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Time to rethink the ever-changing family structure
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Forsyth County News
One of the magnificent pieces in the mosaic of mankind’s collective wisdom is the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

This wonderful philosophy, when applied to individual challenges, builds on an even more ancient admonition promoted by Socrates about 25 centuries ago -- “know thyself.” Clearly, it provides a formula for reducing anxieties, as its application leads to focusing one's energies on the things where he can truly make a difference.

But there is a question mark when it is applied to social phenomena. The key issue rests in the determination of “what can I change and what can I not.” Today, we are surrounded by a world full of “happenings.” Directing forces seem to be beyond our control -- actions of government, changing lifestyle trends, technological impacts. On the one hand, the ability of a single person, acting alone, to influence or affect change, may be inconsequential. But the concerted action of many (which is nothing more than the sum of individual acts), can change the direction of almost anything.

The conundrum is threefold. First, how to obtain agreement on what that change should be; second, how to make it happen; and third and most importantly, how to find a way to initiate collective action. None of these are simple issues.

A recent index established by the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting shows some striking trends in U.S. family structure. The IAV, although a nonpartisan group, has a bias, namely to contribute “intellectually to strengthening families and civil society.” It has already decided that strengthening families is a worthwhile objective. If actions speak louder than words, clearly that is not a view shared by all. In fact, as a recent study shows, it’s a viewpoint that indirectly is rejected in practice by many in this nation.

The U.S. Marriage Index is comprised of a number of factors, including the percentage of people who are married and happy with those marriages, the number of divorces, the number of children born out of wedlock, etc. Between 1970 and 2008, nationally, the index declined by 21 percent (from 76.2 to 60.3). For the African American community the decline was 34 percent (from 60 to 39.6). The numbers by themselves may have little intuitive meaning, but the key point is that they show a significant “negative trend” in major areas.

It is important to recognize what underlies the activities recorded in this study. They are not the result of government action or forces of nature. They reflect the composite results of individual decisions, ones made every day, one at a time, by individuals and couples as they think about and structure their own lives. Collectively they govern a trend in social thought and behavior, each action clearly within the control of individuals. But collectively, they change the nature of our society, one which many of those same individuals believe may be moving in the wrong direction.
Let’s look at a few of the key components of the index. First, the percentage of people between the ages of 20 and 54 who were married declined from 78.6 in 1970 to 57.2  in 2008 (39.6 percent for African Americans). Some of this can be attributed to more men AND women in the workforce, pursuing careers who are postponing marriage, but clearly, the institution of marriage is losing favor. The trend is constantly reinforce in the movies and on TV shows, where popularity often seems tied to a game of “musical beds” and traditional family values take second place to infidelity and irresponsibility.

Another key factor is the percentage of births to married parents. Here the national decline was from 89.3 percent to 60.3 percent (28.4 percent for African Americans). If the current trend continues, sometime after 2020, more than half the children born in this nation will be born outside the institution of marriage. Again, look to the fascination we now hold with “celebrities” who openly boast about the children they are bearing outside of wedlock as the media speculates, "Will they or will they not get married before the child is born, and for how long will the relationship last?" Actions that once received society’s condemnation are now glorified as great events.

Finally, the percentage of children living with their own married parents has declined from 68.7 percent to 61 percent (29 percent for African American children). This decline reflects a similarly proportional increase in the divorce rate during that same time period.
So what? Social values change. In this country, unalienable rights include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Why shouldn’t individuals do whatever makes them happy in life, as long as it’s legal and doesn’t hurt anyone else? But the collective results of individual action may be quite different from what is anticipated in the individual case.

Years ago, agronomists had a problem in India trying to introduce new farming practices. Even though the old ones had kept the population in poverty and constantly on the brink of famine, they had also kept the cycle of life going for thousands of years. Fear of the unknown kept many farmers from adopting change. Perhaps that characterizes, in similar fashion, the concerns about these changing values. But there is one thing that is different.

Family structure had survived, largely intact and unchanged for thousands of years. The past several decades have nurtured most of the change. Change can be good. But as David Blankenhorn, the President of the IAV states, “Every single pathology or problem or difficulty a child can experience -- every single one -- growing up outside of a married-couple home elevates the risk.” In 1960, there were 439,000 couples cohabiting in the U.S. By 2007 that number had grown to 6.4 million. The study reports that “50 percent of children born to cohabiting couples see their parents’ union end by age 5 compared to 15 percent for children born to a married couple.”

Do we owe anything to the future? Is it worth modifying immediate pursuits of pleasure and happiness for that future? Is Blankenhorn’s statement even correct? These are issues that we all need to consider.

The old adage, “look before you leap” doesn’t say “don’t leap.” But each of us needs to realize that individual action, taken collectively, creates the situations around us, just as individual inaction allows these situations to continue on their own trajectories.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at