Thus far, I’ve limited my wariness on such matters to the more philosophical and theological realms — those areas where our culture of choice threatens to pollute our thinking about marriage, weaken our obligations to the family, and limit our view of Christian discipleship and vocation in the process.
In his new book, Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure, Nick Schulz provides firmer support to these concerns, focusing on the more tangible economic outcomes we can expect from key shifts in the modern American family, namely: declines in marriage, increases in divorce, and spikes in out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Avoiding the deeper debate about whether these developments are “right” or “wrong” in a moral or theological sense, Schulz seeks instead to analyze the data as an economist, identifying which economic outcomes we can expect from which changes in the American family, along with some intriguing social speculation as to the why.
Schulz begins by pointing to an widely discussed study from the Brookings Institution, which found that “if young people finish high school, get a job, and get married before they have children, they have about a 2 percent chance of falling into poverty and nearly a 75 percent chance of joining the middle class by earning $50,000 or more per year.” Another study, referenced in a book by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, found that “adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents during some period of childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be ‘idle’—out of school and out of work—in their late teens and early twenties.”
The research rolls on, and Schulz wields the scalpel nicely, explaining how children raised without a mom and a dad are at much higher risk of failure across a variety of areas.
But as Schulz digs deeper, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the deeper moral and spiritual drivers that bubble beneath, despite his refusal to dive brazenly into the right and wrong of this vs. that. This is perhaps most evident in his analysis of how the family helps develop human capital (“knowledge, education, habits, willpower”), social capital (assets “created and maintained by relationships of commitment and trust”), and various noncognitive skills (“the ability to play fairly with others, to delay gratification, to control emotions, to develop and maintain networks of friends and acquaintances, and much more”). For anyone who believes such traits are even remotely related to one’s moral or spiritual development, a deeper, more heated “culture war” debate inevitably looms in the future.
Schulz finds it helpful to think of these things in terms of character, a trait that social scientist James Q. Wilson described as a mix of empathy and self-control. “Empathy refers to a willingness to take importantly into account the rights, needs and feelings of others,” Wilson writes. “Self-control refers to a willingness to take importantly into account the more distant consequences of present actions.” Connecting the dots accordingly, Schulz observes that “empathy is a big part of a person’s social capital” and “self-control a big part of his human capital.”
Thus, without a healthy fostering of empathy and self-control, the economy will certainly fade, and without the family, such cultivation is extremely difficult:
The family is the first institution within which we learn about empathy, where we learn to take into account the rights, desires, and needs of others, a mother for her son, a brother for his sister, a daughter for her father, cousin for cousin, and so on…And think of the family and its role in regulating self-control, the ability to put immediate needs aside for longer-run interests. A healthy, well-functioning family is an extended exercise in self-control. Parents often put their immediate needs for sleep, fun, food, sex, relaxation, and more aside for the interests of their children…
…Character underlies the internal determinants and controls of thought, conduct, and habit. The need to reinforce empathy and self-control among the young and adolescent is persistent and relentless. While there are other institutions that help in this process—schools, churches, sports teams, and more—the family is the first of these and the most influential.
We should note, of course, that these features — empathy and self-control — don’t just lead to a productive economy; they are crucial for leveraging any such economy for the good of society, orienting our activities beyond the quick-and-easy and offering a buffer to the types of short-sighted and self-destructive thinking that prosperous peoples have been known for tending toward. Without a properly grounded citizenry — learned in virtue, resistant to the seductions of power, and cognizant of the risks of comfortability — economic prosperity and social stability is likely to be squandered.
As for how we can fix these problems, Schulz avoids offering any grand-standing silver-bullet policy proposals. Rather, devoting an entire chapter to the limits of policy, Schulz emphasizes that any proposals designed to address social problems as fundamental and overarching as these will be highly limited in their effectiveness. “Some social changes are like a tube of toothpaste,” Schulz writes. “It is easy to squeeze the toothpaste forward in one direction, significantly more difficult to reverse it and move it back into the tube from where it came.”
It is precisely here, I believe, that we mustn’t neglect what we might call “spiritual capital.” That which Wilson deems fundamental to good character, and that which Schulz views as significant in human capital and social capital, the Christian locates in the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where our policies fall short, and where the culture distorts and dilutes our fundamental commitments to the family, the Spirit can heal, restore, and sustain.
Thus far in our nation’s history, the family has played the quiet promoter of our ever-increasing economic prosperity, and up until now, whether due to previous moral, economic, or sexual constraints, its contributions of human, social, and spiritual capital have been near-givens this side of the Black Death. With our newfound array of choices, however, it seems that something else is needed to sustain us. As Jonathan Last posits at the end of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, “at the end of the day, there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble [of raising a child] a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to.”
Where economists and social scientists are prone to shrug, Christians must point the way back home. Whether at an individual or community level, “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” But whatever the solution, and whatever we call those key characteristics we’re lacking — character, human and social capital, or the fruits of a spiritually renewed life — we should heed Schulz’s affirmation of the role the family plays in shaping and forming society.
When it fades, society will flounder. But when it flourishes, society will follow — economically, socially, and spiritually.