The Relationship of Public Policy to Family Well-Being

David Blankenhorn, American Family, 8/1/1988

It's almost as if we can palpably feel a kind of cultural yearning for stronger families and the need to pay attention to the status and future of the family unit We are very much concerned with leading economic indicators to measure the health of our economy, but I think that we are beginning to see a feeling that there are such things as "leading family indicators." Those family indicators are often painting a troubling portrait of today's families, and there's a feeling that we need to rededicate and refocus, rethink and strengthen this basic family unit. This condition, which we've seen emerge over the last several years, has produced a change in attitude toward family policy. It offers hope for the emergence of what I would call "A National Family Agenda," by which I mean a coherent message about stronger families as our top domestic priority, as a cornerstone of public policy and private initiative in the 1990s, and a widely shared sense of the importance of strengthening the family unit and an idea of how we might move in the 1990s to do that.

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Subjects: Family, Family policy, Family values

More by: David Blankenhorn

Let me start with something that I think we'll all agree on: that the time is right to bring family issues into the mainstream of the national policy debate.

The evidence abounds from every corner of our culture – whether looking at the opinion polls, the debates in state-houses and in Congress, popular television shows such as "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties," or changing practices in the workplace – -the status and future of the American family has emerged as a culturally resonant, politically potent theme and will continue to do so in the 1990s.

It's almost as if we can palpably feel a kind of cultural yearning for stronger families and the need to pay attention to the status and future of the family unit. We are very much concerned with leading economic indicators to measure the health of our economy, but I think that we are beginning to see a feeling that there are such things as "leading family indicators." Those family indicators are often painting a troubling portrait of today's families, and there's a feeling that we need to rededicate and refocus, rethink and strengthen this basic family unit.

This condition, which we've seen emerge over the last several years, has produced a change in attitude toward family policy. It offers hope for the emergence of what I would call "A National Family Agenda," by which I mean a coherent message about stronger families as our top domestic priority, as a cornerstone of public policy and private initiative in the 1990s, and a widely shared sense of the importance of strengthening the family unit and an idea of how we might move in the 1990s to do that.

Sterile Debate

That's the good and hopeful news. There's also less good news. The current debate on family issues, particularly at the national level is a sterile and fruitless debate at times. All too often the national dialogue on family issues is unfocused, is adrift, is not strong, not rigorous. In particular, I want to suggest that our vision of stronger families and our method of thinking about family policy is very often impoverished by sterile political categories of left vs. right, and that is holding us back. That's why we see the kind of policy gridlock and paralysis that often emerges and that prevents us from making the kind of policy progress that the times and the demographics and the culture calls for. Certainly on issues that we see before us in the national debate, ranging from the debate currently over child care to issues of child poverty, and in the pace of progress in private sector policies in the workplace, we are seeing a debate that is not equal in rigor and clarity to the needs of the time and the opportunity of the time.

So despite the important work that's being done, despite the achievements and the new opportunities before us, a genuine, broadly felt, bipartisan, national family agenda that is understood and perceived as such by large numbers of people in our country, has not emerged.

What is to be done about this situation? Irving Howe once said, "When intellectuals get frustrated and can't think of anything else to do, they start a journal." And so, perhaps it's true that when policy analysts get frustrated and can't think of anything else to do, they start a think tank. But, in fact, this problem of a polarized and frequently sterile debate in terms of the analysis of family issues, really brings me to what I see is our purpose and our mission here at the Institute. We have tried to build an organization that asks one simple question: How can public and private sector policies strengthen families?

Family Business

At first glance this seems to be a vague and therefore unexceptional question to ask. Let me see if I can be a bit more specific. I don't mean to ask: "How can policy help people?" "How can it make us stronger and healthier and increase the GNP and life expectancy and do all the things necessary to improve our lives?" – which we all want. I mean something more pointed and more particular. I mean, how can policies strengthen families as families? Will a policy help or hinder the family unit as it goes about what might be called family business: to many, or bring children into the world and rear them as healthy, productive citizens, to pass on basic social and moral values to die next generation, to care for aged parents and grandparents, and fundamentally, to build and maintain those bonds of affection, nurturance, mutual support and long term commitment that form the familiar, familial context in which most of us will experience both our greatest loves and our greatest sorrows in life and which form the very definition of family life, and the definition, if I might use a very loaded phrase, of family values.

