When the history of our era is written, scholars will search for larger causes to explain its bitterness and contradictions, despite so much wealth. Was it globalization? Populism? Economic inequality? Polarization? Greed? To this list you can now add an unlikely candidate: the nuclear family.

In a powerful essay for the Atlantic — “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” — New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many.

By “nuclear family,” he means a married mother and father and some kids. The alternative arrangement was “the extended family,” which included not only Mom, Dad and the children but also close relatives — cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents — as well as family friends.

The great defect of the nuclear family, Brooks asserts, is that if there’s a crisis — a death, divorce, job loss, poor school grades — there’s no backup team. Children are most vulnerable to these disruptions and often are left to fend for themselves. There’s a downward spiral. “In many sectors of society,” Brooks writes, “nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, [and] single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.”

People could increasingly go their own way. The advent of the birth-control pill encouraged people to have sex outside of marriage. Women’s entrance into the labor market made it easier for them to support themselves. Modern appliances (washing machines, dryers) made housework simpler.

As Brooks sees it, almost everyone loses under this system. The affluent can best cope with it, because they can usually afford what’s needed (day care, tutors) to support their children. Otherwise, the picture is bleak.

Children have it worst. Brooks cites an avalanche of statistics. In 1960, about 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women. Now that’s about 40 percent. In 1960, about 11 percent of children lived apart from their fathers; in 2010, the figure was 27 percent.

But adult men and women also have their share of troubles. There’s a vicious circle at work, notes Brooks: “People who grow up in disrupted families have more trouble getting the education they need to have prosperous careers. People who don’t have prosperous careers have trouble building stable families. . . . The children in those families become more isolated and more traumatized.”

Brooks says he wrote the article to stimulate experiments that aim to stabilize family life using the extended family — not the nuclear family — as the model. Granted, the problem may not be as big as Brooks imagines. Estimates by the Census Bureau and others indicate that about 60 percent of Americans live in the state where they were born. Presumably, many of these people stayed put because they valued nearby family ties.

Still, whatever the figures, there’s little doubt that reversing the breakdown of families, and its consequences, is one of the urgent tasks of social policy in the 21st century. We have been struggling unsuccessfully with it since the “Moynihan Report” in 1965. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who later became a U.S. senator, warned that the breakdown of black marriage rates would have a devastating effect on African Americans’ well-being.) The report proved highly controversial, and some branded Moynihan a racist.

But even if we could magically eliminate all considerations of class and race, it’s not clear that a workable model would emerge. The conditions needed to broach a debate over family policies strike at the heart of Americans’ political and cultural conflicts. Brooks put it this way:

“We value privacy and individual freedom too much. Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose.”

Brooks finds both liberals and conservatives unequal to the task of dealing candidly with family breakdown. “Social conservatives insist that we can bring the nuclear family back. But the conditions that made for stable nuclear families in the 1950s are never returning. Conservatives have nothing to say to the kid whose dad has split, whose mom has had three other kids with different dads; ‘go live in a nuclear family’ is really not relevant advice. . . . the majority [of households] are something else: single parents, never-married parents, blended families, grandparent-headed families.” He’s just as tough on progressives. They “still talk like self-expressive individualists of the 1970s: People should have the freedom to pick whatever family form works for them. . . . But many of the new family forms do not work well for most people.”

The larger issue is how we judge our times. We are constantly deluged with economic studies and statistics, implying that economic outcomes are the only ones that matter. The reality is that any national scorecard of well-being must take a much broader view. How well families do in preparing children for adulthood and how well they transmit important values is a much higher standard for success.

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