State of the Debate: Family Values: The Sequel


Maggie Gallagher, The Abolition of Marriage: How We Destroy Lasting Love (Regnery Publishing, 1996).

John R. Gillis, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values (Basic Books, 1996).

David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (Martin Kessler Books, 1996).

David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn, eds., Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America (Rowan and Littlefield, 1996).

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (Knopf, 1997).

In 1976, a team of social researchers returned to the small midwestern city that Helen and Robert Lynd immortalized as "Middletown" a half century earlier in the sociological classic by that name. Like the rest of the country in the 1970s, Middletown—actually Muncie, Indiana—had been shaken by the series of social and cultural upheavals that had suddenly undone the seemingly placid domesticity of the postwar era—the pill, the sexual revolution, the women's movement, the divorce revolution. Middletowners were strikingly ambivalent about these changes. For example, they "detested'' divorce. Nostalgic for the era when divorce was scandalous and hard to get, they deplored the weakening of the spiritual foundations of marriage.

Nevertheless, by 1976 a majority of Middletowners had experienced one or more divorces in their own families. Asked about the divorces of people they knew, they expressed little disapproval. Speaking of the breakup of a daughter's marriage to an alcoholic or of a friend's to a philanderer, they said they were glad that divorce was now easy to get and no longer shameful. As one woman put it, "Women no longer feel they have to be married to be accepted. Women aren't staying in a miserable situation just to say they have a husband."

Middletown both opposed divorce and supported it. As the researchers noted, however, these attitudes are not as contradictory as they seem at first glance. Middletowners were deeply committed to marriage as an institution and a way of life, but they did not believe that loveless marriages should remain intact. They saw divorce as a necessary remedy, but worried whether divorce had become too easy. In short, Middletowners were moralists about marriage in general and pragmatists when it came to particular troubled marriages. [Theodore Caplow et al., Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity (Minnesota University Press, 1981)]

Two decades later, Americans have still not come to terms with the gap between the way we think our families ought to be and the complex, often messy realities of our lives—or as John Gillis puts it, in his new book A World of Their Own Making, the gap between the families we live with and the symbolic families we "live by."

Back in the 1970s, when the research team returned to Middletown, family was not yet a major partisan issue. By the end of the 1970s, however, "family values" had become a major battleground in a still ongoing political and cultural war. In 1980, the moral uneasiness of Middletown and the rest of America served as political fuel that helped launch the Reagan era and the conservative ascendancy.

In 1992, it looked as if the fuel finally had run out; voters were turned off by Dan Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown, Marilyn Quayle's attack on working women, and Pat Buchanan's call for a religious war for "family values." In August 1993, columnist Christopher Matthews predicted that never again would the Republicans waste their resources on the "fool's gold" of cultural issues. Instead, they would follow the Clinton campaign mantra "the economy, stupid." "The GOP has done a political/moral gut check and decided that the most vital 'family value' is a daddy, mommy, or live-together bringing home the bacon."

Yet less than a year after the election, "Dan Quayle was right" became the new national consensus. A sudden surge of op-eds, magazine articles, and talk show punditry warned that the growth of single-parent families was the root cause of poverty, crime, youth violence, and other social ills and thus the single greatest problem facing the nation. (The American Prospect, in its Summer 1994 issue, was one of the few publications to look critically at these claims.) With liberals and moderates joining in, the conservative rhetoric of moral crisis has come to dominate discussions of welfare, education, and crime and helped to drive American domestic policy well to the right.

With yet another national election behind us, it is a good time to step back and reflect on the strange career of "family values" as a theme in American political life. Why was the public's verdict on Dan Quayle so quickly reversed? Along with his economic message in 1992 Clinton had articulated a pluralistic vision of family values:"an America that includes every family. Every traditional family and every extended family. Every two-parent family, every single-parent family, every foster family." What happened to that vision?

