At first glance, Hardwired to Connect, the recent report from the Commission on Children at Risk, a group of thirty-three children’s doctors, research scientists, and youth services professionals, might be viewed as yet another harbinger of social decay. The report, jointly sponsored by the Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA, and the Institute for American Values, documents dramatic declines in the welfare of adolescents over the last half century—to the point where approximately 20 percent of all adolescents suffer from serious emotional or behavioral problems, from depression to delinquency.
Take suicide. From 1955 to 1990, the suicide rate for adolescents aged fifteen to nineteen more than quadrupled from 2.7 per 100,000 to 11.1 per 100,000. Moreover, larger numbers of adolescents now report considering suicide—in fact, by 2001, almost 20 percent of high school students had entertained such thoughts.
As the report suggests, suicide trends are important for two reasons. First, suicide is a dramatic and obvious indicator of a lack of psychological well-being among teens. These suicide trends reflect the marked decline in psychological well-being adolescents have experienced over the last half century. Since the 1960s, depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and delinquency have all risen precipitously among teenagers.
Second, as Emile Durkheim observed over a century ago, suicide is an excellent barometer of the overall health of our social life. When adolescents are integrated into what this report describes as “authoritative communities”—religious institutions, intact families, and other civic institutions serving children (such as the YMCA)—they think life is worth living. These communities provide them with a sense of belonging and with moral and spiritual meaning that lends their lives purpose and hope. When adolescents have no ties, or only attenuated ties, to authoritative communities, they lose hope and become vulnerable to a range of social and psychological pathologies, including suicide.
So, how have authoritative communities fared in recent years in the United States? The sobering reality is that authoritative communities have not done so well over the last half-century. The family, which the report correctly notes is “the first and most basic association of civil society,” has been battered and buffeted in recent years. In particular, increases in divorce and unwed childbearing since the 1960s have left an indelible mark on the lives of millions of children. As a consequence of these changes, fewer and fewer children go to bed at night in a home that they share with mother and father. In the 1950s, almost 80 percent of children spent their entire lives in an intact family, whereas in the 1990s only about 50 percent of children spent their entire childhood with their biological mother and father. Children who grow up outside an intact family are more than twice as likely to experience serious psychological or social problems as their peers who grow up in intact families.
Taking a page from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the report notes that other authoritative communities in civil society—e.g., religious institutions, Parent Teacher Associations, and YMCAs—have lost ground over the last half century. For instance, the percentage of Americans attending religious services in any given week fell from 49 percent in 1958 to 43 percent in 1990. The decline was more precipitous among teenagers: weekly religious attendance among high school seniors fell from 40 percent in the late 1970s to 31 percent in 1991. Because religious institutions provide moral meaning, spiritual sustenance, and social support to parents and adolescents, and because religious participation is associated with the social and psychological health of adolescents, there is strong prima facie evidence that the secularization of American life has helped fuel the downward spiral in social and psychological well-being among adolescents. (Full disclosure: as a member of the Commission on Children at Risk, I helped to frame the report’s treatment of religion.)
These trends are especially sobering because declines in familial and civic life have been concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where too many residents are afflicted by what Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution calls “behavioral” poverty. By that she means that many residents of these neighborhoods do not finish high school, do not work full-time, and do not marry before having children. Authoritative communities—especially family and nonreligious civic institutions—are weakest in these neighborhoods.
Consider family trends. Only five percent of college-educated women will have a child outside the bonds of wedlock. Nearly 20 percent of women with a high school education or less will have a child outside wedlock. Divorce is also much more prevalent among the poor. Thus, the rural and urban poor are much less likely to marry and stay married than their middle- and upper-class peers, therefore losing out on the social, economic, and moral benefits of marriage.
In many low-income urban communities, churches are often the only civic institutions with any real presence. Nonetheless, even churches located in poor neighborhoods are losing their ties to the poor in their communities, as they increasingly find their pews filled by working-class commuters who drive into the city from the suburbs for Sunday services. As R. Drew Smith of Morehouse College has observed, largely because of a growing moral and geographic divide between the church-going working class and the unchurched urban poor, “there appears to be substantial social distance between the urban poor and faith institutions.”