I think that's beginning to hint at family business – business particular to die family as a family. If politicians are seeking a family vote on issues, they have to ask themselves, "How do my policies address those words and that business?" If family analysts and policy analysts want to propose a family policy or a family agenda, we have to ask ourselves how those policies and that agenda relate to those words and that business.

This is not easy to do. It is not easy to do for a couple of reasons. Family business often conflicts with a number of very powerful cultural components. We have a very strong current in the culture, reflected in how we analyze policy, of individualism and of looking at the relationship of individual to state and to policy. But really, what are families about? Families are largely about purposes beyond the self, purposes which extend an individual only as an individual. On die other hand, we have a strong current in the culture that stresses concern with provisional choices or have a strong current in the culture that stresses concern with provisional choices or lifestyle options. Yet the family is more principally about givens – life givens, not choices. That's why Robert Frost said, that a "family is someplace where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." It's not a choice, it's a given.

So, secondly I would like to say that this is very tricky, very intensely private business that families do, is not easily or directly influenced by the actions of policy-makers. This is particularly true because we are a pluralistic society which does not support legislating values and rigidly proscribing or prescribing private behavior. It's a very difficult area when you think of the private business of families and how public policy influences, supports, does not support those types of businesses that families do. The best we can do is begin to ask ourselves, "Do our proposals and policies provide a supportive, helpful and empowering context a framework for family business to thrive and prosper?" That's what I think we mean when we ask how policies strengthen families.

I'm trying to describe what I would call a family first or a family-centered perspective for what we are calling family policy. It may sound redundant but I think that it is important to try to make some of these distinctions. I believe that if this organization can claim that mantle and assume that task, that we will make an important and distinguishing contribution. I think it's steady work, well worth doing, that can really make a difference and improve the quality of the policy debate.

Let me briefly mention several areas that are examples of where I see a problem or two and where we might need to do some harder thinking.

Bringing Fresh Ideas Into the Debate

One area is what I call a kind of ideological Trojan Horse approach to family policy, where expressions of "I'm for Family" are often a kind of packaging, a rhetorical or thematic way to address a very wide range of issues. You needn't look any further than the current presidential candidates who give their speeches about family. Their current position on aid to the Contras, on plant closings, on a wide range of things are clumped together under the label of family policy. That may be wise politically, but it doesn't work analytically and I'm proposing that it is a problem if we clump together such a wide selection of issues. The question should not just be "what's good for people," it has to be "what's good for families" – a narrower definition.

Another problem is the question of: Whose families? Whose families are you talking about? Picture if you will a debate between, say, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a national leader on family issues, proposing the Family Medical Leave Act – which I am incidentally, very supportive of – and Phyllis Schlafly, the leader of the conservative pro-family movement. What do they say about each other's constituencies?

On the left in response to "What is a family?" you could easily say: "You know those old Ozzie and Harriet families, that Leave it to Beaver model of families – that reminds us of a Norman Rockwell painting. We remember them fondly but there are really not very many of them. In fact, under ten percent of the families today fit that model. Today the reality is the working family and those other families are anachronistic and not centrally relevant to the policy debate."

I'm going to say for Mrs. Schlafly: "The traditional family – mother at home, father the breadwinner, children at home, those are what families are. That's a family. You know who these other people are? Greedy yuppies. Brie eating, white wine- drinking, Volvo- driving, two-earner rich couples that want other people, in particular the government, to pay for their babysitting costs. They're really not families."

Well, perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but I honestly don't think I'm exaggerating too much about those other two perspectives. What's happened here? Each perspective has tried to define the other out of existence. Yet, if you look at mothers today, about 40 percent work full time, about 40 percent are not in the labor force at all, about 20 percent are working part-time. So, really, if you split the middle, it's roughly equally divided in this country between the traditional families and the working families. Certainly the trend is toward increasing the numbers of mothers in the workforce, but the point that I'm trying to make is that trying to define families as my particular kind of family is very harmful. This polarization, between working families and traditional families, is a harmful polarization as we think about family policy because it turns a discussion of what could be a national concern for strengthening families into a divisive and polarizing thing.

