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According to a recent Gallup poll, around 90 percent of adult Americans are somewhat or very happy with their family life—a figure that has barely budged over the past 45 years.

I found the figure astonishing. After all, 22 percent of first marriages end within five years, and 36 percent end within 10 years. Of second marriages, 46 percent end within a decade.

Cohabiting relationships end even quicker, after an average of just 18 months, and relatively few lead to marriage.

Burrow a bit beneath the surface and you quickly discover that:

  • Over all, family relationships are quite unstable (even though divorce rates peaked in 1979 and cohabiting relationships now last modestly longer than in the past), and
  • Instability is greatest—not surprisingly—among those who are poorer, younger and not college educated.

As part of an ongoing research project, I have examined recent research on dysfunctional families. That literature paints a very different portrait of American family life than the one depicted in the Gallup poll.

According to the most reliable recent studies, nearly two-thirds of adults report that as children they experienced a severely stressful, potentially traumatic event. These include emotional, physical and psychological abuse; neglect; exposure to domestic violence; or living with a parent or another adult who is suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness.

This list doesn’t even include the less extreme and almost certainly more common, everyday forms of child maltreatment. These include intermittent angry outbursts, harsh spanking, humiliating or repeated criticism, threatening or shouting at a child. I can go on: there are parents who make a child the subject of jokes or ridicule, who blame and scapegoat the child, or make a child perform degrading acts. Then there are those who try to control the child’s life, push a child too hard or fail to recognize the child’s limitations. Still others expose a child to upsetting situations, prevent the child from having friends and manipulate or ignore the child.

Family dysfunction cuts across class lines. But, to no one’s astonishment, some children and adolescents are significantly more likely to experience various forms of abuse or neglect. These include those living in extreme poverty (with a household income of less than $15,000 a year); gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth; and those whose parents received less than a college education. Stress, family instability and social isolation can all increase the likelihood of child maltreatment.

I can’t say with any assurance whether family dysfunction is more or less prevalent today than in the past. The evidence is, I’m afraid, murky. While there are some signs for hope—for example, public opinion has increasingly shifted against spanking, and rates of domestic violence have, apparently, declined as more women exit abusive relationships more quickly—there are also reasons for concern. A recent CDC survey of intimate partner and sexual violence survey reports that 41 percent of women and 26 percent of men experienced sexual or physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. About one in eight of those under the age of 18 live in households with at least one parent who has a substance use disorder.

What should society do about family dysfunction? Some answers are obvious: raise awareness about the signs and consequences of domestic violence. Offer relationship and communication skills training so that individuals can learn healthy ways of dealing with conflict, stress and adversity. Combat substance abuse and other factors contributing to family dysfunction. Strengthen social safety nets to reduce financial stress on families and lessen social isolation.

Unfortunately, much of the current conversation on poverty and inequality and family dysfunction blames disparities in family structure. In Senator Marco Rubio’s words, “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.” If only, we hear, poor women and men married. Or bore children within marriage. Or got more education or worked more. Then, supposedly, we’d have not only less poverty but less violent crime.

But as Philip N. Cohen, the University of Maryland sociologist and author of the Family Inequality blog, makes clear in his book Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible, marriage promotion isn’t a sensible solution to our society’s growing economic inequality. In his acerbic, sarcasm-laden words: marriage promotion promoters do “more shaming and blaming than assisting and uplifting (and their programs don’t work).” He favors something far simpler: childcare subsidies or a universal basic income, which are likely to result in “better, more supportive relationships with nonresident parents, more stable cohabiting relationships and less hardship in single-parent families.”

Part of Cohen’s argument is that in a society characterized by high levels of assortative mating (choosing partners with similar levels of education, income, wealth and status) it is doubtful that the benefits associated with marriage would accrue to those living in poverty.

His book offers a host of insights that would greatly elevate the public conversation about families, gender and inequality.

