In Washington today, "family policy" is a term unburdened by any specific meaning. Want to help the poor? Want to cut taxes? Want to support working women? Want children to pray in school? If you do, or do not, then you want "family policy." Similarly, "the family" and "family values," while frequently invoked, usually amount to little more than rhetorical Trojan Horses, intended to camouflage any number of special interests and hidden agendas.
Why is our current debate on the state of the family so weak and unfocused? Part of the reason, of course, is simple political opportunism: family rhetoric sells. But there is also a deeper and more intellectually important reason.
I would like to suggest that today's serious family debate becomes coherent only when seen as the clash of two implicit world views. Moreover, because these governing outlooks do not fit our usual categories of "liberal" and "conservative," they remain largely invisible to the public, and poorly understood even by many who are active in the debate.
One school of thought could be called optimistic and the other pessimistic. Both sides agree that the family is changing. But optimists emphasize the positive (or at least benign) results of those changes, particularly for women, and propose social policies to reflect and accommodate the new realities. Pessimists, on the other hand, see the family in decline as a social institution and emphasize the negative consequences of that decline, particularly for children.
Elite opinion today – in the media, in government, on the two coasts – tilts toward optimism, and away from the more pessimistic cast of grass-roots opinion. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado is probably the nation's most prominent and articulate spokesman for the optimistic view. Her new book, Champion of the Great American Family, is an eloquent summary of the optimists' perspective on the changing American family.
Until recently, most scholarly experts have tended to be optimists. Mary Jo Bane's influential 1976 book on the family, for example, delivers a message that is implicit in the book's title: Here to Stay. Many ideas of family decline, she wrote, are "more myth than fact." Her study reported "surprising stabilities" in American families and "the persistence of commitments to family life."
Recent scholarship, however, has become more pessimistic. By far the most important benchmark in this direction is David Popenoe's Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies. Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, has written an important book that attempts to provide an objective analysis of family change – to present as much solid knowledge as possible about how the institution of the family in modern society is changing, why it is changing, and what the social implications of that change may be.
Although Popenoe's book is carefully nuanced to encompass alternative views, his conclusions are almost Spenglerian. For that reason, it is instructive to read his book together with Schroeder's.
It would be wrong to say that the books differ simply because one is political and the other scholarly. Nor is theirs the familiar dispute between "liberalism" and "conservatism." (Both authors, in fact, are "liberals" in the contemporary sense.) Their dispute is of a different nature: they disagree fundamentally on the social consequences of family change in our era.
FOR SCHROEDER, as with many people who write about the family, theory is autobiography; thus the subtitle of Champion of the Great American Family is "A Personal and Political Book." Schroeder's optimism about family change is rooted in her own experience. As a young attorney in Denver in the 1960s, she became a local, and later national, leader in the movements to expand opportunities for women in the workplace and in public life. In short, the women's movement changed her life for the better.
Along with her pioneering career achievements, Schroeder is also the married mother of two children. She knows well the often formidable challenges facing parents, especially mothers, who seek to balance career and family. She and her own family seem to have struck that balance with notable success, flair, and good humor. But it required adaptation. When her first child was born in 1966, she quit her job, only to discover that "I didn't like being a full-time homemaker. The truth is, I failed homemaking. I found it incredibly frustrating." She
>soon learned that children don't care who does their laundry or grocery shopping or makes their bed. In fact, they don't care if anyone does it.... In short order I gave up many of my ideas about what was required of a proper wife and mother.
Elected to Congress in 1972, she came to Washington determined to "champion women's rights and the American family." Her guiding principle has been that
>if we get rid of the inequalities that hinder women, we strengthen the family at the same time. For me, building a family policy has meant finding a way to bridge the gap between public policy and the reality of women's lives.
Schroeder today is a leading congressional proponent of what she terms "a national family policy." The main components of her proposed policy include: more child-care assistance for working parents; family- and medical-leave legislation, which would grant working parents the right to unpaid, job-protected leaves in order to care for newly born or seriously ill children; stricter child-support requirements for divorced or separated noncustodial parents, usually fathers; additional services and supports for divorced and widowed women, especially displaced homemakers; pay equity (comparable worth) for working women; greater state efforts to prevent domestic violence and child abuse; and larger tax deductions for families with children, especially two-earner families. Current policies, Schroeder argues, "lag far behind the realities faced by today's working families." Her proposed family policy, by contrast, would "acknowledge the kinds of lives women really lead" and assist families who are "desperate to find answers that will help them juggle all the chores modern life has laid upon them."
THERE IS much to admire in Pat Schroeder, and much to commend in her policy ideas. The particular vantage point from which she assesses recent changes in the family – as a champion of women's rights and of new opportunities for parents to combine work and family – is shared by millions of women and men across the country, precisely because it reflects the realities of their lives. Her perspective will almost certainly, and in my view properly, influence public policy in the 1990s.
