March 16, 2009
To: President Obama
From: David Blankenhorn
I’m sure that the last thing you feel deprived of, in
your new job, is advice. And you certainly know that unsolicited
advice usually has all of awkwardness, but none of the thrill,
of an unsolicited kiss.
But in these challenging days, and even coming from a stranger
like me, perhaps you might find a bit of solace or use in this
Be who you are.
Urge as important to us as a society the same things that are
important to you as a man.
Fathers and Marriage
You wrote your first book about your father, and about fatherhood,
and by all accounts you are a loving father and good husband.
Our nation desperately needs more such men. There are plenty
of worrisome statistics about the current state of our civil
society, but to me here is by far the most worrisome: More than
half of all U.S. children today are likely to spend at least
a significant portion of their childhoods living apart from
their fathers. For African American children, tragically, that
figure is at least 80 percent.
This is our worst contemporary problem because – as your
immediate Democratic predecessor as president, Bill Clinton,
put it in a speech at the University of Texas about ten years
ago – it’s the problem that is driving so many of
our other problems, from unconscionable rates of child poverty,
to bad educational outcomes, to juvenile delinquency and crime,
to teen pregnancy, to high and probably rising rates of mental
problems and emotional distress among U.S. children and adolescents,
and many others.
My sense is, you know this in your bones. So my advice is,
show us who you are. Talk about this issue. Challenge us to
do better. Specifically, as a part of a major address in 2009,
say that a main goal of your Administration, and you hope a
main goal for our society as a whole in the coming years, is
to increase the proportion of U.S. children living with their
own two married parents. The reason why is simple. If that number
gets better, so many other things will get better, starting
with the basic living conditions of our most vulnerable children.
Permit me, however, to point out a potential problem, which
concerns your use or non-use of the “m” word. I
mean, of course, the word “marriage.” For there
is one thing of which we can be sure. Among your advisors, very
few – I would even venture to guess, not a single one
– will want you ever to utter the word “marriage”
in a serious context. Yes, many of them will be happy enough
for you to put in an occasional good word for fathers and for
fatherhood, as you did so movingly last Fathers Day at the Apostolic
Church of God in Chicago. But they will let you know in no uncertain
terms that marriage should and must remain an idea that you
dare not mention.
Why? They can tell you their reasons. I have heard these reasons
many times, dating back at least to the Clinton Administration,
and while I recognize that they are well-intentioned and often
based in genuine political expediency, here is my reply to all
of them. Today, whatever else its merits, praising fatherhood
without concretely supporting marriage is an act of cowardice.
It is cowardice because it is widely known – the scholars
who study this issue know full well – that in our society
the institution of marriage is the essential precondition for,
and therefore the most accurate predictor of, exactly the kind
of effective, hands-on, nurturing fatherhood that you called
for with such passion in Chicago last year. If you’ll
permit me to borrow from the eloquence of W. E. B. Dubois, we
can say with great confidence that professing to want fatherhood
while ignoring marriage is like wanting the crops without plowing
the ground, or wanting the ocean without the roar of its waters.
Such a profession is cowardly precisely because it is professing
to want something in the very way that almost certainly means,
and is widely known to mean, that you are unlikely ever to get
So please, as a fellow fatherhood advocate (I too wrote my
first book about fatherhood), let me importune you on what may
at first seem like only a small rhetorical point, but is in
fact a large substantive point: The next time you talk about
the importance of fatherhood, talk also about the importance
of marriage. Begin with your own story, which is so inspiring
to so many, and conclude with a call for a broad national conversation
on how to strengthen marriage in our society.
If it helps, think of using the word “marriage”
in public in the same way as using your Blackberry in the Oval
Office. You have always liked your Blackberry, but as soon as
you got elected, everyone told you that you had to stop using
it. But you insisted. You struggled with them. You gave your
reasons, and they were good reasons. And today, you are using
your Blackberry. Good for you!
It’s like that regarding speaking the word “marriage.”
My sense is, you know that this issue is important. Yet many
of those around you will view saying so as a serious violation
of etiquette, and they will offer many reasons why you should
not, must not, cannot, ever say this word. But might you decide,
based on your values, that it’s important enough to give
your reasons and say it anyway? I sincerely hope and pray that
the answer is yes.
Today, you probably have more power to influence the values
and attitudes of young Americans on this issue than any other
person in the country. Are you in any doubt about the centrality
and urgency of this matter? Think about your legacy. If your
words and deeds as president could help to create a society
in which, four years or more from now, a greater (rather than
lesser) proportion of our nation’s children were living
in homes with loving fathers and good husbands – more
good family men – do you believe that any other words
or deeds of yours as president, no matter how consequential,
are likely to have been more important?
