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John Whitehead's Commentary

The Decline of the Traditional Family and the Threat to Democracy

John Whitehead
The traditional family--a married man and woman with children--is in decline,even as lip service to "family values" is being paid to its importance from both the Left and Right of the political spectrum. Under the swirling current of this double-speak, the entire social fabric of American culture is being upended as a result of deteriorating family life and the conditions that undermine care for our children.

These startling conclusions are backed by a recent report of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The report concludes that households will move even further away from the family-structure modelof a stay-at-home mother, working father, and children.

Because of divorce, cohabitation (unmarried adults living together) and single parenthood, a majority of families rearing children in the 2lst Century will probably not include the children's two parents. Moreover, most households will not include children at all.

"Marriage has declined as the central institution under which households are organized and children are raised," commented Tom Smith, author of the report. In fact, a growing proportion of children has been born outside of marriage.

One of this generation's biggest changes, according to the report, is in the parental arrangements for children. In 1972, 73 percent of children lived with their original two parents, who were married. By 1998, only 51.7 percent lived in such households. The number of children living with single parents rose from 4.7 percent in 1972 to 18.2 percent in 1998, while the number of children living with two unmarried adults who were formerly married jumped from 3.8 percent to 8.6 percent during this period.Cohabiting and remarried parents made up the rest of the group.

In looking at all households, Smith found that the most common arrangement in 1972 was married couples with children (45 percent), while in 1998, a mere 26 percent of households reflected this arrangement. The number of households with unmarried people and no children increased from 16 percent in 1972 to 32 percent in 1998, becoming the most common living arrangement
in the country.

These structural changes in the family have obviously led to a reassessment of values. And, as the study illustrates, the U.S. has not reached a peak of modernity. More changes, thus, are in store.

Values have shifted in several areas. For example, "the climb in divorce and liberalization of divorce laws," the report states, "went along with public support for the idea that divorce was preferable to continuing failed marriages." Moreover, greater tolerance of premarital sex coincided with gains in teenage sexual activity, cohabitation and non-marital birth. In brief, changes in structure and values have gone hand-in-hand over the last generation to transform the American family in both forms and norms.

However, the effect of this transformation may have other consequences for society. In 1952, a California appeals court touched on what the impact may be:

The family is the basic unit of our society, the center of the personal affections that ennoble and enrich human life. It channels biological drives that might otherwise become socially destructive; it ensures the care and education of children in a stable environment; it establishes continuity initiative that distinguishes a free people.

From antiquity, the family has served as the basic building block of free societies. Likewise, we find a strong emphasis on the high estate of parenthood and history. Wherever we turn in the ancient world, to Judaism, to Greece or to Rome, the family structure has been revered. And long before foreign invaders toppled any of those great societies, they collapsed from within, due largely to the deterioration of their family structures.

In 1840 when French historian Alexis de Tocqueville had completed Democracy in America, he concluded that an individualistic society depends on a communitarian institution like the family for its continued existence. This is because the family unit serves as the seedbed for the virtues of the society.

The family, not the state or the school, therefore, has been primarily responsible for teaching lessons of independence and proper conduct, which are essential to a free, democratic society. If, as we now see, these family functions begin to break down, then everything else we cherish is in peril.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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