Yet Schroeder's analysis of the family as a social institution is seriously flawed. These analytic failures, moreover, are not simply intellectual shortcomings; they distort her policy agenda. Also, especially because her views typify much of today's elite conventional wisdom, they help to impoverish the nation's larger cultural debate on the status and future of the family.
Her basic failure is this: she refuses to distinguish between the needs of working women as individuals and those of the family as an institution. Indeed, she frequently asserts that their needs are identical. Her entire analysis and policy agenda, in fact, are rooted in this core idea.
Doubtless this belief is comforting. It simplifies things; as if by magic, it solves what otherwise would remain highly difficult problems. And, of course, no one would deny the important (if complex) relationships between the status of employed women and the status of the family as an institution.
But employed women do not a family make. The goals of women in the workplace are primarily individual: social recognition, wages, hours, opportunities for advancement and self-fulfillment. The family is about collective goals that by definition extend beyond the individual: procreation, socializing the young, caring for the old, and building life's most enduring bonds of affection, nurturance, mutual support, and long-term commitment. Virtually any family scholar would agree that Schroeder's insistence on the idea of full symmetry is self-evidently untrue.
There is another, related problem. One of Schroeder's most deeply held beliefs – and a basic tenet of the optimists' view of the changing family – is that people who disagree with her suffer from a disabling "nostalgia" about "the mythical family" of the past. These confused people, she explains, have
>based their criticisms on a mistaken and nostalgic view of a family that never (or hardly ever) existed. The Norman Rockwell picture that is dragged out like an icon as our ideal family is not something many Americans have experienced in real life.
On a nationally televised interview in 1988, she repeated what has become her trademark opening comment on the changing family: that "only 7 percent" of today's families "fit the old 'Ozzie and Harriet' syndrome." To say that our nation's child-care policy must recognize the needs of traditional families, she writes, "is like saying the highway program must recognize people who don't drive."
These ideas – particularly the notion that few of today's families contain homemaker mothers married to breadwinner fathers – are very widespread. They largely govern the media's treatment of family issues, in no small part due to Schroeder's flair and persistence in marketing them. The 7-percent figure is probably today's most repeated statistic about the American family.
Yet these claims cannot be supported by the evidence. Certainly maternal employment and family diversity are among the most important family trends of the past quarter-century. But traditional families still comprise the nation's largest group of families with preschool children. Viewed from any reasonable angle, the 7-percent claim is flatly wrong – not just factually wrong in some technical sense, but fundamentally wrong, in that it creates a distorted picture of our society. So, of course, does the even wilder exaggeration that traditional nuclear families "never (or hardly ever) existed."
In addition, the "nostalgia" charge only diverts attention from the real question. David Popenoe clearly has Schroeder's type of argument in mind when he remarks that
>[b]eing nostalgic about the past may be in the same class as being optimistic about the future, and it is quite possibly a natural human propensity. But challenging popular nostalgia about families of the past says little about how the family as an institution has in fact empirically been changing, and whether or not that change could be defined as decline.
Schroeder's two core assumptions – that traditional families no longer exist and that employed women can be equated with the family as an institution – enable her to glide into a one-sidedly optimistic assessment of recent changes in the American family. We must, she argues, "rise above the doom-and-gloom predictions" of those who
>were wrong, of course. The American family was not in danger of extinction. Over the course of our three-hundred year history it has weathered far-reaching social and economic change by changing itself dramatically.
She insists that family decline has been greatly exaggerated:
The statistics on divorce were high and on the increase, but so were the figures for remarriage. The majority of Americans who divorced did not give up on marriage, they just went looking for a more perfect union. People did not stop having children, they tried to figure out the best way to manage.
Note the straw men residing in these quotations. What serious analyst ever suggested that the family was becoming "extinct"? Who ever said that Americans were "giving up on marriage" or had decided to "stop having children"? These are not serious topics. Whether the family is in decline as an institution, however, remains profoundly serious.
Is it really true, as Schroeder implies, that marriage and remarriage convey the same good news about the institution of marriage? To borrow again from the Popenoe book, isn't that like saying that America's high rate of residential mobility proves that Americans love rootedness and community? After all, don't we move around in search of stronger roots and a better community? Even accounting for the usual quotient of hyperbole that we permit our political leaders, the glibness of this style of argument is remarkable.
IN SOME respects, Popenoe's Disturbing the Nest is a scholarly jeremiad; he asks that we reexamine the evidence and recognize the family "as a perishable social institution that is being quietly corroded by some of the social and cultural currents of our time." To him
>the interesting question is not why people believe in the "myth" of family decline, but why so many sociologists think of family decline as a myth and seek to dismiss the idea with such vigor and seeming certainty. The irony of the vigorous promotion by sociologists today of the antidecline position is that it comes precisely at a time when the family has been changing rapidly, far more rapidly than in those previous historical periods when the idea of family decline was pervasive among members of the social-science community.
