift to the human community, not just to the family unit, but to the entire community. That's basic to the Christian worldview.
Also, basic to the Christian worldview is to support families and to support families in the raising of those children, but the Christian worldview is also very explicit about God's plan, God plan for marriage, God's plan for parenthood, God's plan for children. The Bible recognizes that sometimes there is brokenness in that picture, but the Bible is candid to make the picture exceedingly clear.
It's interesting that Brad Wilcox and others already mentioned in the Samuelson article talk about what we often hear as the success sequence. What is that? What's the success sequence? Well, it's a secular explanation that success in contemporary society is affirmed by and is undermined without a sequence that would lead to success. That sequence means education, then marriage, then parenthood, not breaking that sequence. Education, then marriage, then parenthood. Not messing that sequence up.
The point is that when you get the sequence wrong, it becomes far more difficult to achieve what in society has rightly defined as success. Success here meaning economic and personal security. Even the secular world has its own understanding of this. President Ronald Reagan used to make that point when he was President of the United States by making clear that the statistical data from the federal government demonstrated that if you got a high school education and if you then got married and did not have children before you got married, and if once you were married and had children, you stay married, it was statistically not impossible, but extremely unlikely that one would be defined as living in poverty.
It's also interesting to step back for a moment and recognize that that New York Times article that infuriated Robert Samuelson at The Post so much had a great deal to do with that word stigmatization, the idea that it's morally wrong to say that anyone has made choices that aren't morally wrong.
The Bible is, instead, very clear about what's right and what is wrong, but the Bible then goes on also to make clear that the Christian church understands how to approach brokenness and how, on the other side, even of that brokenness, to respond with redemptive love and the example of Christ.
The Christian church in this society may be the last people on earth who understand that it is indeed morally wrong to have sex outside of marriage, to have sex before marriage, and to have children outside of marriage. The Christian church also understands that every society will stigmatize something, but our society seems willing only to stigmatize anyone who might stigmatize anyone, but, of course, that's very inconsistent because even in the midst of our societal experience and supposed moral non-judgmentalism, well, even the most nonjudgmental turn out to be, often, the most judgmental.
But this situation also points to the great commandment and the second commandment that Jesus gave as the summary of the law. The first commandment, the great commandment, we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, but Jesus said the second is liken to it. We shall love our neighbor as ourselves.
What does that mean? It means that the first and the second commandment, love of God and love of neighbor, are tied to the very Biblical worldview that is so clear about God's gift of marriage and God's pattern for human sexuality. That means that if we genuinely love our neighbor, then we will tell all of our neighbors about what God's plan is and what even the secular statistical data indicate will lead to success.
Christians are committed to human flourishing not just because we're committed to humanity but because we know that human beings are made in God's image and we are committed to human flourishing and what we know. What we cannot not know will lead to human flourishing because of our responsibility first to love God and then to love our neighbor.
What do declining divorce rates tell us about our current cultural moment?
But then we shift to a very different story. This one appeared in The Atlantic, and it's on a similar theme, and yet, this story has the headline, "Marriage Has Become a Trophy." Andrew Cherlin, another very well-known and often cited researcher on family and marriage and also the economic complexities of the two, he goes on to say that "we are being told that marriage is in decline." He says, "That's what the zeitgeist would have us to believe, and yet," he says, "the fact is that most Americans will still get married. They may get married later. They may get married even against their own expectations at younger ages, but they do tend to get married." Furthermore, he also makes clear, "Most Americans when honest will admit they want to get married or they want to be married," but the most important issue of this article published recently in The Atlantic is the fact that Andrew Cherlin points out that there is actually, in our current cultural moment, a decline in the rate of divorce.
