Family Strength Is Fading & It Shows

Late in 2016, statistics showed that the average life expectancy in the United States had dropped for the first time in more than a decade.

For a developed nation, particularly one as rich and technologically advanced as the United States, this is shocking news. "Most notably," reported a story on NPR, "the overall death rate for Americans increased because mortality from heart disease and stroke increased after declining for years. Deaths were also up from Alzheimer's disease, respiratory disease, kidney disease and diabetes," as well as from suicide and accidental injury.1 The story noted that the increase may be a blip—something that turns out to be a temporary, one-time fluke and then settles back again into a declining pattern—but given the legendary ill health of Americans, it may very well not be.

The increase in mortality is a trend also being noted in scholarly circles. In 2015, Princeton University researchers Anne Case and Agnus Deaton released a study which, they argued, showed that mortality and morbidity have been increasing for a certain segment of white, non-Hispanic Americans, particularly those in the working classes and without a college degree.2 In this study, Case and Deaton merely pointed to the anomaly—that after decades of increasing life expectancy and overall better health, Americans were now, for the first time, failing to keep up with other wealthy nations in these areas. According to their findings, the uptick in deaths was due largely to increased rates of "deaths of despair"—suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning.

In early 2017, Case and Deaton released a follow-up paper in which they tried to pinpoint exactly why Americans are dying from these causes at such high rates. They proposed as the reason something they call "cumulative disadvantage over life, in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health . . . triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education."3

Not Just the Economy

What does that mean, precisely? Put frankly, it's not just the economy, stupid. Yes, it's getting harder and harder for those with only a high-school education to find employment. Yes, the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor is widening, and the playing field for the blue-collar workers in the middle is shrinking fast. But there's more to the story than that.

What we are seeing in this century is the complete breakdown of historic social institutions, particularly the family. No longer, say Case and Deaton, can a man expect to follow his father into his trade, or his union, and find inclusion, acceptance, and value through meaningful work. The kinds of jobs their fathers had are fast disappearing. But also, and equally important, young adults, especially men, can no longer rely on the once-taken-for-granted realities of marriage, children, extended kin networks, and church support. None of those institutions is assumed to be integral to one's life anymore.

A young adult can get married, of course, but in an unsteady economic environment, many working-class men have come to believe the lie that it is more responsible not to and many working-class women find men without jobs to be unsuitable partners. Instead, these men and women pursue a series of cohabiting partnerships, which may or may not include children. Similarly, a young person can stay near his or her family, but our society is increasingly mobile, and extended kin networks rooted firmly in one area are not the norm anymore. And church attendance in many places is abysmal.

The result? Large numbers of people are deeply lonely, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled. They are suffering the consequences of living in a culture that no longer values marriage and family, and that faces increased economic instability. Suicides, opioid abuse, and alcoholism are on the rise because hurting people who no longer turn to God—for whatever reason—must turn elsewhere for comfort, and will seek it out anywhere they think they can find it. And there are mounds of data showing that loneliness and isolation also make people more prone to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other serious illnesses.

What Can Be Done

There is no easy remedy for these problems, but we can start by upholding the sanctity of life, marriage, and family in our conversations and in our personal lives. We can try to model in our own homes what God designed the family to be. We can make active, conscious choices to stay near family and to deliberately maintain and build kin networks. And we can pray that God will somehow bring a revival to a deeply hurting nation.

is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #42, fall 2017 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |