“The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families.”
-John Adams, 1778
“Every thing useful and beneficial to man seems to be connected with obedience to the laws of his nature, the inclinations, the duties, and the happiness of individuals, resolve themselves into customs and habits, favourable, in the highest degree, to society. In no case is this more apparent, than in the customs of nations respecting marriage.”
-Samuel Williams, 1794
Like individual rights, the family as an institution preceded the institution of government. An indispensable component of ordered societies, the family is where children are best taught character, honor, the importance of hard work, virtue, citizenship, and respect for authority. As the fundamental building block of society, the family’s prosperity is essential to the development, advancement, and continuation of society. When families are healthy, communities are healthy; when families deteriorate, communities deteriorate.
All levels of government should support this foundational unit and do nothing to weaken or provide disincentives to strong families in our society.
Before we get into specifics on this principle, we need to clarify what we are not saying. We are not devaluing single parents (many of whom are in that situation due to no fault of their own) who are raising children. It is one of the most difficult roles in our society. We are not condemning non-traditional families where parents are dedicated to the proper rearing of their children. But we don’t think there will be many single parents who disagree with this principle. Polls have consistently shown that single parents, to a similar degree as the rest of the population, believe children are better off if raised by two parents.
Research confirms that children do better, with obvious exceptions, when raised by their married parents. Here are the facts: On average, children whose parents are married to each other are healthier physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than children in single-parent families. On average, children whose parents are married to each other are less likely to live in poverty, drop out of school, abuse drugs, and commit crimes than children in single-parent families. They are much less likely to be abused, and they are less likely to create their own single-parent families (through divorce or by producing children out of wedlock).
There are three ways single-parent families are created: a parent dies, the parents divorce, or the parents never marry. Over time, the number of children in single-parent families due to a parent's death has not changed much, but the divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates have skyrocketed. Nationally, about 40% of first marriages end in divorce. And of all the babies born in Mississippi, more than half are born out of wedlock. (Contrary to popular belief, the teenage pregnancy rate is near its all-time low. The growth in out-of-wedlock births has occurred among adults, not teenagers.)
Why should these facts matter to public policy makers? Because family breakdown is closely related to the problems appearing daily on the front page of the newspaper—issues which policy makers are under constant pressure to address. Policy makers are often frustrated because there is very little government can do to address the source of those problems—yet that has not stopped the demand for them to “do something.” Ultimately, these problems are driven by individual choices to abandon commitments—or to never make them. This is an issue that churches, non-profits, families, and other institutions must address.
What government should do is heed the admonition of the medical profession, "First, do no harm." Programs should not give more benefits to couples who choose not to marry than to couples who do marry. Fathers should not be discouraged from being involved with their children—and with the mother of their children. Parents should not have the ability taken away from them to fulfill their responsibility to provide a strong education for their children.
Welfare programs initiated in the 1960s had the unintended consequence of devaluing the contribution of a father to the family—resulting in a sharp increase in female-headed, single-parent households. (For more on this, see Principle #6.) Those programs still favor unmarried couples over married ones. Another example of harmful policy is the “marriage penalty” in the federal tax code, which causes married couples to pay more in federal taxes than they would if they were single. (Fortunately, Mississippi no longer has a marriage penalty in our state’s tax code; exemptions and deductions for married couples are double those for singles. Still, married couples in Mississippi are affected by the federal penalty.)
Marriage is a relationship unlike any other between humans. Far more than a mere "contractual" arrangement, marriage is a covenant. Because of its unique position, and because the stability of society is so indissolubly bonded to the stability of the institution of marriage, government does have a responsibility not to do harm to it.
When it comes to raising children, government should not substitute its judgment on what constitutes the “best interest” of a child. Parents know their children best and can best understand what their family needs. How can a bureaucrat or politician judge better than parents? Only in unambiguous cases of habitual abuse or neglect should government step in. In cases that are so dangerous that a child must be removed from the home, the child should not be returned unless there is clear evidence the parents have radically changed their behavior. And when that is the case, we should look to the private institutions (churches, non-profits, families) to find parenting solutions than work, rather than relegating children to the care of the state.
Perhaps the most consistent way government interferes with the decisions of parents—especially in low and middle-income families—is by taking so much of their money that both parents are forced to work, even if they believe their children would be better served by having one parent at home. Ironically, the money taken by government is justified many times as being spent "for the children."
Government officials must carefully consider the long-term impact policies will have on the family and should do nothing that undermines or harms it. When government officials understand and value the vital role families play in society, they should govern with humility and restraint.