The Sins of Our Fathers, According to Rick Santorum

We have sinned, and in so doing, we have brought this economic mess on ourselves. Thus says a nasty meme pervading American culture.

Now, we certainly bear some blame for electing politicians who allowed fraudsters and plutocrats to corrupt the system, but that’s not what this meme alleges. Instead, we’ve been told, we have changed. Our morals, our values, the way we raise our children, our dying work ethic: These are to blame for our meager inheritance.

You can see it in surveys of older generations. In a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the Silent Generation, born before 1946, told pollsters that they are more honest than younger generations, and Baby Boomers claim that their work ethic, respectfulness, values, and morals separate them from today’s youth.

You can see it in the resilience of Rick Santorum’s campaign for president. The former Senator from Pennsylvania built his political career around family values. In 2008, he attributed this country’s problems to the “corruption of culture, the corruption of manners, the corruption of decency.”

And you can see it in the popularity of Charles Murray’s latest book Coming Apart: The State of White America, which suggests that declining family values are responsible for the economic plight of the working class.

It’s a lie — and a prejudiced one, at that.

It’s true that there are more women in the workforce than ever before and that men now work fewer hours as a result. It’s also true that the divorce rate is higher than it was forty years ago and that more and more children are growing up in households with one parent or cohabitating parents.

But these trends don’t seem to have had a negative effect on childrearing. Mothers still spend 10 hours per week on child care, exactly the same as they did in 1965, and now fathers spend more time — 5 hours, up from 3 — on child care.

Partly as a result, 40 percent of adults believe their family life now is closer than it was when they were growing up; only 14 percent believe it’s less close. Similarly, 51 percent of married adults believe they are closer than their parents were; only 5 percent believe they’re less close.

And, although 95 percent of Americans think the divorce rate has risen over the past 20 years, in fact it has gone down.

That’s not the only number that’s been going down. For the past thirty years, violent crime rates have been plummeting. Teenage birth rates have fallen over 40 percent since the 1950s. Wife beatings and spousal rape are no longer condoned by law enforcement, as they were just a few decades ago. Lynch mobs and other evils of segregation are rapidly becoming a distant memory.

It’s also hard to imagine how older generations can claim that kids don’t have a work ethic when the percent of college students working more than 20 hours per week (46 percent) is higher than it was when they were college-age (39 percent in 1986, for example).

But that’s what happens when you have more bills to pay than ever before. Education costs, like health care costs, have grown faster than the rest of the economy, all the while government assistance has been shrinking. The result has been an explosion of student loans.

And therein lies the rub, for the real difference between old and young, between past and present, is not the state of our values, but rather the state of our economy.

The tax code has become less progressive, regulations less strict, unions less powerful, the safety net less generous, and pensions less secure. Is it any wonder, then, that families have become less reliant on the singular male breadwinner?

In a cruel irony, the very policies advocated by Santorum and Murray have corroded the “family values” they claim to admire. It makes you wonder why people are still listening to them.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.