Day care and illegal drugs are hot political issues. Yet there has been little public discussion of the relationship between changing family patterns and the use of illegal drugs. Considerable data suggests a close connection between the two. Indeed, the decline of the traditional family seems to parallel the increase in the use of illegal drugs. As legislators consider more federal subsidies for day care, they ought to ponder this neglected bond.

It was not until the 1950’s that illegal drug use among children and youth became a source of considerable worry. In 1949, Commissioner of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger estimated that there were 65,000 heroin addicts in the country, half of them concentrated in New York. Most of the newer addicts were primarily young minority males, who reportedly stole to finance their habit and totally rejected mainstream society. A 1951 article in Science Digest, though, noted that “hard pressed to create a market, peddlers have left the slums and invaded middle-class schools and neighborhoods.” The Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 strengthened drug law enforcement by setting mandatory sentences for drug traffickers, including the death penalty in some cases.

The 1960’s became a decade almost defined by the explosive increase in drug use among teenagers and young adults. The proportion of those arrested who were under age 18 increased from 6 percent in 1963 to 25 percent in 1969. The most startling aspects of this new incidence of youthful drug use were its concentration among the white middle class and the array of substances being used. At the same time, the number of divorces climbed from 393,000 in 1960 to 1,213,000 in 1981; the divorce rate rose 140 percent. The rate of first marriage (new brides per 1,000 single women) declined 30 percent; among women ages 20-24, the fall was a dramatic 59 percent. Some researchers began to suspect that there might be a connection between these developments.

During the 1950-69 period, sociologists and psychologists who looked at the family-drug equation moved toward a common conclusion: family life, properly structured, could and did insulate children from drug experimentation and use; and the more traditional the family, the greater the degree of protection. Eva Rosenfeld, Isodor Chein, and others reported that the families of addicts were characterized by parental death, divorce, or desertion. Father absence had a particularly strong effect on boys.

Richard Blum and associates, in Horatio Alger’s Children, offered the most complete early assessment of the relationship of family life to drug use. Drawing his sample from San Mateo, California, in the late 1960’s, Blum sought to identify those family-oriented factors that correlated with “low risk and high risk” of teenage drug use, within a period of growing general substance abuse. Among white middleclass families, Blum found that certain family patterns were significantly related to “low risk” of drug use. These were families that were intact, where the fathers led; mothers gave their first priority to home-centered activities; religion was an active and vital force; and there were numerous siblings and meaningful linkages to other relatives. Converselyi children and adolescents frequently used drugs in families characterized by divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births, and where men and women gave highest priority to activities and interests outside the home.

These implied linkages even help explain the apparent stabilization, or decline, in youthful drug use that has been seen in this decade. After the startling changes in family structure and life seen in the 1960-80 period, several key indicators (including the divorce and birthrates) have since stabilized or turned in healthier directions.

Many congressmen are currently supporting federal legislation for more child-care centers and tax incentives to keep both spouses employed outside the home—actions that, according to the research, will increase drug use among teens. At the same time, these legislators claim to be “waging war” on drugs. If they are serious about that campaign, they would do better to offer tax incentives to families where men and women take the time to rear their own children, at home.