Nearly 20 years ago, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead penned one of the most talked-about essays of the year, with her Atlantic piece provocatively titled, “Dan Quayle Was Right.” Oldsters will recall that the then-vice president had caused a huge stir by faulting the TV show “Murphy Brown” for portraying the choice made by its title character, an unmarried professionally successful woman, to have a child outside of marriage, and without a father at home. Quayle got pounded mercilessly by the cognoscenti, but Dafoe Whitehead said the social science was on his side. Excerpt:

Despite this growing body of evidence, it is nearly impossible to discuss changes in family structure without provoking angry protest. Many people see the discussion as no more than an attack on struggling single mothers and their children: Why blame single mothers when they are doing the very best they can? After all, the decision to end a marriage or a relationship is wrenching, and few parents are indifferent to the painful burden this decision imposes on their children. Many take the perilous step toward single parenthood as a last resort, after their best efforts to hold a marriage together have failed. Consequently, it can seem particularly cruel and unfeeling to remind parents of the hardships their children might suffer as a result of family breakup. Other people believe that the dramatic changes in family structure, though regrettable, are impossible to reverse. Family breakup is an inevitable feature of American life, and anyone who thinks otherwise is indulging in nostalgia or trying to turn back the clock. Since these new family forms are here to stay, the reasoning goes, we must accord respect to single parents, not criticize them. Typical is the view expressed by a Brooklyn woman in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Let’s stop moralizing or blaming single parents and unwed mothers, and give them the respect they have earned and the support they deserve.”

Such views are not to be dismissed. Indeed, they help to explain why family structure is such an explosive issue for Americans. The debate about it is not simply about the social-scientific evidence, although that is surely an important part of the discussion. It is also a debate over deeply held and often conflicting values. How do we begin to reconcile our long-standing belief in equality and diversity with an impressive body of evidence that suggests that not all family structures produce equal outcomes for children? How can we square traditional notions of public support for dependent women and children with a belief in women’s right to pursue autonomy and independence in childbearing and child-rearing? How do we uphold the freedom of adults to pursue individual happiness in their private relationships and at the same time respond to the needs of children for stability, security, and permanence in their family lives? What do we do when the interests of adults and children conflict? These are the difficult issues at stake in the debate over family structure.

Today, two decades later, in the Washington Post, Isabel Sawhill repeats the claim. Sawhill is a scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution. Excerpt:

I’ve been studying single mothers since long before “Murphy Brown” was on the air. In a study I co-authored with Adam Thomas, I put them into hypothetical households with demographically similar unmarried men who, in principle, would be good marriage partners. Through this virtual matchmaking, we showed that child poverty rates would fall by as much as 20 percent in an America with more two-parent households.

In later research, Ron Haskins and I learned that if individuals do just three things — finish high school, work full time and marry before they have children — their chances of being poor drop from 15 percent to 2 percent. Mitt Romney has cited this research on the campaign trail, but these issues transcend presidential politics. Stronger public support for single-parent families — such as subsidies or tax credits for child care, and the earned-income tax credit — is needed, but no government program is likely to reduce child poverty as much as bringing back marriage as the preferable way of raising children.

More:

The government has a limited role to play. It can support local programs and nonprofit organizations working to reduce early, unwed childbearing through teen-pregnancy prevention efforts, family planning, greater opportunities for disadvantaged youth or programs to encourage responsible relationships.

But in the end, Dan Quayle was right. Unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend — bringing up baby alone — may be irreversible.

The trick is learning how to combine mercy with justice — justice in this case meaning the right ordering of things. Anyway, the broader point: Culture precedes politics. Creating a culture of life — by which I mean a culture amenable to the healthy thriving of the individual as well as the overall community — means today raising your children to look at what the mainstream media and culture-makers celebrate as good, and doing the exact opposite. As Flannery O’Connor put it, with typical unsentimentality:

“Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”