"You're fine" are two of the best words a doctor can say at the end of a visit. The words don't necessarily mean he has fixed what ails us, but they reassure us that at least whatever we have isn't getting worse. The American family gets its temperature taken too, and while it doesn't have a clean bill of health, it recently was pronounced "stable." An obvious question is how long will the stability last?
What if the answer is "12 more years"?
The national assessment I am referring to is in the Census Bureau's "Living Arrangements of Children: 2004" report, released in February.
Family trends are "for the most part ... pretty level," bureau analyst Rose M. Kreider told me. The report shows that most of America's 73 million children live in married dad-and-mom families, just as they always have.
In other words, the American family upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s have genuinely ended. The nation's families sorted themselves out in the 1990s and have been maintaining those patterns ever since.
One truly ominous change was seen last year, when, for the third year in a row, the number of out of wedlock births jumped more than a percentage point, to 38.5 percent.
At this rate, it will take just 12 years - when our 2006 babies are entering middle school - for fully half of all U.S. babies to be born to single mothers.
If there is such a thing as a cultural tipping point, this ought to be one.
Certainly this is old news for some of our population segments: 70 percent of black children and 64 percent of American Indian children, for instance, already are born to unmarried couples. What will happen when larger portions of white (now 25 percent unwed) and Hispanic (48 percent unwed) babies are added to the living-with-mother-only category?
In 1993, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray antagonized untold numbers of intellectuals and activists when he called unwed childbearing a "social catastrophe."
"Throughout human history, a single woman with a small child has not been a viable economic unit," Mr. Murray said in the Wall Street Journal.
In small numbers, single-mother families are "a net drain on the community's resources" he wrote. "In large numbers, they must destroy the community's capacity to sustain itself."
Mr. Murray, whom I once saw publicly booed for saying these things, blamed the welfare system. Uncle Sam's benefits, he said, were only available to single, unemployed mothers, so it was rational for some women to forgo a husband and a job, if they became pregnant.
In 1996, Congress reformed the welfare system in three key ways: Mothers had to work for benefits, federal welfare checks stopped after five years, and men had to reconnect to their children, preferably through "responsible fatherhood" work-training programs, but if necessary through child-support enforcement.
Abstinence education, aimed at encouraging all youth, rich and poor, to delay baby-making activities until marriage, also was part of welfare reform, while "healthy" marriage and relationship education emerged as a late-blooming policy. Not uncoincidentally, the unwed birthrate locked in at about 33 percent for several years.
But now as the cutting edges of welfare reform soften, talk about "illegitimacy" fades into ancient history and nature starts taking its course again, the number of unwed births is climbing. What will the nation look like 12 years from now if half our babies are born without a legal bond to their fathers? One can only wonder if the nation will say that's "fine" or not.
Cheryl Wetzstein's "On the Family" column appears Tuesday and Sundays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.