On May 19, 1992, as the presidential campaign season was heating up, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a family-values speech that came to define him nearly as much as his spelling talents. Speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California, he chided Murphy Brown — the fictional 40-something, divorced news anchor played by Candice Bergen on a CBS sitcom — for her decision to have a child outside of marriage.
“Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong,” the vice president said. “Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when prime-time 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.”
Quayle’s argument — that Brown was sending the wrong message, that single parenthood should not be encouraged — erupted into a major campaign controversy. And just a few weeks before the ’92 vote, the show aired portions of his speech and had characters react to it.
“Perhaps it’s time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes,” Bergen’s character said.
Her fictional colleague Frank, meanwhile, echoed some of the national reaction: “It’s Dan Quayle — forget about it!”
Twenty years later, Quayle’s words seem less controversial than prophetic. The number of single parents in America has increased dramatically: The proportion of children born outside marriage has risen from roughly 30 percent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2009. For women under age 30, more than half of babies are born out of wedlock. A lifestyle once associated with poverty has become mainstream. The only group of parents for whom marriage continues to be the norm is the college-educated.
Some argue that these changes are benign. Many children who in the past would have had two married parents could have two cohabiting parents instead. Why should the lack of a legal or religious tie affect anyone’s well-being?
There are three reasons to be concerned about this dramatic shift in family life.
First, marriage is a commitment that cohabitation is not. Taking a vow before friends and family to support another person “until death do us part” signals a mutual sense of shared responsibility that cannot be lightly dismissed. Cohabitation is more fragile — cohabiting parents split up before their fifth anniversary at about twice the rate of married parents. Often, this is because the father moves on, leaving the mother not just with less support but with fewer marriage prospects. For her, marriage requires finding a partner willing to take responsibility for someone else’s kids.
Second, a wealth of research strongly suggests that marriage is good for children. Those who live with their biological parents do better in school and are less likely to get pregnant or arrested. They have lower rates of suicide, achieve higher levels of education and earn more as adults. Meanwhile, children who spend time in single-parent families are more likely to misbehave, get sick, drop out of high school and be unemployed.