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July 12, 2013

Columnist: Same-sex debate obscures family crisis

Larger issue has enormous costs

The 2010 Census reported 0.77 percent of households in same-sex relationships. The best studies on the matter pinpoint no measurable economic consequences for good or ill in such arrangements. Same-sex marriage or household arrangements possess no economic consequences for people not in same sex situations. However, the debate itself does have consequences because it crowds out honest deliberation on the real problems of collapsing families. These problems carry with them enormous costs that demand deep attention.

The world was an imperfect place in the 1950s, but fewer than one in 20 children were born to unmarried mothers. While the 1950s were a time when women and minorities were especially disadvantaged, the much-welcomed gains of civil rights were accompanied by a startling collapse of family conditions, which in turn erased many of the gains in individual freedom.

A half-century ago, a smaller share of black children were born to unmarried mothers than those who were born to unwed whites, but for both groups the numbers were under 5 percent. Today, six in 10 black kids and four in 10 white kids are born to incomplete families. The absence of a parent and the financial hardship of these families is devastating.

The economic outcomes for children of single moms are dismal. Virtually all long-term poverty, most welfare payments, most Medicaid and other forms of social assistance go to such families. They also push up the costs of schooling and incarceration.

Indeed, if we could erase the costs of unwed parenting, our budget would instantly run a dramatic surplus. By my reckoning, we’d save just under $1 trillion in federal spending per year and probably another $1 trillion in state spending. It is a bigger annual cost than any other budget outlay. Moreover, these kids fail in school and in life at rates far higher than their peers, perpetuating the problems.

I suspect the complexity of the issue argues against a single explanation for why children of unwed moms do so poorly in life. Suffice it to say, the effects have undone many gains of the civil rights period.

The newfound opportunities for women cannot be realized by those who bear children without partners. For black households, the challenge is deeper. Black families were stronger a generation ago.

The debate we should be having would confront the challenge of restoring the power of the family in our national life, while preserving individual freedom and opportunity. We must not go back to a time when women and minorities were not equal citizens. But we will not go forward until we can, to some degree, restore families to a central place. The debate over same-sex marriage robs from us a wider, more critical discourse about the pressing social and economic problems of families today.

Michael Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University.

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