Family Values, Without Sugary Pieties

David Blankenhorn, New York Times, 3/23/1986

The family is likely to become one of the central issues of the 1986 and 1988 political campaigns. Family concerns and family values cut across ideological lines and involve millions of Americans in ways that most issues simply do not. But while any public figure with an ounce of sense ought now to be staking a claim to this subject, most will content themselves with the same sugary pieties about the sanctity of family life.

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Subjects: Family, Family policy, Family values

More by: David Blankenhorn

The family is likely to become one of the central issues of the 1986 and 1988 political campaigns. Family concerns and family values cut across ideological lines and involve millions of Americans in ways that most issues simply do not. But while any public figure with an ounce of sense ought now to be staking a claim to this subject, most will content themselves with the same sugary pieties about the sanctity of family life.

There's an opportunity out there for serious politicians who wish to define family issues in meaningful terms and offer a program for addressing them. And so far neither left nor right has seized the initiative.

Such a program must recognize three fundamental social facts.

The first is that the percentage of women in the labor force will soon roughly equal that of men. Already, nearly 70 percent of mothers with school-age children work outside the home as well as in it - surely the greatest shift in American family life during this century.

The second fact is that real family income, after having doubled from 1947 through 1973, has stagnated for the past 12 years and was lower in 1984 (the last year for which data are available) than in 1973. In particular, the median income of younger fami-lies has dropped 8 percent since 1973. Baby-boomers now face acute pressures at key moments in famil life such as buying a first home or having a child.

The third fact is the growing link between family breakdown and poverty. Today, one child in four in America is poor and 40 percent of all poor Americans are children - a tragedy closely bound up with teen pregnancies and single-parent homes.

The New Right began to coalesce under the pro-family banner in the late 1970's, prompted in part by what they perceived as Government interference in family life by the Carter Administration. And since President Reagan uses family imagery to decorate nearly every proposal, most conservatives consider the family their sole political property.

Yet a strand of hypocrisy runs through the conservative position. In last year's House battle over tax reform, for example, New Right ''pro-family'' forces in and out of Congress fought and nearly killed the very bill that offered the most tax relief for the average family. Why? Because, they said, the bill was ''anti-business'': It paid for family tax cuts by closing corporate loopholes. While trumpeting family values, these conservatives yearn even more for capital formation.

Or take Mr. Reagan's recent State of the Union pledge to reform the welfare system. No matter how often he invoked family themes in that address, does anyone doubt that the Administration's interest in this crucial family issue pretty much begins and ends with a fervent desire to cut spending? Of course, there are some conservative activists such as Paul Weyrich and Phyllis Shlafly who really believe what they say about families. The problem is what they believe. For example, they oppose any initiative to help working mothers, such as child-care tax credits or day-care programs, because at bottom they oppose the very idea of women entering the labor force. They seek nothing less than repeal of the last 30 years of new opportunities for women.

As conservatives put their own special spin on the family debate, progressives seem ambivalent and defensive. Aside from some rhetoric about family verities - little different from right-wing boiler plate -progressives have hardly begun to offer new initiatives to strengthen the family. Many seem almost resigned to remaining in the ''anti-family'' box their opponents have put them in.

Yet family issues offer progressives perhaps their best chance to redefine the national debate on social policy. They could start with three ideas.

First, help working parents to be better parents. The workplace has yet to adjust to the changing family. Through public and private initiatives, we should extend flexible work hours and benefits packages, increase maternity and paternity leaves and establish on-site child-care facilities. Such efforts would allow parents more time with their children and offer them greater freedom to balance the demands of family and work.

Second, institute pro-family tax reform. Individual rates should be lowered, and the code should start treating children as investments by significantly increasing the amount allowed for child exemptions. Credits for child care should be raised. The so-called marriage penalty must be eliminated. Poor families should be removed from the tax rolls. Many of these provisions are contained in the recently passed House bill but face stiff Senate opposition. Conservatives must choose: side with pro-family reform or with corporate loopholes.

Third, recognize children in poverty as the nation's greatest moral challenge. We should invest more, not less, in nutrition, health care and education for poor children. Moral leadership and new public-private ventures are necessary to reduce teen-age pregnancies and sexual irresponsibility. Failed welfare programs should be converted as much as possible into education and job-training programs.

The family debate offers a compelling organizing principle for social policy. It is a theme that unites an otherwise disparate array of issues and policy options. It should be perfect for politically beleaguered progressives, who often seem incapable of conveying a moral message that binds policy ideas into a larger vision.

This article originally appeared here.

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