The Democrats Can Win on Family Issues

David Blankenhorn, San Antonio Light, 8/24/1986

On the other hand, family issues could unite Democrats and highlight their best Ideas. The most hotly contested political constituency currently is the 22-40 year-old baby-boom generation, which now comprises nearly 40 percent of the electorate. Family issues have special appeal to these voters who now face acute pressures at key moments in family life, such as buying a first home or having a child. Democrats helped an earlier generation of families climb into the middle class, and higher, with initiatives such as FHA home loans and GI Bill college educations. Good policy, and good politics, demand new initiatives for today's younger families in the areas of home ownership, child care and pro-family workplaces that offer greater flexibility for working parents.

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Subjects: Family, Family policy

More by: David Blankenhorn

In this year's political campaign, the family can provide the Democrats with the vision they need so badly. Family concerns and family values offer Democrats their best opportunity to redefine the national debate on social policy.

The argument would go something like this: The American family is in trouble – from family breakdown, child poverty, teen pregnancies, stagnating income for the average family, and the pressures facing young families in which both parents work. It would position Democrats as the party committed to the security and well-being of the family.

The family theme represents the only Issue that divides Republicans while uniting Democrats. Under Ronald Reagan, the Republicans' greatest achievement has been its ability to unite social conservatives and economic conservatives into an electoral coalition. Social conservatives are the generally blue collar, often formerly Demoratic, followers of the New Right and the television evangelists such as Jerry Falwell; they focus on "moral issues" such as school prayer, pornography and homosexuality. Economic conservatives are the traditional business-oriented Republicans of Main Street and Wall Street; they focus on trickle-down economic policies.

Family issues split this coalition. The New Right favors a backward-looking family agenda – they oppose the whole idea of women working outside the home, for example – that is unpopular with 80 percent of the electorate, but which is now enshrined in the Republican platform. Economic conservatives, on the other hand, use family themes mostly as window-dressing for their anti-egalitarian economic program. They believe in neither the right-wing "pro-family" movement nor any version of a progressive family policy.

On the other hand, family issues could unite Democrats and highlight their best Ideas. The most hotly contested political constituency currently is the 22-40 year-old baby-boom generation, which now comprises nearly 40 percent of the electorate. Family issues have special appeal to these voters who now face acute pressures at key moments in family life, such as buying a first home or having a child. Democrats helped an earlier generation of families climb into the middle class, and higher, with initiatives such as FHA home loans and GI Bill college educations. Good policy, and good politics, demand new initiatives for today's younger families in the areas of home ownership, child care and pro-family workplaces that offer greater flexibility for working parents.

Strong family policies would also help the poor by recognizing children in poverty as our nation's greatest moral challenge. Today more than one child in five 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. Welfare reform, public/private partnerships to reduce teenage sexual irresponsibility, investments in health care, nutrition and education for poor children – such initiatives affirm a positive role for government and build on the best of Democratic traditions. Yet they speak to widely shared family values and thus avoid the connotation of special-interest spending programs.

One of today's best-kept secrets Is that family income is stagnating or declining for most families. Real median family income reached its all-time high of $28,167 in 1973. But in 1984 (the latest year for which statistics are available), median family income stood at $26,433 – well below the 1973 level and roughly equal to the median family income of 1970. At no other time in our nation's history have we gone so long without an improvement in family income.

Hardest hit have been young families: their income has dropped 8 percent since 1973. Income inequality – the gap separating the bottom 60-70 percent of families from the affluent minority – is wider now than at any time since the Census Bureau began to record family incomes in 1947.

The family should become a frame and an organizing principle for an entire Democratic policy agenda. It should be the theme that conveys a moral message and binds policy ideas into a larger vision. It should1 unite an otherwise disparate array of issues and concerns into a genuine pro-family movement that, unlike the one led by Jerry Falwell and company, would be true to its name.

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