Public Policy And The Family

Jun 12th, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

That the American family is in crisis is a given in this Postmodern, Post-Christian culture.  Conservative columnist David Brooks provides a salient summary of the profound change in the American family: “If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor. . .   From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were ‘sick,’ immoral, or ‘neurotic.’  During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.  Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It . . . obscure[d] the essential fragility of the nuclear family.”

Americans today have “less family” than ever before. From 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids has been cut in half. In 1960, according to census data, just 13 percent of all households were single-person households. In 2018, that figure was 28 percent. In 1850, 75 percent of Americans older than 65 lived with relatives; by 1990, only 18 percent did.   Brooks also comments that “Over the past two generations, families have also gotten a lot smaller. The general American birth rate is half of what it was in 1960. In 2012, most American family households had no children. There are more American homes with pets than with kids. In 1970, about 20 percent of households had five or more people. As of 2012, only 9.6 percent did. Over the past two generations, families have grown more unequal. America now has two entirely different family regimes. Among the highly educated, family patterns are almost as stable as they were in the 1950s; among the less fortunate, family life is often utter chaos. There’s a reason for that divide: Affluent people have the resources to effectively buy extended family, in order to shore themselves up. Think of all the child-rearing labor affluent parents now buy that used to be done by extended kin: babysitting, professional child care, tutoring, coaching, therapy, expensive after-school programs. (For that matter, think of how the affluent can hire therapists and life coaches for themselves, as replacement for kin or close friends.) These expensive tools and services not only support children’s development and help prepare them to compete in the meritocracy; by reducing stress and time commitments for parents, they preserve the amity of marriage. Affluent conservatives often pat themselves on the back for having stable nuclear families. They preach that everybody else should build stable families too. But then they ignore one of the main reasons their own families are stable: They can afford to purchase the support that extended family used to provide—and that the people they preach at, further down the income scale, cannot.”

Over the past 50 years, federal and state governments have tried to mitigate the deleterious effects of these trends.  President Biden epitomizes this commitment of government promoting a solution.  “In his first address to Congress, President Biden proposed spending an extra $225 billion on child care. That’s on top of the $40 billion the administration is already spending as part of the “bailout” of child-care providers in Mr. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, and the $10.3 billion the federal government normally spends on child-care subsidies. The new plan, billed as an effort to help low- and moderate-income families, would put America on a path to becoming a society where the state assumes much of the care of young children.”  But, as author J.D. Vance and Jenet Erickson of the Wheatley Institution demonstrate, there are significant warning signs about such a plan:   “In 1997 the provincial government of Quebec began offering child care for 5 Canadian dollars a day to all families, regardless of income. Almost two decades later, economists Michael Baker, Kevin Milligan and Jonathan Gruber found that children from two-parent families who participated showed significant increases in anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity. Those effects persisted—and even grew—as they reached young adulthood. Self-reported health and life satisfaction decreased significantly. Boys who participated were more likely to commit crimes. It was, to put it bluntly, a disaster for Quebec’s children.” Furthermore, a major longitudinal study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that the more time infants and toddlers spent in nonfamilial care, the more likely they were to engage in aggressive, disobedient or risky behavior. Research also shows that high-quality care is often beneficial for children from disadvantaged homes. But, as Vance and Erickson show, “young children from average, healthy homes can be harmed by spending long hours in child care. Moving millions of young children out of their homes into nonparental group care will have unintended negative effects on children’s emotional and social well-being.  Our democracy might be comfortable with the trade-offs here—higher gross domestic product and more parents (especially women) in the workforce on one hand, and unhappier, unhealthier children on the other. But we ought to be honest and acknowledge that these trade-offs exist.”


How parents want to raise their own children should drive policy, not the values of an increasingly isolated American ruling class.  For example, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 59 percent of Americans believed children with two parents were better off if one parent stayed at home, but 39 percent thought children were just as well off if both parents worked. “So which side was right? Well, obviously, neither. It depends on the personality, values and circumstances of the people in each particular family.”  Vance and Erickson:  “A certain philosophical irony is at work here. The American left—self-righteous defenders of the worker—has landed on a policy preference fitting perfectly with its elite social status, yet serving the needs of employers at the expense of American families. A family policy that empowers parents with greater choice may reduce national GDP. It might mean lower profits for some of our biggest corporations. But it would also mean happier parents and healthier children—which seems a trade-off worth making.”

God has created three primary institutions through which He does His work—the family, the state and the church.  Each has important stewardship responsibilities and each is accountable to Him.  The state is not to raise children; that is the family’s responsibility.  The church is not to raise an army and defend the nation; that is the state’s responsibility.  The family is the institution God created for procreation, and for raising up and training children in the ways of God (see Genesis 2:18-25; Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:2-21, etc.).  The Social Capital Report issued its July 2020 report on this very subject.  “Most of our relationships have some value to us, else we would not be in them. They constitute social capital—a form of wealth every bit as valuable as financial or human capital. Family relationships are the first a person experiences in life. Children are nurtured, taught, and socialized in the family, and from there learn to relate to others and participate in the broader society. A stable family offers the emotional security a child needs for healthy development. As Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan has noted: If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. Such a design, in theory, would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it also would provide a system of checks and balances that promoted quality parenting. The fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child, and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.  As sources of valuable social capital, few relationships are as important as the family ties between parents and children. However, as with other features of our associational life, family ties have been weakening for several decades.  Today, around 45 percent of American children spend some time without a biological parent by late adolescence. That is up from around one-third of children born in the 1960s and one-fifth to one-quarter born in the 1950s.  Even more strikingly, among the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, even fewer children are raised in continuously intact families. Single parenthood is experienced by two-thirds of the children of mothers with less than a high school education and by eighty percent of black children. This inequality in family stability contributes to but also compounds economic inequality.”

See David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake” in The Atlantic (March 2021); J. D. Vance and Jenet Erickson, “Biden’s Daycare Plan Is Bad for Families,” in the Wall Street Journal (3 May 2021); David Brooks, “Give Power to the Parents!” in the New York Times (29 April 2021); and “The Demise of the Happy Two-Parent Home,” Social Capital Report, REPORT NO. 3-20 (July 2020.

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