Popenoe is a meticulous scholar. His book carefully evaluates a vast amount of evidence on recent family trends in four modern societies: Sweden, the United States, New Zealand, and Switzerland. The heart of the book, however, is an analysis of the Swedish family.
Popenoe focuses on Sweden – offering more information about this society, in fact, than some readers may desire – for two reasons. First, family decline has been greater in Sweden than in any other modern society. Moreover, current family trends in Sweden reflect, in advanced form, trends that are evident today in most modern societies, and particularly in the United States. New Zealand and Switzerland are examined, though less intensively, because they represent the other end of the spectrum: family change has been much less rapid in these nations.
Popenoe is at great pains to define "decline" analytically rather than pejoratively or morally. The family is "declining," in his view, when it is "becoming weaker" as an institution. This process includes five measurable trends: first, individual members become more autonomous and less bound by the family, which in turn becomes less cohesive; second, the family becomes less able to carry out its social functions (maintaining the population level, regulating sexual behavior, socializing children, and caring for its members); third, the family loses power to other institutions, such as schools, the media, and the state; fourth, families get smaller and more unstable as people spend less time in them; and finally, familism as a cultural value loses ground to other values such as individualism and egalitarianism.
Guided by these standards of measurement, Popenoe presents overwhelming evidence that family decline is one of the most significant trends in modern societies. Yet his evaluation cannot be reduced simply to what Schroeder calls "doom and gloom." He insists, for example, that "decline" is not simply "bad." It may well be that
>many aspects of family decline are "good," for the individual, for society, or for both. To think of family decline only in the negative makes no more sense than to think only negatively about the decline of feudalism, hereditary monarchies, or dictatorships.
The decline of the family coincides with the rise of many of today's reigning cultural ideals: personal autonomy, self-expression, individual rights, sexual freedom, social equality, and tolerance for alternative lifestyles. It may be true, on the whole, that people are happier today – despite or even because of family decline – than ever before. Certainly most people in the West live longer, in better health, and more affluently than ever before.
Popenoe fully concedes the advances of modernity. But he directs us to different, more troubling issues. Most people, he shows, "agree on the ideal of a strong family." Yet "the family decline in evidence today strikes at the very root of this ideal." Marriage, for example, is becoming "deinstitutionalized": in Sweden, one of every four cohabiting couples is unmarried, and nearly half of all childbirths occur outside of marriage. Yet "in all of human history up to the present some form of public marriage has been the basis of the family as a social institution."
The number of people living alone increased by 50 percent in Sweden between 1968 and 1981. Even members of families are becoming "less dependent on each other": they spend less time in the role of family member and more time as "clients of a large group of public employees who take care of them throughout their lives." Yet certainly these "nonkin relationships typically lack the special sense of obligations and responsibilities found in kinship ties." Is it not probable that these shifts weaken the "psychological anchorage" of adults in modem societies?
AT THE HEART of Popenoe's jeremiad, however, is the changing "social ecology of child rearing" and the manifest shift in modern societies "from child-centeredness to adult-centeredness." With each year, he concludes, modern societies are "drifting farther away" from what is demonstrably "the ideal child rearing environment." Such an environment includes
>a relatively large family that does a lot of things together, has many routines and traditions, and provides a great deal of quality contact time between adults and children; regular contact with relatives, active neighboring in a supportive neighborhood, and contact with the world of work; little concern on the part of children that their parents will break up; and the coming together of all these ingredients in the development of a rich family subculture that has lasting meaning and strongly promulgates traditional family values.
Imagine two infants. You know nothing about them except these facts: one is born in the United States in 1950, and the other is born in the United States today. Now surmise – knowing full well the social and material progress of the past forty years – which of those two infants will have a better quality of life during childhood.
Your answer to this question may be the best indicator of whether, after all the facts are weighed and the issues debated, your view of the changing family is more optimistic or pessimistic. My own sense is that the pessimists have the better argument – that Americans today are increasingly unwilling, either through private behavior or public action, to value purposes larger than the self, and especially unwilling to foster good environments for children. I suspect that our "parent deficit" is at least as dangerous to our long-term well-being as are our budget and trade deficits. Perhaps, too, the habits of heart and mind that produce the latter also create the former.
Popenoe describes the complex challenge that we face with admirable balance and brevity:
How can ... advanced nations encourage women to participate fully in public life, provide family members with all of the public facilities and services they need for lives of material equality and abundance, yet still maintain the family as a strong institution?
Few questions in our time are as urgent as this one. At stake is nothing less than the kind of society we wish to have.
This article originally appeared here.