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Poverty, Family Breakdown, and the Cross

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It has become a regular occurrence at conservative publications to note the strong correlation between traditional marriage and family and higher income levels. Take, for example, Ari Fleischer, who wrote the following in the Wall Street Journal last June:

If President Obama wants to reduce income inequality, he should focus less on redistributing income and more on fighting a major cause of modern poverty: the breakdown of the family.

He continues, “One of the differences between the haves and the have-nots is that the haves tend to marry and give birth, in that order.”

Despite my traditionalist leanings, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of these sorts of editorials. For example, contrast this with Ben Steverman’s recent article in Bloomberg:

Divorce among 50-somethings has doubled since 1990. One in five adults have never married, up from one in ten 30 years ago. In all, a majority of American adults are now single, government data show, including the mothers of two out of every five newborns.

These trends are often blamed on feminists or gay rights activists or hippies, who’ve somehow found a way to make Americans reject tradition.

But the last several years showed a different powerful force changing families: the economy.

He goes on:

The effects of the Great Recession on families are hard to ignore. Births and marriages have plunged, as millions of millennials skip or delay starting traditional families. The economic uncertainty of the downturn dismantled job security which, in turned, ripped up many wedding plans.

Families that have made unconventional arrangements are the most financially fragile. An Allianz survey of 4,500 Americans included an extra sample of families outside the historical norm, including single parents, same-sex couples and blended families. These “modern families” were less financially secure than traditional families, the study found. They were 50 percent more likely to have unexpectedly lost their main form of income — and twice as likely to have declared bankruptcy.

Chicken or the egg? I suspect, rather, that the causation is reciprocal. The financially strained tend toward less traditional family arrangements, and less traditional family arrangements tend toward financial strain. No doubt there are a variety of causes, but this way of putting it, at least, is a step in a more realistic direction.

In any case, one common trend seems clear: those who support traditional marriage and family appear to be falling into the error of confirmation bias. “See!” they say, “traditional family is better. Now we’ve got the data to prove it. Moral breakdown leads to economic breakdown. You reap what you sow.”

While I mostly agree that they have the right ideal, the danger comes when having the right ideal degenerates into idealism. What they do not see is that sometimes — or perhaps more than sometimes, according to Steverman — economic breakdown precedes moral breakdown.

Of course, I do not deny the element of free choice. But for the poor, saying, “You should really get married before having children,” when they might not have the means to do so even if they wanted, sounds a lot like telling the lame, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!”

The problem is more complex than that. And adding shame to suffering hardly seems a proper solution, nor the loving thing to do, for that matter.

Thankfully, as Christians we do know someone who can say to the lame, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (John 5:8). That person, of course, is Jesus Christ, who showed us that one cannot conquer death, corruption, imperfection, and sin either by pretending they don’t exist or by condemning those afflicted by them. Rather, he conquered death by death, setting an alternative pattern of life for us: resurrection.

The takeaway here should be that if Christians are concerned about the breakdown of the traditional family, they would do well to explore ways in which they can sacrifice in order to help those in less-than-ideal family situations first to stand on their own two feet, before exhorting them to stand together. If we hope for resurrection, we must be prepared to take up our own crosses daily.

Can you help someone find a job? Learn a new skill? Simplify their bills? Navigate through online applications and tiring paperwork? Or, at least, can you find some other way to help them find the hope they need to see a different future for themselves? It’s not fun, but I’d recommend starting there, and then, only when and if it is more of a live option from a pragmatic point of view, getting to the question of ideal marriage and family arrangements.

Without taking up that cross, however, the irrelevance of the traditional message will only increase with the multiplication of nontraditional family forms under strained economic conditions.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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