Author Coontz Sums Up Hot-button Issues of the 90s

The Star Tribune, Wednesday May 7, 1997
By Cecelia Goodnow
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with American's Changing Families, offers her take on the following social issues:

Wayward Teens

There's no evidence that most teens are any more irresponsible or destructive than teens were in the past, but they lack something that many older men grew up with: meaningful work with adult mentors.

Apprenticeships, summer jobs in their parents' workplace and community service are possible remedies.

Instead, teenagers complain of being shoved out of the mainstream by adults who ostracize and exclude them. Curfews, school uniforms and attempts to ban teens from public places are bound to backfire. "These are containment policies," Coontz said. "This is what you do to occupied countries. We shouldn't be doing that to our kids. That's part of our denial that this is a larger community problem."

Social support

Corporate and government support for families has steadily eroded, putting a greater financial and emotional burden on them. "Never before in American history have we expected parents to do so much for their children, on their own," Coontz said.

Urging a return to 1950s-style families makes no sense, she adds, without a return to the economic climate of the '50s, which included the GI Bill, a livable wage, affordable housing, higher corporate income taxes and a corporate culture that valued workplace stability.

The role of marriage

Marriage isn't dying, but it won't be the pivotal institution it once was.

"Women and men simply need each other economically less than in the past," Coontz said. "You will never again be able to reconstruct marriage on the old basis, where there is no [other] option."

But people are still taking the plunge. In 1867 there were 9.6 marriages per 1,000 people. A hundred years later there were 9.7.

Meanwhile, the proportion of women who remain single all their fives is lower today than at, the turn of the century, and fewer women feel they must forgo marriage in order to accomplish anything else in life.

I think the reason [gay marriage] has become such a hotbutton issue," Coontz added, "is because marriage is no longer the central institution of our lives. A productive question is, 'How do we redefine marriage in today's world?' "

Divorce in perspective

Divorce isn't a new phenomenon in America and it isn't always the worst possible outcome for a rocky marriage.

"America had the highest divorce rate in the world going back to 1889, " Coontz said. "We have a culture that has a problem sustaining long-term commitments."

Coontz acknowledges that divorce can be devastating and agrees couples should try to work things out. But she said studies show that children generally do worse in "intact" families filled with conflict than in divorced or never-married families. Higher wages and fairer child support could minimize some of the worst effects of divorce, such as single-parent poverty.

"We're never going to shove the divorce rate back to what it was in the 1950s," Coontz said. "To save more marriages than we're currently saving, we have to come up with new value systems and new supports."

Unwed motherhood

Don't blame the libertine '60s for the rise in unwed pregnancies. The fastest increase took place between 1940 and 1958, when the rate tripled from 7.1 births per 1,000 unmarried women to 21.2 births.

The rate of unwed motherhood is rising worldwide and exceeds 20 percent in places as diverse as South Africa and northern Europe. Reasons include more economic independence, less social control over personal life and a decline in birth rates among married couples, which makes unwed births a bigger proportion of the total.

in the United States, poverty and social deprivation feed the trend. One researcher says the correlation is so strong that, from 1969 to 1993, the teen birth rate could be calculated with 90 percent accuracy from the previous decade's child poverty rate.

What causes crime?

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the Institute for American Values, who in 1993 wrote an Atlantic Monthly cover story titled "Dan Quayle Was Right," has said that more than 70 percent of all juveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes.

But Coontz says the evidence isn't so clearcut. According to a 1993 report by the National Academy of Sciences, "Personal and neighborhood income are the strongest predictors of violent crime."

I "If single parenthood 'caused' crime and violence," Coontz argues, "then Sweden and Denmark ought to have higher rates than the United States, instead of rates that are dramatically lower."

Welfare reform

Complaining about welfare is sometimes the only way people can convey their legitimate concerns about the growing gap between work and reward in America. Just don't confuse these people with the facts.

Nearly half of Americans think welfare accounts for 20 to 50 percent of the federal budget, when in fact welfare programs total only 5 percent of federal spending. Three-fourths of welfare recipients get off the dole within two years, and half get off within a year, but a shortage of stable jobs often drives them back. Contrary to myth, outof-wedlock birth rates have historically been lowest in states with the highest welfare benefits.

"The real dirty little secret about welfare," Coontz said, "is that it's cheaper to write checks than to invest in creating jobs. Welfare serves as a safety valve for an economy that cannot handle full employment."

Because of the oversupply of workers, she adds, even if we could move every, welfare recipient into a full-time jobs the ironic effect would be to depress wages for all low-income workers.

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