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FROM MARCIA Clark to Murphy Brown to the stereotypical "welfare mother," single women struggling to raise children loom large in our popular and political culture. Finally, along comes David Blankenhorn to restore some balance: The title of his new book, "Fatherless America," communicates his focus on the other half of the baby-making equation. Blankenhorn writes that middle-class America "is becoming an increasingly fatherless society." He overwhelms the reader with data demonstrating the "psychological, social, economic, educational and moral" damage done to the children of single-parent families.

Blankenhorn's book also vindicates a certain unemployed Hoosier, who announced recently that he was sitting out the 1996 presidential race so that he could spend more time with his wife and three children. Indeed, ever since the liberal sociologist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead proclaimed "Dan Quayle Was Right" on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly, conservatives have had the upper hand in the debate over the family. However, as we move from campaign rhetoric to actual reform, we find that the public policies that might help re-fatherize America defy the easy orthodoxies of both Right and Left. Fatherless families have less to do with ideology and more to do with the rising tide of affluence that has swamped the ancient economic imperative that men and women "stay nuclear." The phenomenon of single parenthood is a paradox of prosperity. People live longer and travel more; they are less content to spend a lifetime with one person, especially when they can flip on the TV and see hardbodies on faraway beaches having fun, fun, fun. For many, tradition's moral monopoly has been broken. People are free now: free to find their true selves, free to abandon their families. That we have more choice is not to be confused with better choice, but many Americans are determined to taste all 31 flavors, one after the other. And they can afford to: U.S. per-capita GNP is about $25,000. Enough money sloshes around the private sector to assure that most people have the resources, in personal savings, rich uncles, or siblings with extra bedrooms, to survive family trauma. In such a socioeconomic environment, the power of Big Government to strengthen the family looks pitifully small. So we should take a hard look at the public policies trumpeted as "pro-family." Some will not work as advertised. Consider, for example, the social-policy centerpiece of the GOP's Contract With America: a $500-per-child tax credit for the middle class. Deficits aside, we should hew to the general principle that people ought to have more money and the government ought to have less. However, the impact of a per-child tax credit on two-parent stability will be neutral, possibly even negative: more "no-strings" cash for children, even if it comes in the form of a tax rebate, makes family breakup easier, not harder. A better GOP idea is to repeal the "marriage penalty." In the wake of the 1993 tax bill, the National Bureau of Economic Research reports that a husband and wife earning $50,000 a year will pay $4,348 more to the IRS than if they were not married. Tax considerations won't have much effect on behavior in Manhattan and Hollywood, but reducing Uncle Sam's bite on matrimony would send a pro-marriage message to Heartland America. Blankenhorn is a pessimist, observing that the "culture of fatherlessness" is without precedent in human history. Few want to return to the Puritan days of scarlet letters, or even to the '50s, when the scandalously pregnant actress Ingrid Bergman was blacklisted by the movie studios. Yet if we don't restore at least some stigma to divorce and single-parenthood - on both sexes and at all levels of society - then we will soon come to the end result of this cultural revolution: a lonely hearted America of sexual hunters, in which accidental, after-thoughted children are left to learn their values at the knee of TV.
James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

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