Shayne Looper: It is time to face an inconvenient truth

Shayne Looper

Turn the pages of the local paper and find the record of births. Here are baby pictures: boys and girls, whites and blacks, Asians and Latinos. There is more potential in this collage of photos than in all the stories on the front page, combined.

Pick out one of those children and ask, “What is this child going to be? Will he succeed in life? Will he make a difference in the world? Will he be glad he was born?”

According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, quoted in a column by David Brooks, the answer to those questions might depend on the child’s last name. Imagine side by side pictures of two healthy babies of the same sex and race. If Putnam is right, the child who shares the same last name with both parents is significantly more likely to enjoy a successful life than the child who bears only the name of his mother.

It is an inconvenient truth in a time when out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed. But, according to Jason DeParle’s New York Times’ article “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’” it is a truth that must be faced. DeParle follows the trajectory of two women’s families, one married and the other single. They reach very different altitudes. 

Each woman loves her children and does her best to be a good mother, but the married mom has more time with her kids, more help in raising them, and more money to spend on them. Her kids are involved in more extracurricular activities. 

What DeParle shows anecdotally is supported in a spate of recent studies. He notes that “scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality.”

A study led by Scott Winship of the Brookings Institutes supports these conclusions. He found that when children from lower income families are raised by two parents they are likely to move to a higher income level as adults. Children from lower income families raised by one parent are unlikely to move to a higher level as adults.

Sara McLanahan, a sociologist at Princeton, believes that family structure actually consigns children to “diverging destinies.” Harvard’s Putnam warns that upward mobility among the children of the unmarried is about to reach what he calls “an impending cliff.”

Some of the responses to the Brooks and DeParle articles reminded me of T. S. Eliot’s comment that “humanity cannot bear very much reality.” Brooks is mocked for his moralizing and reminded that this is 2012 and not 1870, while DeParle’s piece evoked tirades against conservative politics. People don’t want to face what’s going on.

The reality is this: The breakdown of traditional marriage in America has been disastrous for children. Marriage provides children with a more stable and nurturing environment, and offers them a brighter future. 

Can we do anything about the reality in which we find ourselves? Brooks recommends, among other things, increasing the Earned Income Credit. This may or may not be a good idea, but it won’t solve the problem. Money alone cannot change things.

But churches can make a difference. They can instill in children the expectation that they will marry when they become adults. They can show, both by biblical teaching and example, that “Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure.”

They can accept single parents without judging them. They can also offer practical help: peer support, mentor programs, a weekly “reading hour” for young children, tutoring help and transportation to after-school programs for latch-key kids. 

Political prattle isn’t going to change things, but practical love just might.

Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Michigan. He can be reached at