  1. Although in certain respects gender fluidity is eroding the gender binary, a trend evident in naming patterns that have become more androgynous over time, commercial popular culture has actually increased gender differentiation in children’s clothing, marketing campaigns, toys and entertainment.
  2. While it’s true that slightly over half of state and federal prisoners did not “live most of the time while growing up” with two married parents, nearly half did. Clearly family structure isn’t the best predictor of crime; the best predictor of jail time, it turns out, is prior incarceration.
  3. To those who argue that gender-based pay discrimination reflects women’s occupational choices, he shows the extent to which pay gaps reflect job segregation, itself a product of history and of contemporary society pushes women into lower-paid forms of work. He concludes, “As long as pay is not equal, there is a gender inequality problem to discuss, whether it results from socialization, family demands, educational sorting and tracking, hiring and promotion discrimination, or pay discrimination.”

The volume is filled with interest tidbits that throw into question a lot of journalistic claims:

  • That when one calculates the number of parents who are taking care of the home and family full-time, you discover that stay-at-home moms outnumber their male equivalents 100 to one. The percentage of men in this role is just 1.5 percent of married dads.
  • That since 2000, the prevalence of stay-at-home mothers has risen 30 percent but remains a relatively small number, just under 25 percent.
  • That claims about “the end of men” are grossly exaggerated and are based an array of statistical errors and distortions—and do little more than to embellish increases in women’s level of educational attainment and the growth of the service economy, while failing to get down to the nitty-gritty of earnings and power.

The book also has provocative things to say about the significance of the sex-gender distinctive and sex-segregated sports.

I read Cohen’s book as, in part, an effort to help general readers to think sociologically and to rigorously evaluate evidence and research claims. Why, he asks, did same-sex marriage and, more recently, transgender visibility spark so much cultural controversy? Part of the answer, he believes, lies in the weakening of gender categories and frantic attempts to compensate by reasserting the “naturalness” of the gender binary. His book devotes considerable attention to the ways that society through various institutional arrangements and practices reinforces and promotes categorical identities and makes them seem natural.

Families, Cohen argues, are the linchpin of inequality in the United States. Families both reproduce and reinforce inequality. But the conclusions that many social observers draw from that fact, he maintains, are wrong. It’s not that wealthier parents have superior parenting skills and use those skills to pass on to their children more “cultural capital”—the knowledge, skills, connections that contribute to success in a highly stratified society. It ultimately comes down to money. Most poor people “either can’t work or do work that doesn’t pay enough.” Roughly “83 percent of poor people are children, old people, people with disabilities, students, people taking care of family members or people who can’t find jobs.”

Single-parent households “are more likely to be poor because they have fewer parents present, and the ones they do have make less money than other parents.” With acid words, Cohen concludes, “They don’t need character, they need cash.”

One theme that runs through many “Higher Ed Gamma” postings is the disconnect between our educational goals and the actual curriculum. I think we’d all agree that a college graduate should be able to read The New York Times and especially the paper’s business or science sections or its arts and political or foreign affairs coverage intelligently and critically. But I, for one, don’t believe that our current approach—a smattering of discipline-based introductory courses—accomplishes that task.

Colleges seek to produce workforce-ready graduates who are well prepared for an independent adulthood. But, again, we do little to systematically introduce students to the necessary knowledge and skills. As it is, we do all too little to help students develop interpersonal or coping skills or cognitive strategies that will help them to better meet the challenges that they will face. For all our talk about 21st-century literacies, not many students truly graduate with the level of cross-cultural competence, global citizenship or numeracy or cultural, civic and ethical capabilities that we expect.

Maybe—because of the way we train doctoral candidates and campuses’ incentive structures—the idea of a more developmental, transformational education can’t be accomplished. It would certainly require a seismic shift in campus cultures. But I don’t think that vision is unattainable. Given the sharp decline in admissions into Ph.D. programs in the humanities and in the size of humanities and, in many cases, social sciences departments, might it not make sense to adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to graduate training and hiring? Anyway, my call to rethink and reimagine the gen ed portion of the curriculum doesn’t strike me as beyond our capabilities.

Books like Cohen’s demonstrate that it isn’t impossible to maintain a high level of methodological rigor and conceptual sophistication and address contemporary controversies in a highly accessible manner. If we can do that in print, we should be able to do this in the classroom.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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