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Coming Apart? European experience of illegitimate births is different than America's

Controversial author Charles Murray's new book points to births out of wedlock as a reason for social decay in America. Europe's experience says illegitimacy may not be the reason.
Family breakdownEnlarge
Not all families are traditional, like President Obama's, but is the decline in their number behind America's social crisis? (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The works of conservative intellectual Charles Murray are designed to provoke debate and raise hackles among liberal intellectuals. His book "The Bell Curve" is the best-known example, along with "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences." He is an ice-cold flame-thrower as this radio interview from a couple of years ago shows.

He's at it again, in the just published, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." Much of the discussion of the book has centered on Murray's statistical dissection of the white working class, particularly family breakdown as measured by births out of wedlock.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has an interesting discussion of the book here, and at least partially tips his liberal hat towards a point Murray makes.

"Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.

"Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong). "

I wanted to add a European perspective on marriage, traditional families and earning power.  ON this side of the Atlantic, the horse bolted the stable a long time ago on traditional family structures. Rich, poor and in-between, births out of wedlock are not even the new normal. It's just the way things are.

The OECD has a very interesting chart here showing out-of-wedlock birth figures globally.

Most European countries are above the OECD average of 35 percent (as is the U.S.). In the UK the figure is around 45 percent. Denmark is about the same. France is slightly over 50 percent. Sweden and Norway are slightly higher. Estonia, which has deep historical ties to Sweden nudges 60 percent. Iceland tops the global list with around 63 percent of children being born without benefit of clergy.

Murray's deeper point, as Kristof points out, is that out of wedlock births are indicative of family breakdown and hence social breakdown.

But if that were the case,  Europe would be a festering sinkhole of social decay. That may be the view of hard-right opinion formers in Washington and Republican presidential candidates but it isn't the reality. Prisons aren't bulging over here (well, maybe in Britain, the nation whose views on crime and punishment and whose economy most closely mirror that of the U.S.). Vast vats of methamphetamine aren't being cooked up in the backyards of the working class.

The euro zone debt crisis certainly has made life difficult economically but by and large European societies are holding together. The exception is Greece, where the people are rebelling against the extreme austerity program they are being forced to endure. By the way, Greece has the fewest children born out of wedlock of any country in Europe.

The idea of the traditional family has changed enormously in the last half-century, but so has the traditional idea of work. The absence of work is likely to trigger enormous strains in the lives of every family unit, whether blessed in the eyes of God, legalized by the state or existing as some acknowledged personal bond by having a child out of wedlock.  In a way, illegitimacy is a pure expression of libertarianism, not liberalism.

Work is the source of social cohesion. It is what holds families and societies together. If you take work away from someone - regardless of his class - his family is in for hard times. In extreme cases, where whole communities lose the source of employment, that will be the reason for social breakdown, not illegitimacy of children.  Unless, and here is the big difference between the U.S. and Europe, you have a large enough social safety net to ameliorate the terror of joblessness. Most of the countries I mention all have higher unemployment rates than America. And that is not just in the current economic crisis, historically European unemployment rates have been higher than those in America.

Perhaps Murray will turn his statistical gaze on that difference for his next book.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/europe/coming-apart-european-experience-illegitimate-births-different-am

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