Thirdly, I want to say that there is a particularly sterile argument about the role of government. The traditional argument between left and right has been over the size of government. The conservatives want less, the liberals want more, and that's the perennial argument. The debate regarding families is not really, should government be smaller or larger. What matters is the relationship of public policy to family well-being. What is the distribution of costs and benefits to families and what is the message of public policy about what we value and what we devalue about the importance of family in this society?

I don't see the debate in terms of big government versus small government. On the one hand, our bias is that government, no matter how effective and how important and how necessary, can never, never substitute for strong families. Our bias, if we want to reinvest and strengthen families, has to be through families, not simply through government programs as a replacement for what we see as family failure. Bernice Weissbourd and other people in the family resource movement have been very powerful in stressing why it is important to use the tools of government to "build on family strengths"

Secondly, if government can never substitute for families, it is also true that we see a positive role for government, not to replace families, but to strengthen and empower them. Traditional liberal-ism has often said: Look what the government can do for you. Traditional conservatism has generally said: Look what the government is doing to you. I say, from the perspective of family strengthening, we need to say neither one of those two things. We need to say: We want to use the tools of government affirmatively, not to replace families but to increase opportunities for families to be strong and healthy units. We need to get away from that kind of big government/ small government debate.

Let me conclude just by saying that this approach, or the application of this set of questions to family issues, that I have been trying to suggest here, if taken seriously and rigorously, and pursued with the tools of research and public policy organizations will produce some real surprises. It will do some things that aren't really being done very often. It will shake up some of the settled orthodoxies in the public policy debate, and I think it's a very important contribution that can be made. To borrow the words of the poet: "We will be seeking not the old, smooth prizes, we will be seeking rough, new prizes." That's what this set of questions can help us do.

So finally, despite the fact that we are such a new organization in our infancy, despite the challenges we can foresee and those challenges at this point we can't foresee, I am fundamentally optimistic and hopeful because of the people in this room. Because of the work they are doing – in the workplace, in management, in labor, in academia, in the service provision community/in the family support movement. This is very, very important work and it is such an honor for me to be able to establish this kind of relationship with people of this talent, commitment, achievement and reputation. And so for the reason of colleagueship with you, I am very hopeful about this organization. What we will achieve in the future will not be possible without the work that you are doing and without the way that we can go together. Sol ask you to let us travel this road together in the days and months ahead, not confident that we know every answer, but confident indeed, in our minds and in our hearts, that we know the important question. Thank you.

Institute Brings Fresh Ideas to Family Policy

A new organization with group of dedicated staff, a talented board and /A coalition-building ideas entered the think tank business this summer with a founding conference in New York City. The Institute for American Values, says executive director David Blankenhorn, will strive to bring family issues into the mainstream of the national policy debate.

The philosophy behind the Institute for American Values is that government should not replace families, or ignore families, but should empower them. How does this apply to government policy? Blankenhorn says a theme of empowerment should be used as a measuring stick by which programs should be examined to see if they help families. In some ways, Blankenhorn already sees consensus occurring. Ten years ago government involvement in child care was seen as distasteful to conservatives. Today conservatives and liberals are struggling to embrace the pro-family label by promoting a range of child care services. Both Michael Dukakis and George Bush have proposed child care bills at a cost of $2 billion. "Demographics drive politics explains Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn predicts that the family-sensitive workplace is another issue that will attract support from the left and the right He sees flexible work schedules, job-sharing, and parental leave as areas where liberals and conservatives may find common ground, again because of demographics. It is predicted that by 1990 at least half of the labor force will be female.

Finally the Institute will strive to be a forum for exploring the difficult subject of "family values." "I don't think it's possible to make family policy in a family-neutral way," says Blankenhorn. 'It's difficult to come up with a definition of family that is broad enough to encompass different people and different ideas, but not so broad that it loses meaning," he admits. The problem is compounded by the fact that Americans are very reluctant about legislation that' gets involved in private matters. Recently the Institute has been reaching out to academics, business leaders and policy-makers through its newsletter, urging than to write in their ideas on the subject of values. Says Blankenhorn, "I think there is more common ground than people think on this subject"

This article originally appeared here.

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