Monday, November 03, 2014

Tempered Support for a Cultural Change Agenda

Guest Blogger

Clare Huntington

For the book symposium on Clare Huntington, Failure to Flourish: How Family Law Undermines Family Relationships (Oxford University Press, 2014)

 Linda McClain has usefully brought together so many threads from this symposium, and her post goes to the heart of the central challenge facing family law—how best to strengthen families in light of the sharp decline in marriage. I am particularly intrigued by her question about where my proposals fit in Isabel Sawhill’s taxonomy of “traditionalists” and “village builders.” McClain is absolutely right that I am more of a village builder (although that term makes me want to sing YMCA, which, appropriately enough, contains lyrics about helping young men down on their luck). Much of my book is a call for greater state support to address the structural challenges facing families, from the brutal low-wage workplace to the atomistic neighborhoods that do not promote social ties—all of which have “village” connotations.

McClain is also right that I am a bit of a traditionalist to the extent that I am strongly in favor of stable environments that nurture the relationships children need to thrive. I am more agnostic, however, about the kinds of family forms that can provide these relationships than the typical traditionalist. Above all, we need to pay close attention to whether any particular family form is able to promote a commitment to childrearing by both parents or by other adults in the child’s life such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle.

It is a closer call whether I am on board with Sawhill’s argument for cultural change. In her recent book, Generation Unbound, Sawhill divides the world of parents into “drifters” and “planners,” (pp. 6-7) with drifters becoming parents unintentionally and planners becoming parents by design. Sawhill wants to change the drifters into planners. As McClain explains, the centerpiece of Sawhill’s strategy is increasing the accessibility and use of long-acting reversible forms of contraception (LARCs). These highly effective methods of birth control would prevent almost all unwanted pregnancies and would mean that a woman needs to take an affirmative step—going to the doctor to have the IUD or implant removed—to become pregnant. For the reasons I elaborate below, I agree, although warily, with Sawhill’s project to inculcate a stronger norm of parenting by design.

I begin with William Julius Wilson’s framing in More Than Just Race. As he argues, it is important to identify and address both the structural challenges facing low-income families, such as poor schools and a lack of economic opportunities, and the cultural challenges, such as those identified by Sawhill. In other words, no policy approach will be effective without both strategies.

Cultural change is, however, a fraught endeavor, especially when espoused by those (like me) not in the culture that supposedly needs changing. I have three central concerns. First, I worry that focusing on cultural change will distract us from the need to address the structural challenges facing families. For all the concern about family form, it is critical to remember that much of the disadvantage that comes from being raised by unmarried parents can be traced to the demographic differences that tend to accompany nonmarital childbearing, most notably low-incomes and lower levels of parental education. Even if young women and men delayed childbearing, too many men would have criminal records, the low-wage marketplace would not provide a living wage, neighborhoods would not facilitate social interaction, and schools would fail children. Sawhill calls for greater investments in education and human capital, but she also acknowledges that these will be hard to achieve. I want to emphasize that we cannot lose sight of the structural challenges facing low-income families regardless of family form.

Second, returning to Robin Lenhardt’s post, I worry that a focus on cultural change will inevitably mean the condemnation of non-white, lower-income families. For too long, the answer to poverty has been “If only those people would not have children, all would be well.” This is decidedly not Sawhill’s argument, and she goes to great lengths to be sensitive to the eugenics overtones of her proposal. Moreover, Sawhill’s argument is for only a delay, not a denial, of childbearing. Instead, I am speaking more broadly about a societal debate of these issues. It is true that African Americans have higher rates of nonmarital childbearing, but it is also true that the studies of nonmarital families have found that African American parents have adjusted better to this new family form, with unmarried African American parents maintaining stronger co-parental relationships than unmarried white parents, and unmarried African American fathers remaining more involved in the lives of their children than unmarried white fathers. (I discuss this research in my forthcoming article.)

Finally, I want to ensure that we are attentive to the many reasons why unmarried couples bear children. I agree that access to very low-cost, effective birth control is vitally important, and the CHOICE Project provides compelling evidence that when women use LARCs, the unwanted birth rate (and abortion rate) plummets. In Failure to Flourish, I, too, endorse the increased use of these forms of birth control.

But there are other reasons why unmarried women become pregnant, as Sawhill readily acknowledges. (p. 108) As I describe in my book, the ethnographic work by Kathryn Edin and her two co-authors—Promises I Can Keep  and Doing the Best I Can —adds important nuance to the idea that unmarried couples become pregnant by accident. As they explain, among the men and women they interviewed, much of the impetus to have a child stemmed from the desire to create meaning and find something positive in their lives—experiences and feelings that were hard to come by in other ways. The pregnancies were not planned in the sense Sawhill uses the term, but neither were they avoided. The couples typically stopped using birth control, and the young women and men generally welcomed the news of the pregnancy. And even if the women did not want to be pregnant at that moment, they did want to become parents in the near future. For at least some unmarried parents, then, having children outside of a committed relationship is not necessarily a failure to plan, but rather a plan, loosely speaking, that responds to different incentives.

Sawhill discusses this research but contends that the young people that Edin and her co-authors interviewed are particularly disadvantaged and are not representative of low-income families more broadly. (p. 75) Sawhill recounts other research showing that the more typical low-income woman would prefer not to have a child so early in life and yet cannot align her behavior with her preferences. (pp. 73-75, 108-10)

This may be so, but it does not undercut the need to think more broadly about cultural change. I agree with the need for greater access to LARCs, but it is also essential to find ways to create and nurture personal meaning and connection through means other than parenting. As I describe in detail in the opening chapter of my book, positive psychology has documented the tremendous need that we all have for positive relationships. If we can think about how to help young people feel important and connected to other adults, there may be less of an immediate need to have a child in the near-term. This is not easy, and it is not the whole picture, but it is a necessary component of any strategy aimed at delaying childbearing.

* * *

Before concluding, I want to reiterate my thanks to Linda McClain for organizing this symposium and to Jack Balkin for hosting it. I am deeply grateful to all the participants for their thoughtful and engaging posts. It was a tremendous pleasure to discuss these important issues with such an extraordinary group.

Clare Huntington is Professor of Law at Fordham Law School and can be reached at 

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