The clear connection between the decline of families and the world’s social problems cannot be ignored. The trick is figuring out which is the cause and which is the effect. Most economists and politicians blame both social ills and family instabilities on poverty. Our thesis is that the cause and effect works both ways and that poverty, instability and social problems are often the direct result of declining or poorly functioning families.
A strong case can be made for family (or lack of family) as the cause and everything else as the effect or the result. After all, everything, including each of us, originates with families, with homes, with parents; and how those homes function largely determines the economic, moral and character results that come out of them.
But of course it is a mistake to oversimplify or to claim that all social problems are directly created by inadequate families. Our social ills have many causes, but the “cause” of the most far-reaching and devastating “effects,” aka “social ills” — and the one we are finally on the verge of understanding — is the decline and breakdown of the family and the accompanying deterioration of basic personal values.
There has been no shortage of comment and speculation about “family decline” and “values deterioration” in recent years, but two things have been wrong, or at least inadequate, in most of what has been written and spoken.
First, most of the dialogue is too theoretical and academic. The statistics about divorce, latchkey children, decreasing parent-child communication, and time spent together are academic parts of sociology courses. Increases in violence, gangs, substance abuse, bullying, teen promiscuity and pregnancy, crime, teen suicide, gang violence, school dropout rate and AIDS are daily headlines, nightly news and the subjects of all kinds of popular discussion and the targets of all kinds of proposed “solutions.” But these are rarely connected clearly to their most predictable cause — the breakdown of the families and values. Common sense tells us of the connection, of the cause and effect, yet we keep talking about, worrying about and working on the effects and ignoring the cause.
The fundamental question that always arises is, “Are social problems ravaging our families, or are failing marriages and troubled families making social problems inevitable?”
The real answer, of course, is, “Both.”
In a classic vicious cycle, more of one breeds more of the other, and more of the other breeds more of the one.
But chicken-and-egg dilemmas are not entirely imponderable or unsolvable. In fact, the metaphor is perfect for this discussion. Viewing social problems as the chicken and ineffective, uncommitted dysfunctional families as the egg should make it clear that we must focus our efforts on the micro if we want to impact the macro. The “chicken” is running around, hard to catch, hard to effectively examine or fully diagnose, as well as being expensive and complicated to deal with. Social problems are as elusive as a wild, erratic chicken. We try to deal with them with more money, more police, more jails and more public education. More often than not, we seem to make them worse. Eventually, we bankrupt ourselves and exhaust our well-intentioned idea. Once the “chicken” is hatched — out of the “egg” and into our court system, our welfare system, our legislative system — it becomes impossibly expensive. It is estimated that, in the United States, we spend over $20 billion annually dealing with the “chicken” of teen pregnancy (the preventive programs, the educational decline, the abortions, the huge welfare payments to unwed mothers and poverty-stricken children ... the list doesn’t stop). Similar “run amuck” scenarios exist with drugs, violence, abuse, gangs and with every social problem.
The egg, on the other hand, is small, stationary, right under our noses, and can be positively impacted by our solutions. We have to reach the egg. Solutions to most social problems lie in the home. The home-egg must be valued, prioritized, strengthened so that it produces solutions rather than problems, contributors rather than abusers, builders rather than destroyers.