Friday, December 07, 2012

The Non-Existent Decline

Yesterday, I saw a photograph that captures what some continue to insist is the decadence and moral failure of our country:
In case you're wondering, these are couples waiting in line to get their marriage licenses in Washington.  Please note a few things.  First, they're all white.  Second, they appear to be, at the very least, middle class.  Several of the couples are older (the two gentlemen in the foreground and the women in the front on the right could be, and probably are, someone's grandparents).  Far from crumbling edifice of our social life, this photo demonstrates how . . . All-American those folks wanting to get married really are.  I realize that this picture will make people like Rick Santorum weep, but I fail to understand why.  It's really threatening to the institution of marriage, all these folks wanting to join the club?  Really?

Similarly, a recent article in Atlantic (with thanks to Amanda Marcotte who writes about it both at Pandagon and Slate) takes a look at a popular theory from a quarter century ago that the rise in single-parent families, which tracked pretty closely to the rise in violent crime, was a principle cause of that rise.  The fact is, since the mid-1990's, while single-parent - usually single mothers - households continued their steady rise, the violent crime rate quite literally collapsed.  Philip Cohen, author of the piece, even graphs the changes:
Please note a couple things.  Even as conservatives were insisting we were facing a whole new wave, perhaps even a generation of sociopathic criminals, the homicide rate was in decline.  It has continued to decline even as the economy has continued it lackadaisical performance the past two years.  All the while, the trend in single motherhood continues.

To be clear, now, this is not to say that there is not a correlation between being the child of a single-parent household and having a criminal record.  That correlation continues; Cohen notes it and doesn't deny it.  What he is denying is any factual basis for some kind of broader social or cultural decline rooted in the rise of single-parent households.  Indeed, while it may be the case that, if one either has a criminal record or is in the corrections system it is likely also that one is the product of a single-parent family.  On the other hand, fewer people who are such are committing crimes.  So the old argument from social conservatives that the "breakdown of the family" would bring about some kind of violent, crime-ridden dystopia is false.  As Cohen writes, "I think single mothers—especially those who were raising their kids back in the 1990s—deserve an apology from the conventional-wisdom purveyors of that time."

I keep reading people on the right carrying on about how the United States is in some kind of decline.  The only thing they point out, however, is a stagnant economy which, to be fair, is a problem for folks of any ideological stripe.  They can't carry on about crime.  They can't carry on about the rise of hedonistic hordes wanting to destroy marriage by getting married.  Shoot, they can't even carry on about single mothers being the source of social pathology because, frankly, there is far less now than two decades ago.

Would it be so hard for all these people who insist America is in decline to take a look around and realize the country is in pretty good shape?  What's wrong with celebrating all sorts of really good things, like a declining crime rate and people finally being allowed to marry?

Virtual Tin Cup

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