It seems as if nearly everyone I come across has something to say about the issue of marriage. Somewhere between marriage licenses for gay couples and President Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages, this issue has struck a chord in the American conscience. Whether for religious grounds, personal affiliations, or a handful of other reasons, the issue seems destined to further poison the political well and increase the polarization of politics. Let’s hope it doesn’t become the next litmus test, the way abortion has been since the 1973 ruling of Roe v. Wade.

What’s on the minds of many others these days doesn’t necessarily hit the beat of the drum within the context of the gay marriage controversy, but it beats to the fundamental nature of social and economic decline in this country. It is the breakdown of the American family. But because that issue does not neatly fit into a silo, it rarely gets a place at the debate podium.

Many people reminisce and crave the days where kids could roam free, house doors could remain unlocked, and schools were a safe place to go. Part of the equation was kids growing up in loving homes with a mother and a father and a community who cared about the well-being of its neighborhood children. In the 1940s, 67 percent of households were traditional families — where the working husband supported the wife and kids back home — as compared to 17 percent today. Turning back 50 years, the American experience consisted of postwar prosperity, a baby boom, and stable marriages that lasted an average of 31 years — the highest ever. Could it be that the traditional family was really a fleeting phenomenon that peaked in the 1950s?

Today’s world looks nothing like the earlier decades of the traditional nuclear family, and the changing landscape has created a portrait that comes in many jumbled forms: single parents, children out of wedlock, second-time marriages, grandparent-headed households, people with half-siblings or step-siblings or combinations thereof, same-sex parenting, and so on. The decline of the traditional Western family typifies a 21st century paradox: shifting demographics at the cost of social stability.

Instead of a stigma, these untraditional families are an accepted part of our communities and culture. But while this growing tolerance has many benefits, it also has social and economic costs that should not be glossed over for politically correct purposes. Who bares most of those costs and who suffers most? None other than America’s children.

Today, only 40 percent of American children reach the age of 18 with a mother and father at home. The consequence of this confusion is that out-of-wedlock children (33 percent of all births) or children of divorced parents (a constant 50 percent) are more likely to experience poverty, crime, abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, behavorial and emotional problems, lower academic achievement, less income throughout their working lives, and other social implications that have an impact on the health of the American portrait. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteems, and avoid high risk behaviors such as drug use and truancy in comparison to children with uninvolved fathers.

More children than ever lead a nomadic existence, shuffling back and forth between two or sometimes three households (including grandparents). The difficulty this creates in providing a stable environment is compounded by the omnipresence of images of violence in television and movies, a scantly-clad Britney Spears, and a public education system that often hesitates to teach right from wrong.

So how can we begin to address the vanishing American family? It is not as easy as suggesting a government program. Instead, we need to begin at home.

There is a growing trend, particularly among 30-something professional married women, to find that they can’t succumb to the demands of the traditional workplace while simultaneously raising younger children, and do both well. Recognizing that there is no more important job in the world than raising children, these women have made the not-so-difficult choice of what is more important. But recognizing the importance of family doesn’t mean that women have to return home to raise kids. It means setting priorities for both mom and dad, having a stronger commitment to marriage, and realizing that there is no greater reward in life than bringing up a child.