The sad irony is that the withering of familial, religious, and civic life is happening in precisely the communities that can least afford it. Research by Daniel Lichter at Ohio State University indicates that women from low-income communities who manage to marry and stay married have virtually the same risk of poverty as women who marry in more affluent communities. In other words, a good marriage virtually eliminates the material consequences of growing up poor for these women.
The work of Byron Johnson at Baylor University indicates that churches are especially valuable in promoting good outcomes among at-risk youth, precisely because these young people do not enjoy the material and social resources that youth in middle- and upper-class communities do. Johnson found, for instance, that children living in poor communities who attend church regularly are less likely to use drugs than unchurched youth living in middle- and upper-class communities.
The picture painted by Hardwired to Connect may seem dark. But the report ultimately gives reason for optimism. To begin with, adolescent well-being seems to have stabilized and, in some respects, improved, during the 1990s. In the last decade, for instance, child poverty, adolescent suicide, teen sex, and juvenile arrest rates have all fallen.
These improvements parallel stabilizing trends in family and religion over this same period. In the late 1990s, divorce rates continued a decline begun earlier, the percentage of children in two-parent families increased slightly, and, for the first time in years, opinion polls indicated that more married Americans are “very happy” in their marriages. According to Gallup data, weekly religious attendance among U.S. adults held steady at around 42 percent in the 1990s, and other survey data indicate that attendance among high school seniors also held steady at 31 percent. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the very institutions that address adolescents’ fundamental needs for belonging, moral purpose, and transcendent meaning have seen their fortunes improve at the same time that adolescent well-being has taken a turn for the better. But I doubt it. Taken together, these trends suggest that our social free fall is slowing down or even beginning to reverse itself.
The report also suggests a parallel development among elites. In 1992, Irving Kristol wrote that the “left today completely dominates the education establishment, the entertainment establishment, the universities, the media. One of these days the tide will turn.” Indeed, there are indications that just such a turn of the intellectual tide has finally begun at some of our nation’s top universities, not to the right but towards a refreshing willingness to grapple with our toughest social problems in a probing and open-minded manner. Virtually every member of the Commission on Children at Risk holds an academic position at a top private or public university—from Harvard to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Only a handful of conservatives were represented on the commission. Yet the commission concluded, rightly, that the intact, two-parent family and religion play a central role in promoting the social and psychological welfare of children, precisely because that is what the best social scientific evidence tells us.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the report’s intellectual honesty is that it goes beyond classic sociological and political accounts of the positive role that authoritative communities play in the lives of adolescents (and adults) by arguing that the “human person is hardwired to connect to other people and to moral and spiritual meaning.” In other words, human connections to family and God are rooted not only in enduring social needs but also in the biological makeup of the human person. The report notes, for example, that adolescent girls who live with their biological fathers experience puberty later than girls who live with unrelated adult males—for instance, a stepfather or a mother’s boyfriend. Not surprisingly, girls in the former group are more likely to postpone sex than girls in the latter group. The intact family, then, has both sociological and biological value to girls moving towards adulthood.
Similarly, the report stresses the social and biological functions that religion serves among adolescents. Adolescence is a time when the brain seems most primed to address fundamental questions about life and death, ultimate meaning, and the supernatural. During adolescence, for instance, the prefrontal cortex—a region that neuroscientists have linked to religious experiences—undergoes marked developmental changes. Not surprisingly, adolescents who manage to connect or remain connected to God during this time of change are significantly more likely to believe that life has meaning and purpose than their peers who do not report a “direct personal relationship with the Divine.” And adolescents who do not feel strongly connected to God, and who do not enjoy a community of fellow believers, are much more likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, and deviance to fill the hole in their lives.
The Commission’s willingness to acknowledge the biological and social power of faith, family, and community on the well-being of the young gives reason for guarded optimism about academia’s future (at least in the social and hard sciences). Indeed, a small but growing number of left-leaning scholars at such institutions as Harvard (Robert Putnam), Princeton (Sara McLanahan), the University of Chicago (Linda Waite), and the University of Virginia (Steven Nock) are regularly entering the public square to talk about the important role that religion, marriage, and civic participation play in fostering the common good. Their willingness to speak up on behalf of the unvarnished truth suggests that hegemonic liberalism is on the wane.
W. Bradford Wilcox is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and a member of the Commission for Children at Risk. He is the author of Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (University of Chicago Press, 2004).