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Till death – or whatever – do us part

One of America's most insightful social critics laments the condition of the modern family

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Handwringing over the troubled state of the family has been elevated to an art form during the past decade. In book after book, critics ranging from sociologists and politicians to economists and religious leaders have chronicled what happens when the vow, "With this ring, I thee wed," becomes a broken promise – or a promise never made at all as more couples choose cohabitation or unwed parenthood.

Now James Q. Wilson, an esteemed conservative thinker, adds his voice to the chorus with a provocative book, "The Marriage Problem." Rather than echoing the same tired lamentations, Wilson approaches the subject with a refreshing twist – a historical perspective that breaks new ground in understanding the reasons for the weakening of the family.

Wilson sees the United States as divided into two nations. In one – call it the nation of promise – children are raised by two parents in stable homes and safe neighborhoods. They acquire an education, a job, a spouse, and an optimistic sense about the future.

In the other – think of it as the nation of poverty – children are born to young, unmarried mothers. They grow up in a world without fathers, safety, or reasonable prospects for the future.

Calling such out-of-wedlock births "our grave social problem," Wilson warns that single-parent families are "the source of the saddest and most destructive part of our society's two nations." Too many people, he adds, assume that welfare payments, community tolerance, and professional help for children make marriage unnecessary.

Pretending that women can rear children alone on a large-scale basis is an exercise in arrogance and folly, Wilson contends. Without male help for mothers, the human species "would have died out tens of thousands of years ago." Nowhere, he notes, does a place exist where children are regularly raised by a mother who has no claims on the father.

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