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Economic Prosperity and The Natural Family
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By Anonymous, December 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

At the Summer Institute this year we were privileged to meet and hear presentations from a group of economists whose work connects (or re-connects?) economic prosperity to natural justice.  Economists Sophia Aguirre, Jennifer Roback Morse and John Mueller all addressed the economic consequences of maintaining the traditional family’s integrity. 

Their common position was that the protection of marriage and its issue, the natural family, is a necessary condition to generating widespread prosperity.  Therefore, policy attempting to affirm preconditions of economic prosperity must take into account the moral standing of the natural family.

Explicit or implicit in their position is the claim that the net long-term economic productivity of the family unit is greatest when cohabiting biological parents coordinate and invest a greater share of their time in the upbringing of the children, rather than using their time to maximize the short-term income from both adult parents working outside the home.  This claim assumes that the quantum of income lost over the short-term is exceeded by the greater economic productivity of these children when they reach adulthood. 

Both parents could work outside the home for greater short-term family income, and could use their greater income, rather than their own time, to provide for substitute child-rearing.  Another alternative might be that the government provides resources in substitution for the parents’ greater time-investment in the children’s upbringing.  Either the greater income from both working parents or government-provided resources could be used to indirectly provide for the upbringing of children.  One can imagine other alternatives.  If the biological parents do not live together with the children, one can imagine a best-case scenario in which the parents coordinate their economic lives with the result that one parent can provide the time-investment in the children.

If it is true that the natural family unit’s long-term economic productivity is maximized by both biological parents living together with their children and by the parents choosing to maximize their available investment of their time in raising the children, then the right public policy should be obvious to a government interested in supporting conditions that maximize collective prosperity.  The government should be interested in protecting marriage and its issue, the natural family in the first place; and second, encouraging those parents to sacrifice short-term income for biological parent-provided upbringing.

But does this family model produce what is claimed?  How do we measure this?

Though, for some of us, common sense and experience might seem to sufficiently validate the claim here outlined, our society seems less easily convinced.  We need empirical proofs.  I am a political scientist and do not know to what extent economists have studied the natural family unit compared with other family models.  My guess is that contemporary economists (apart from our visitors at the Summer Institute) have not taken a great interest in this subject.  However, the implications to government’s economic and social policy are potentially explosive if more studies empirically prove what the protection of the natural family does economically produce.

I have encountered one real-world example that does seem to contribute empirical evidence supporting the claim.  This example might lend itself well to a formal study.

In all American K-12 school districts, spending on education is usually standardized around a particular metric, educational spending on each student per year.  This number incorporates all funds (local, state and federal) received by the school district for each year, and divides that number by the average daily attendance of students in that district.  Per student per year K-12 spending measurements for each state and for each school district are easily located.

The national average of per student per year spending is around $10,000.  However, per student per year K-12 spending is highest where test results and high school graduation rates tend to be lowest.  Urban school districts, for example, spend around double the national average, but tests results and graduation rates are infamously low and have remained so, while spending in those school districts has increased, often due to more infusions of federal dollars. 

In contrast, Utah has historically spent well below the national average but usually ranks among the top performing states measured by test results and graduation rates.  The latest statistics show that the state spends around 63% of the national average, which amounts to less than half of what many urban school districts spend.

What gives? 

My hypothesis would be that the difference is explained by the different rates of children raised by cohabiting biological parents.  Utah maintains one of the lowest divorce rates in the nation.  Urban school districts, where K-12 spending is highest but test results and graduation rates are lowest, are reputedly located where children are least likely to be raised by both cohabiting biological parents.

If these correlations are established the results may substantiate this general conclusion: that public spending – even to this astonishing degree – cannot compensate for the time investment of married biological parents in the upbringing of children.  Government may do what it will to provide resources in support of ‘other’ family structures, but these funds and efforts will be futile in comparison to what intact families provide. 

It is often asserted that adult economic success depends upon educational success.  If educational success depends upon parental time investment, irrespective of government-provided resources then the government ought to pursue a policy of protecting the nuclear family and encouraging families to sacrifice increased income in the present in exchange for raising their children.  This is a question then, of not only what is morally right, but also is a question of what is in the interest of our long-term, general prosperity.

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2 Comments
Fred Putnam on Dec 6, 2011 at 6:44 am

Interesting! This is, of course, an appeal to the merely commercial "value" of the natural family, which may be the only acceptable basis of discussion for many in our society. Woe is us.

Question: Does educational spending per *urban* student in Utah differ by the same ratio as in the nation overall? To what effect?

Lee Trepanier on Dec 6, 2011 at 9:42 am

Although there is an argument for supporting the family as a unit on moral and ethical grounds, the argument that the family unit is most the productive economic unit is useful for public and political discourse, since almost everyone wants more economic productivity.