Don’t Give Up on the Nuclear Family

February 25, 2020 | Mona Charen
About the author:

In a recent essay, the opinion writer David Brooks argues that the American nuclear family flourished because of a unique set of social and economic factors that took hold from 1950 to 1965. But the nuclear family proved too fragile to withstand subsequent challenges. Therefore, Brooks concluded, the proper response to the current crisis of the family is not to recreate the nuclear family of midcentury America but instead to reach farther back to older and more enduring forms of social and familial relations. Mona Charen is unconvinced:

In his more than 8,000-word essay, Brooks fails to grapple with marriage. Without solid marriages to form the bedrock of families, it is hard to see how the extended families or family alternatives Brooks envisions can flourish.

In what seems an inversion, Brooks lays at the feet of the nuclear family the awful consequences of its collapse. Citing the rise of loneliness among the elderly, for example, Brooks chalks this up to the lack of “extended families.” He neglects to cite the decline of marriage and the rise of divorce. In other words, more elderly Americans are lonely because they are divorced or never married (leaving aside the irreducible percentage who are widows or widowers). It is un-marriage that has contributed to this problem more than the loss of extended families.

While it’s true that the 1950s are not coming back, we don’t need to consult history to find nuclear families that are thriving. As Brooks acknowledges, among the college-educated upper third in America today, marriage remains nearly as universal as it was among all Americans decades ago. Even in our era, . . . Americans with college degrees are managing to make the nuclear-family model work. Not just work, thrive. Interestingly, as [the eminent sociologist] Charles Murray highlighted in [his recent book] Coming Apart, the college-educated are actually more likely to be religiously observant than the less-educated today. That was not the case 50 years ago.

But it isn’t just wealthy families that are clinging to the nuclear model. Among the religiously observant, like Orthodox Jews and Mormons, the nuclear family remains strong. . . . Even among the poor, some are making marriage and the nuclear family a priority. Among immigrants, 76 percent of children live with two parents compared with 62 percent of native-born families—this, despite the fact that a quarter of immigrant parents do not have high-school diplomas.

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