Listen to Your Grandmother: Social programs are not enough to stop the decline because the root of the problem is cultural, not economic or political

David Blankenhorn, Los Angeles Times, 4/7/1990

Most people today agree that the American family is in trouble. More than 60% of Americans, for example, feel that "family values" are losing ground, according to a poll commissioned by Mass Mutual Life Insurance Co. Most see the nation's "quality of family life" not only as deteriorating and likely to get worse, but also as an underlying source of many social problems.

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Subject: Family

More by: David Blankenhorn

Most people today agree that the American family is in trouble. More than 60% of Americans, for example, feel that "family values" are losing ground, according to a poll commissioned by Mass Mutual Life Insurance Co. Most see the nation's "quality of family life" not only as deteriorating and likely to get worse, but also as an underlying source of many social problems. Similarly, a Harris poll finds that most adults believe that it's harder to be a child today than when they were growing up.

Even scholarly experts on the family – until recently much more sanguine than the general public – now tend to agree with this pessimistic assessment. At a recent Stanford conference a wide diversity of prominent scholars argued that the family is becoming less able to carry out its basic social functions. Most indicators of child well-being, for example, show that the quality of life for America's children is declining. Our society suffers from a family deficit – one that is probably more dangerous than either our trade or budget deficits.

The controversial question is no longer whether we have a family deficit, but why. The debate now shifts from conditions to causes, since understanding causes is the logical requirement for offering solutions.

There are two likely competing answers to the question, "What is the source of today's family dilemma?"

Call the first explanation "Reagan closed the bathrooms." This label is inspired by a trend in New York City: People have taken to urinating on the sidewalks. Not just the homeless, or even the poor, but all manner of citizens who, well, feel the need to go. What causes this behavior? One answer is the shortage of public toilets and the government's neglect of public amenities. In short, the root cause is not changing standards of personal behavior, but instead those larger political and economic forces that, in effect, close the bathrooms.

Precisely this philosophy governs much of the family debate. According to this view, the crisis is not even primarily about the family. The problem lies in outside institutions, such as the workplace and government, that fail to respond to new realities: divorce, single-parent homes, the two-gender work force, teen-age parenthood, latch-key children, and so on. The challenge is not to change family behavior, but to change those larger institutions. Schools must help, not stigmatize, unwed teen-age parents. Corporations must subsidize child care. Courts must confer equal legal status on alternative life styles.

The main alternative to this perspective might be termed "Grandmother knows best." The label refers to my conclusion that you will learn more about the American family from 10 grandmothers than you will from 10 family experts. Take the issue of single-parent homes. Are they "just as good as" two-parent homes? Experts in conference rooms are likely to resist making "value judgments." Grandmothers on front porches are not so inhibited. They are likely to tell you plainly that two parents are better than one. They tend to say things like: "People today care more about themselves and less about others." "They are less willing to make sacrifices." "Children today are not taught a sense of right and wrong."

In this view, the problem is not the system. The problem is us. Parents not spending enough time with their kids. Children bearing children. People seeing family obligations as an obstacle to self-fulfillment rather than as a pathway to it. The source of the dilemma, therefore, is not economic or political, but cultural. The problem is an increasingly atomized, adult-centered society in which expressive individualism has become a governing cultural ideal, overshadowing and, to some degree, displacing other norms such as civic virtue, religious beliefs and family values.

Which viewpoint will guide public discourse in the 1990s? I suspect the smart money is with "Reagan closed the bathrooms." It's easier to argue, and it leads to policy ideas. And, of course, there is much truth in this perspective. I certainly wish that "they" would re-open – indeed, build more – public toilets. I also wish they would provide better medical care to poor children, improve the schools, open more drug-treatment centers and help parents with child care. I favor raising my taxes – or yours, anyway – in order to do this.

But I do not kid myself that these measures – or 100 like them – strike at the heart of why the family as a social institution is in decline. In the final analysis, the grandmothers are right. The source of that decline is cultural. Reagan can close public toilets, and I can vote against him because of it. But he does not – he cannot – cause me to urinate in public. Only I can decide to do that. And if what we as a society are doing to the family is the cultural equivalent of urinating in the street, then public policy is simply not enough to solve our dilemma.

This article originally appeared here.

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