What You Won’t Hear from the Santorum Choir

Throughout this political season, social conservatives have grappled to make their case that concerns about marriage and family are relevant to America’s economic woes. And now, Rick Santorum’s virtual victory in the Iowa caucuses has provided them with a quick onramp to election-year discussions of bread-and-butter issues.

At almost every turn of his improbable bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Santorum has knitted the pro-family perspective to worries over economic wellbeing. For instance, at the October 11 Republican primary debate in New Hampshire, Santorum declared: “The biggest problem with poverty in America … is the breakdown of the American family…. We need to have a policy that supports families, that encourages marriage.”

On that stage at Dartmouth College, the former Pennsylvania senator served up stats indicating that two-parent families are far less likely to slip into poverty than those headed by a single parent. His figures were a little off, according to the fact-checking organization PolitiFact. But Santorum, social conservatism’s new standard-bearer, uttered the truth—or should I say, virtually half of it.

Ample studies have shown that family implosion is often a ticket to poverty and economic insecurity. These findings go well with the moral and religious understanding that social solidarity, including that basic unit of solidarity, the family, is essential to human flourishing. On this, the social conservatives are basically right.

What they don’t acknowledge is that the reverse is at least as true. Prolonged economic insecurity makes it much harder to hold a family together or even start one.

Minding the Gaps

Look at the recent patterns of family breakup in the United States.

Divorce rates have tapered off, but that is because of a steep drop in divorce among the college-educated middle class. Family breakup is in fact plaguing poor and working-class communities, creating what some researchers have dubbed a “divorce gap” along socioeconomic lines. In his 2009 book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin pointed out, “The tensions in the marriages of the non-college-educated reflect, in part, the declining job prospects that husbands face.” Cherlin and other researchers were reaching this conclusion before the Great Recession.

A study released by the Pew Research Center last month highlighted also a marriage gap along those same lines of income and education. People with less education and economic prospects are increasingly less likely to get married in the first place.

In other words, you really can’t talk seriously about family breakdown without dealing with issues like wages, access to higher education, and economic inequality. It’s also hard to argue credibly that single-parent families are the cause of rising poverty. Indeed, as experts point out, those rates have spiked in recent years even as the numbers of single-headed households have held steady. The real problem at the moment is with something called the job market.

All that could be noted from a moral as well as empirical vantage. According to most theological ethicists, people need material things like affordable healthcare, adequate housing, and jobs that provide a decent income. Many would say people have a right to such goods, because these are basic props of human dignity—of life in community, in families.

But you probably won’t hear that from the social conservatives as they take their onramp to New Hampshire and South Carolina. …read more