On Jan. 27, the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics (FPE) hosted an open lecture in Coray Gym titled “How Our Political Class Has Failed the American Family” as part of their new Politics, Philosophy and Economics Certificate program. Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the director of the nonpartisan initiative National Marriage Project, gave the talk to approximately 50 interested students and faculty.
The event started with 45 minutes of lecture and concluded with 15 minutes of moderated questions and answers. During the talk, Wilcox argued that the deterioration of the modern American family is exhibited through both the decline of marriage rates and the decline of the traditional two parent family structure. He highlighted spiraling rates of male college enrollment, which he argued contributes to larger numbers of unemployed men with less chance of getting married.
Wilcox then focused on congressional legislation that he said has deterred marriage and how he feels both political parties have failed to promote the flourishing of the American family, particularly for the poor and middle classes. He contended that the federal government should offer more grants toward vocational training programs that traditionally interest men.
“The main way that I see the decline of the American family manifesting is with the decline of education and productivity of young men,” Wilcox said in an interview after the talk. “Overcoming this through increased investment in vocational training is an area that I think shows real promise.”
Wilcox asserted that in today’s society, young people would rather spend their time pursuing professional success than forging strong familial relationships.
“At the University of Virginia where I teach, we see students who are extremely concerned with grades and then vocation as measures of success,” Wilcox said. “This shift away from valuing relationships will be a problem that the younger generation faces with the increasingly competitive culture. People who value relationships and faith, assuming they are religious, generally tend to be much happier.”
Heidi Leffler, the coordinator for the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics, explained the goal for these talks and the center’s decision to invite Wilcox.
“The FPE colloquium looks to gather top-notch Christian scholars engaging important policy issues at the intersection of economics and politics,” said Leffler. “Brad Wilcox was an obvious choice for discussing the impact of politics and economics in the family.”
Wilcox’s research focuses on the modern American family, fatherhood and cohabitation. In addition to his work at the National Marriage Project, he has written numerous books on the subject alongside articles featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic.
Alison Schoonover, a freshman international relations major, said that she decided to attend the lecture because she was intrigued by the topic.
“I just wanted a better understanding of how the political class has affected the American family,” she said. “I read a paper that Wilcox wrote and thought it would be interesting to come see him talk.”
Nathan Freeman, a sophomore international relations major, said he was interested to see if his assumptions about the American family would be confirmed by Wilcox’s talk.
“I know there are a lot of economic factors that have made life for American families more difficult,” said Freeman, before the talk began. “I am interested to see if that is the angle Wilcox takes or if he will focus on the social components of this issue.”
After the talk, Freeman said he found Wilcox’s points on the value of vocational training and the contemporary university interesting.
“I agreed with Dr. Wilcox regarding the importance of expanding vocational training,” Freeman said. “Society is still pushing a costly college degree on young people, causing massive amounts of debt. Colleges are convincing an entire generation to follow their passions instead of following opportunities. If more young people pursued career opportunities, society would be more financially prosperous and encourage the institution of the American family.”
Wilcox’s past work has not been without controversy. He peer reviewed a controversial 2012 paper that argued that the children of heterosexual couples emotionally and relationally succeed better as adults compared to children raised by same-sex parents. However, in his speech at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2014, Wilcox told his audience that “there’s no difference between a stable same-sex family and a stable heterosexual family”.
Weslie Wilkin, a freshman political science major, expressed her dissatisfaction with the lecture’s failure to address the controversy.
“I was interested because I did a little bit of reading on Wilcox and came across some controversial things he said in the past, particularly about gay marriage,” she said. “I was really interested in seeing how he presented it in his speech, but I was disappointed that he didn’t bring it up. I feel like if he’s going to talk about marriage, he should talk about all types of marriage, not just one specific worldview.”
Wilkin said that the Wilcox lecture felt “one-sided and needlessly political” to her.
“There seems to be a lot of ambiguity surrounding these talks, and I leave with a lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “Wilcox was undoubtedly very knowledgeable, but I’m not walking out with any practical applications.”
Leffler emphasized that the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics’ goal was for the lecture to spark student and faculty discussion.
“As a Christian college, we are obviously concerned about the state of the family in American society and have a responsibility to take seriously the ways in which public policy impacts that central institution,” said Leffler.
Poppy Hendrickson, a freshman international relations major who had read some of Wilcox’s work in her Introduction to Political Economy class, attended the lecture to learn more about Wilcox’s perspective.
“I found it really interesting, and I like talking about marriage, especially God’s design of marriage and how that influences the political economy for good,” she said.
Hendrickson found merit in Wilcox’s arguments about the connection between healthy marriages and prosperity.
“[Wilcox] mentioned that getting a high school degree, working a full-time job and getting married before having kids almost completely eliminates your chances of being poor,” Hendrickson said. “Even people who don’t believe that marriage is God’s design can still see the benefits of it empirically.”