Saturday, January 21, 2012

Murphy Brown, Twenty Years Later

In May of 1992, the fictional character Murphy Brown--from the TV show of the same name, played by Candice Bergen--gave birth to a baby boy. She did so as a single mother. Her fictional pregnancy had been received in very different ways. Many praised the show for presenting it as a valid choice, merely a different lifestyle, and neither good nor bad as a matter of course. Others saw it as promoting poor choices, arguing that two parents was the "natural order" of things and that Murphy Brown was creating a poor role model.

Dan Quayle famously involved himself in the deabte, saying in a speech before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco:
Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another "lifestyle choice."
The backlash was immediate and viscous. Quayle was eviscerated in the media, both for weighing in on the actions of a fictional character and for lacking empathy for women in general and their life choices. The producers of the show even used Quayle's actual comments as a part of the show in the following season, as a means of expressing the reality and importance of diversity in American families.

Ten years later, Wolf Blitzer of CNN interviewed Dan Quayle on the matter, asking if Quayle would like to rephrase his comments. Quayle declined, saying:
I don't think I'd rephrase it. You've got to realize that the speech was about a 35 to 40-minute speech. The subject was the poverty of values, the breakdown in the family. If in fact you don't finish high school, you get married before 20 or you have children before 20, you have an 80 percent chance of living in poverty. I was trying to put out as a challenge to families and to all people: (If you) stay in school, get married, wait until you're after 20 to start having children, you have less than a 5 percent chance of living in poverty.
Now, we are almost twenty years out from the controversy and what do we find? Charles Murray--whose work was utilized in a recent article by Niall Ferguson that I also addressed--explores what he calls "the New American Divide" in today's issue of the Wall Street Journal. Restricting himself to just white Americans--to avoid issues of cultural inequality--he identifies a number of trends across the past half-century that have had a greater impact in working class neighborhoods, as opposed to upper class neighborhoods. Two of these are declining marriage rates and increasing numbers of single mothers.

Marriage rates have declined in both communites since 1960, but according to Murray, they have dropped far more precipitously among working class people, going from 84% in 1960 to a staggeringly low 48% in 2010, compared to 94% and 83%, respectively, among upper class people. Single motherhood has--predictably--followed a similar pattern:
In 1960, just 2% of all white births were nonmarital. When we first started recording the education level of mothers in 1970, 6% of births to white women with no more than a high-school education—women, that is, with a Fishtown education—were out of wedlock. By 2008, 44% were nonmarital. Among the college-educated women of Belmont, less than 6% of all births were out of wedlock as of 2008, up from 1% in 1970.
Murray's argument on the consequences of these changes--along with the other metrics he discusses--is simple: they persistently prevent working class people from moving up, from improving their lots in life, contrary to the spirit of the American Dream. The problems inherent in single parenting--for instance--mean fewer resources, more expenses, and less time with children. Similarly, the shared resources and commitments of a marriage contribute to a higher standard of living, and those lacking it are on not on an even playing field, all other things being equal.

This really isn't rocket science, though. It's just common sense. And these are hardly standards to enforce, given that many people can be and are successful without marriage and many single mothers prove more than capable in effectively sustaining their families.

But "many" is not "most." And the demographic realities are what they are. So even if there is no behavior to enforce here, there certainly seems to be some behavior to encourage, to incentivize.

Regardless, who would have thought, all these years later, than Dan Quayle would prove to be something of a prophet?

Cheers, all.


  1. I find it ironic that more unintented pregnancies happen in conservative/red states in the USA, where the government spends more money on telling their citizens that abstinence only is the only way to live your life and that premaital sex is evil.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Corey. That's an interesting claim. Any stats to back it up?

    I found this:

    That suggests you're incorrect.