This is something that has been cited before, but it bears mentioning that it was just cited this week in this article in The Atlantic. Once again, that tells us something about how the messaging is finally breaking through, even in the cultural elites of our society. What's the importance of this article? Andrew Cherlin makes the points, quote, "Rates of divorce have been dropping across the board since about 1980, but the drop has been steeper for the college-educated." He goes on to say, "In the mid-20th century, people's educational level had less impact on when, whether, and for how long they married. Today," he says, "marriage is a much more central part of family life among the college-educated." End quote.
Now, what makes this really, really important is that it points to the fact that we have two very different problems in American, and I've spoken of them repeatedly before. We have a certain form of hypocrisy on the right, and we have certain form of hypocrisy on the left. On the right among conservatives, we often fail to practice what we preach, but on the other extreme, amongst liberals, they often fail to preach what they practice.
What do I mean by that? I mean that when you find wealthy, highly-educated, secular elites, here's what they do: They complete their education, they get married, and then they have children. The reality is that very few, even amongst the liberal cultural elites will have a child out of wedlock. Furthermore, they want to get married, they want to get married and they stay married. The fact is that one of the puzzling realities, at least by superficial analysis, would be that cultural liberals and those amongst the economic elites have become the most likely to get married, the most likely to stay married. Why? Well, if you're looking at this in purely economic terms, and there's an entire school of ethical, of moral analysis that's just based on economic theory, a cost-benefit analysis, then you would say that those who have the most in economic terms just might well have the most to lose when it comes to divorce or when it comes to any form of suboptimal family.
But it can't be merely economic, even in a secular perspective because the very same people who are getting married and staying married amongst the more economically privileged are the people who are also talking about the fulfillment that they find in both marriage and in parenthood.
Cherlin provides some cross-cultural analysis in this article. He says that Americans have tended to rank marriage as more important than Europeans do, and that that's been true as he says, quote, "For as long as there had been Americans." End quote. He points to what he calls the transatlantic difference between Europeans and Americans on marriage, with Americans, from the very beginning of the American experience, prioritizing and valuing marriage more. The question would be why? Oddly enough, Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University suggests that theology just might be a part of it.
He says, and I quote, "The transatlantic difference extends back to the Calvinist settlers who believed in the exalted place of marriage found in Martin Luther's theology." End quote. Well, I appreciate the fact that Professor Cherlin indicates that theology might actually play a background role, a very important role in the picture he's describing sociologically. I appreciate the fact that he talks about the Calvinist settlers who believed in the exalted place of marriage found in Martin Luther's theology, but what those Calvinist settlers, often referred to as Puritans, and what Martin Luther clearly understood, what the Protestant reformation celebrated but did not invent was the fact that all of this was already revealed in Scripture. It was the biblical shape of Protestant theology that led to that biblical conception of marriage in the background of America.
One of the strangest realities of our time is that the people, many of people who declare themselves to be the most secular actually lived the most conventional lives when it comes to their own children and their own parenting and their own marriages.
On the first issue of our concern today, we had dueling articles, and you had authors who knew they were in disagreement, and then you have this new turn with this article about marriage becoming a trophy, not linked in any explicit way to the other two articles, but as we've seen, following the very same theme, underlining the fact that even modern secular sociological and socioeconomic analysis points to truths that were revealed a very long time ago in God's word.
Oh, and there's a theological explanation for that too. Thinking Christians understand that that's a testimony to what we call common grace, to the fact that what God has done and what God has given in creation God has revealed in creation so that even those who say that they do not know Him, even some who say that they do not believe in Him nonetheless indicate that they have learned from Him, even about marriage and even about the family.
Toys R Us’s announcement reveals the devastating effects of a declining birth rate
But next, we turn to a story from the business page that made the front page of many major newspapers and major media in recent days. It was the announcement that the toy giant, Toys "R" Us is closing every single one of its retail stores, and doing so in a fairly sudden announcement. Everyone knew that Toys "R" Us had been in economic trouble, but the decision that was announced to close all the retail stores in one fell swoop took many in the business and economic community by surprise because this meant that Toys "R" Us had made the decision that operating even one store was going to be a losing proposition in the new retail age.
But what's really interesting behind this is the fact that business analysts looking at Toys "R" Us had been noting one of the company's problems. It's a problem with vast worldview significance tied to the previous two stories. What would be the huge issue of worldview importance that would be a partial explanation for the decline and now the closing of the retail operation of Toys "R" Us? Remember, it has the subsidiary brand, Babies "R" Us. What's the problem? Falling birth rates.
The linkage between the company's troubles and falling birth rates was actually made by the company long before the decision to close the stores had been made or announced. That linkage was made in annual reports to stockholders and debt holders of the organization as they made clear that a decline in birth rates led to a decline in business both for Babies "R" Us and for Toys "R" Us.
But then Andrew Van Dam writing in The Washington Post made the linkage explicit in an article with the headline, "Toys "R" Us' Baby Problem is Everybody's Baby Problem." Van Dam writes, quote, "There are endless reasons a big-box toy store would collapse during a retail apocalypse, and Toys "R" Us acknowledged a number of them in its most recent annual filing: the teetering tower of debt incurred by its private equity owners, competition from Walmart, Amazon, and Target. They even wrung their hands about app stores, labor costs and potential tariffs raising the costs of imported goods they sell, but," says Van Dam, "one risk stood out. Toys "R" Us said there just weren't enough babies."
The report said this, and I quote directly from Toys "R" Us, "The decrease of birth rates in countries where we operate could negatively affect our business. Most of our end-customers are newborns and children, and as a result, our revenue are dependent on the birth rates in countries where we operate." The company went on to say, quote, "In recent years, many countries' birth rates have dropped or stagnated as their population ages and education and income levels increase. A continued and significant decline in the number of newborns and children in these countries could have a material-adverse effect on our operating results." End quote.
Now, Christians need to step back and reflect upon the blockbuster worldview significance of this analysis that was contained in the annual filings of a company that just announced they're getting out of the retail business. We're talking about Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us, and we're talking about the problem being not enough babies.
Now, it's also interesting that this appears in the Wonkblog analysis column of The Washington Post, and Andrew Van Dam appears to have a primarily economic concern. Here we are again. The concern is this. Even though the falling birth rates have the most immediate effect on the frontline of business, it has to do with babies and children, therefore, Babies "R" Us and Toys "R" Us, the reality is that over time, it will affect the entire economy. Falling birth rates, even the secular economic analysis understands will have devastating effects upon the society.
Now, Christians operating out of a Biblical worldview understand why this is true, why it's so undeniably true, why it's so economically true. Andrew Van Dam got right to the issue when he said that it turned out to all surprise that the biggest existential threat confronting Geoffrey the Giraffe, that's the Toys "R" Us mascot, is the one he said with the broadest implication outside the worlds of toys and shopping malls, and that has to do with the falling birth rate in the United States and elsewhere.
Another interesting insight in this story is the fact that the major threat to Toys "R" Us turns out not to be what has been the case in other retail sectors. It's not online retailers such as Amazon, and that's to say that Toys "R" Us did not lose business that simply migrated elsewhere. No, the business itself is shrinking because the customer base is shrinking, because the birth rate is falling, and the number of babies is shrinking.
The Christian worldview simply affirms over and over again that one of the central purposes of human existence is to reproduce. In the first chapter of Genesis, one of the first commands, indeed, the very first command given to human beings is to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, to reproduce, to welcome children, to celebrate children, and to invest primary, social, and moral energy in the raising of those children, but here, we come back to economics where this article ends. Van Dam writes, quote, "In the end, Toys "R" Us will have been just the first of many businesses of all descriptions facing the same, hard demographic truth: Economic growth is extremely difficult without population growth." End quote.
Well, that analysis is right so far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. This is where Christians have to take it to the more basic and more important realization that the fact of which Andrew Van Dam speaks is not most importantly a demographic fact. It is most importantly a moral fact.