223. "A Social-Science Court Could Inform the Debate Over Family Values" Point of View Chronicle of Higher Education, (October 7, 1992), p. A48.


Behind the sound and fury of the 1992 Presidential campaign and the invocation of family values to attack the opposition lie serious questions that scholars can help answer.

Some social conservatives, such as the Rev. Pat Robertson, label the Democrats anti-family and claim they do not believe in God, would not oppose an abortion for a 13-year-old-girl, and would allow gay marriages. Some liberals counter that it is the Republicans who are anti-family, pointing to President Bush’s veto of legislation that would have required companies above a certain size to provide unpaid leave for parents. They also claim that his Administration has not provided enough funds for child care or improved the economy enough to keep children from sinking deeper into poverty.

One can hardly avoid noting that George Bush and Dan Quayle showed little interest in family issues during the first three and a half years of their Administration; they turned to touting family values once they discovered an urgent need to shore up the support of their right wing during the campaign. The Democrats embraced family values during speeches at their convention this summer, partially to take the wind out of the Republicans’ sails.

Should any serious scholar pay any heed to such election-focused skirmishes?

I suggest that we should, because the debate - as negative and loaded as it clearly is - does point to major societal questions and public-policy issues that do not rest merely on value judgements, but turn in part also on social-science research and its interpretation.

Indeed, the questions the politicians are raising could hardly be more important. If additional and stronger evidence bears out studies that suggest that children are not being given enough guidance and nurturing in the kinds of families that have developed over the last two decades, then we may conclude that American society made a grand mistake by increasingly endorsing the notion that most single parents can raise children nearly as effectively as two-parent families. We also may have erred by pressing for outside child care so that welfare mothers and others could join the work force.

If those motives were wrong or harmful, the consequences will be devastating. We may find that millions of young Americans have such poor control over their impulses that they are falling into crime, drug abuse, violence, poor work habits, and disengagement from political and public life. Should fuller research support such links, we would face the need to make major changes in social predispositions and public policies to shore up more-traditional family structures.

On the other hand, if further studies suggest that crime, drug abuse, and other anti-social phenomena reflect mainly economic deprivation and societal discrimination; that changes in the family are not a strong factor in social decay; and that child care and other arrangements can fulfill the functions that families once served, then obviously we can stop investing in programs that seek to shore up the family. We can shift our resources and energies from counseling and other social-service programs to socio-economic reforms.

Let’s look at specific issues. First, are children who are raised at least partly outside of traditional nuclear families at special risk of educational or social problems? Some studies show that children who were brought up partly in child-care centers performed worse according to several measures - including emotional stability, academic achievement, and criminal behavior - compared with children raised solely by natural parents. For example, a 1981 study found that children who suffered from”maternal deprivation” experienced long-term difficulties, both intellectually and socially. But other studies have found that children from fatherless pr poverty-stricken families actually performed better on several measures if they had care outside the home.

Some evidence exists that children younger than 2 years of age who are put in child care outside the home fare worse than do older children. However, those findings are contested, at least indirectly, by studies that conclude that children can benefit from nurturing by several care givers, if they provide high-quality care. For example, a committee of scholars commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1990 that what children need are enduring relationships with a limited number of specific individuals, who do not have to be their mothers or fathers.

The effects of divorce on children are similarly contested. Some studies show that the children of divorced couples perform worse on numerous measurements than do children in intact families. Other studies show that children with divorced parents do better than those whose parents have very troubled marriages. Some studies find divorce primarily harms young children, while others find harmful effects even when the divorce occurs after the children have grown into young adults and no longer live at home.

Scholars particularly disagree about the effects on children of being brought up by single parents - by divorced women and by women who never married. Numerous reports show that children of single mothers fare worse than those in two-parent homes in intellectual and social development, but the cause is contested. Some strong data suggest that the most important cause of such children’s problems is not family structure but poverty (the average income and assets of single-mother households compare poorly with those of two-parent households) and other social factors such as discrimination. Some scholars state that whether or not couples marry is influenced by their economic status, while other scholars interpret similar data to show that not marrying is a reason for the poverty of single-parent families since two adults can live better on their combined incomes than one can alone.

We could sit back and allow the normal processes of social science to sort out the empirical parts of these cardinal questions. Slowly, more and more studies will be conducted. Critics will review the findings and raise questions about sample size, measurements, interpretations, and so on. Unfortunately, this process of sorting things out in science takes a long time - something society cannot afford. Moreover, it is rarely sufficiently conclusive to guide parents, citizens, and policy makers, especially when highly charged issues are involved.

When research on particular questions of prime social importance has reached sufficient depth and breadth, we need a mechanism to pull together that research and attempt to reach some consensus on what it shows. Thus, I suggest that a consortium of social science associations convene a “social-science court” to examine existing data on the effects of changing family structure on children and to issue some authoritative conclusions. The court should draw on foundation rather than government funds, so that researchers can be uninhibited by the political bias that federal money sometimes carries with it.

I am not suggesting that such a procedure and the conclusive social-science findings it might produce would stop all debates. Obviously, values are at stake and special interests involved. However, evidence and reason might play a role in influencing policy makers and the public.

The court should include scholars known for their independence of mind and their ability to review data critically and produce balanced judgements. These people need not necessarily be drawn from the ranks of experts in the study of the family, practically all of whom have already declared themselves on one side or another of the issues.

The best way to choose members of the social-science court would be to appoint them from a list of qualified people who would be acceptable to a variety of groups with opposing viewpoints, such as the National Organization for Women and the Rockford Institute or the Children’s Defense Fund and the Family Research Council. In this way, only those with no strongly established ideological positions on the issues would survive the screening.

To be able to function effectively, the social-science court might include as few as five members but surely no more than nine. It will need a staff to re-analyze existing data for new insights and should be able to conduct hearings so that experts could explain their data and others could challenge them. The court will have to include not merely people familiar with statistical and experimental data or measurement problems, but also those who are accomplished in sorting out tangled arguments.

Above all, those who serve on the court will have to be willing to enter into a genuine discussion. At present, the scholarly discussion often proceeds like ships passing in the night. While the court will not settle all scholarly or public debate, it might well help advance that debate significantly, pointing to at least some tentative conclusions or pinpointing areas where focused research is needed to fill gaps in the evidence. Given the importance of the issues involved, we should do no less.

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