Thrift and Generosity
You seem to grasp intuitively that, in the great economic crisis
now confronting us, we face not simply a financial meltdown,
but also an ethical meltdown. You therefore seem to believe,
as I do, and probably as many Americans do, that our biggest
challenge does not consist simply of bailing out this or that
company, or stimulating this or that sector of the economy,
or even relieving the current financial distress of this or
that group of suffering Americans. Those are certainly important
current aims. But surely our deeper and ultimately more important
challenge is to reconsider and substantially revise some of
our most deeply entrenched attitudes regarding the uses of money,
such that we can once again commit ourselves as a society, from
Wall Street to Main Street, to the values of honestly, fairness,
wise use, economy, and giving back to society.
I particularly took note when, as one of your first decisions
as president-elect, you created a working group to explore ways
to strengthen the middle class. I am sure that you know, and
that your working group knows, that the challenge here is not
simply to provide economically vulnerable people with enough
money to qualify them as “middle class,” but rather
to find creative ways to strengthen those values, rules, and
institutions – or what might be called those ways of living
– that are both the preconditions and foundations of a
strong and thriving middle class. How can that be done?
For the past four years I have been studying the ups and downs
of a venerable American value that, I believe, provides the
best philosophical framework for answering this question. That
value is thrift. Not “thrift” as penny-pinching
or stinginess (which is how many people in recent decades have
understood the term). And not even thrift as belt-tightening,
a kind of necessary but bad-tasting medicine for hard times
(which is how the term is increasingly being used today).
No, I mean thrift as a means of thriving (the word thrift comes
from “thrive”); as a vision for attaining the good
life; or as what Benjamin Franklin, the great American apostle
of thrift, called “the way to wealth.”
A personal confession may be in order. I am a true-believing
thrift nut. I’ve become a starry-eyed advocate. For so
many of the problems now ailing us – from shameful wastefulness,
to growing economic inequality, to independence-killing indebtedness,
to runaway mindless consumerism – I believe that the philosophy
of thrift is the closest thing we have to a miracle cure.
It seems to me that, over the past 30 or so years, we Americans
have energetically created and have lived at high speed in what
might called a debt culture – a way of living that is
fueled by and premised on interlocking and steadily expanding
structures of debt (personal, corporate, and societal). What
we are learning now the hard way, of course, is that a debt
culture is not sustainable. It has crashed around us, and we
are now trying to rebuild … something.
But what precisely is the something that we aim to rebuild?
Is our goal only to do some prudent stimulating, and some clever
bailing out, so that we can get back to maxing out our credit
cards as soon as possible? Or do we – do you – perhaps
have something different in mind?
I hope the answer is, something different. My hope, my commitment,
is to replace the old debt culture with a culture of thrift.
So I’m pushing a big idea. I want to testify about it.
I want to shout from the roof-tops. I want to convert people.
I want to convert you – not to the concept, which I believe
is already quite intellectually congenial to you and is in fact
a deep part of who you are, but rather to the idea of speaking
out publicly as an advocate of the concept.
The Way to Wealth
I want to close with two ideas for integrating the two ideas
– marriage and thrift, the nest and the nest egg –
that I am trying here to urge upon you. The first idea is a
piece of legislation. The second idea is a talk or presentation
aimed at young Americans, especially those of modest or middling
means, either in high school or in their 20s, who today are
concerned about their economic futures.
A Family and Thrift Act
The idea is for the Congress to create and help to fund a series
of pilot projects in five or so lower-income communities across
the nation that would:
- Get rid of the marriage penalty currently facing many low-income
couples who choose to marry; and
- Establish new incentives and opportunities for low-income
individuals and families to save.
Marriage and thrift. Building the nest and building the nest
egg. Doing the two things that are the pathways to, and the
foundations of, the American middle class.
My colleauges and I are currently working with a bipartisan
group of members of Congress to develop and introduce such a
piece of legislation. Might you consider supporting it?
The Way to Wealth
For young Americans struggling to enter the middle class, or
struggling to stay in it, what are the five most important things
they can do to put money in their pocket and succeed in America?
Drum roll, please – here are the five:
- Work hard and honestly.
- Spend less than you earn.
- Be as generous as you can.
- Marry for keeps before having children.
- Have a plan.
What attracts me most to these rules, besides their well-established
validity, is that nearly anyone can follow them. You don’t
need a college degree, or some special permission slip, to spend
less than you earn, say, or to marry for keeps before you have
children. You don’t need to wait for the economy to improve.
You don’t need to wait for Congress to pass a law, or
for society to change its ways, or for someone to let you into
the lucky group. All you need – what you need –
is the knowledge and desire to live a certain kind of life.
There is ample scholarship to back up each of these five rules,
but in your case, Mr. President, my guess is that the scholarship
would be superfluous and unsurprising. You know this stuff.
You know it in part because you’ve lived it and in part
because, if the perception of this outsider is at all accurate,
you’ve learned it and stood for it over the course of
Show it to us. Share it with young Americans. Let us know who
David Blankenhorn, president, Institute for American