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A bumper crop of recent books on family is a good starting place. John Gillis's book attempts to place America's current obsession with the family into historical and cultural perspective. Gillis, a social historian, uses the past not as a repository of lost virtues, but as a way to illuminate the present. Family life has changed drastically in America and the rest of the industrialized world. But as Gillis reminds us, family change is nothing new; neither is anxiety about the state of the family. Recent research into family life in past times reveals that diversity, instability, and discontinuity have been part of the European experience of family at least since the late Middle Ages, and continued into the new world.

Despite the nostalgia that has engulfed American culture in recent years, there never was a "golden age" of family. When the Lynds visited Middletown in the 1920s, it was in the midst of the mother of sexual revolutions—the age of flaming youth. The 1950s, now revered as the pinnacle of the American family dream, was to people who lived it also an age of anxiety. For cultural critics of the time, the great menaces to family life and American character were juvenile delinquency, comic books (the Senate even held hearings on comics), and, strange as it may seem now, the suburbs.

History is an antidote to hysteria. Gillis, along with other historians of the family, recognizes that we are now, for good or ill, living through one of the most intensive periods of social, economic, and political change since the democratic and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the world is not what it was in 1955 or 1855; families today face unprecedented conditions—some of which stem from changes few would want to reverse, such as women's strides toward equality.

Four of these books bring us into the firing line of the current cultural war over the family. They represent part of the output of the Institute for American Values, the think tank responsible for the sudden shift in the national debate on the family since 1992. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture, wrote the op-ed on Murphy Brown that inspired the remark in Dan Quayle's speech; she was also the author of the 1993 cover article in the Atlantic Monthly declaring that "Dan Quayle Was Right."

Whitehead's new book expands on those earlier pieces about the dangers of divorce and single parenthood. So do the books by her colleagues—Maggie Gallagher's The Abolition of Marriage, David Popenoe's Life Without Father, and most of the articles in Promises to Keep, a book of readings edited by Popenoe, along with Jean Bethke Elshtain and David Blankenhorn, who have also written variations on the same themes. Their argument is, we live in a "post-marital," "post-nuclear family" society. Marriage has disappeared as a cultural ideal. A "culture" or ideology of liberation and self-fulfillment, originating in the 1960s and sustained by the liberal elite, has spread throughout the society, leading to the disintegration of the two-parent family and the desertion of their children by vast numbers of men. Single parenthood, or "fatherlessness," whether it occurs in the inner city or the suburbs or through divorce or out-of wedlock birth, is a tragedy for children, and a catastrophe for the rest of society. It is the direct cause of our worst individual and social problems: poverty, crime, violence, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, school failure, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency. In short, it is the number one domestic problem facing the country, because it drives all the rest.

The solution? A crusade to dismantle and repeal the culture of divorce and unwed parenthood. As the Institute for American Values writes in its mission statement, "the two-parent family, based on a lasting monogamous marriage," is "the most efficacious one for child rearing." These authors differ on particular issues such as no-fault divorce (Gallagher would abolish it, Whitehead has recently argued that doing so would be a mistake), or premarital sexual relationships (Popenoe favors responsible ones, Gallagher is shocked by the idea). But they all agree that the heart of the problem lies in the prevailing cultural values. They favor a range of public and private initiatives to "restore" marriage and make alternatives to the two-parent biological family socially unacceptable and practically difficult.


Since these arguments have become the conventional wisdom over the past four years, there is a certain déjà vu quality to the books. Social scientists and others who take issue with this analysis have been on the defensive, fending off charges of being "against" the two-parent family, "for" divorce and single parenthood, and indifferent to children's well-being. Nevertheless, the analysis remains flawed. The Institute for American Values and its associates present a skewed and misleading version of the research evidence on the causes and effects of divorce and single parenthood. For example, institute writers feature the highly pessimistic divorce studies of Judith Wallerstein and her colleagues, which have been severely criticized on methodological grounds by other divorce researchers. The children in Wallerstein's study were not studied before the divorce to determine whether their problems were new. Nor were they compared to children whose parents remained in unhappy marriages or, indeed, to any other control group.

At the same time, Whitehead and her colleagues ignore more systematic research that does not support horror stories about the effects of divorce. In 1991, for example, the journal Science published a report based on a large, two-nation study of children at age 7 and later at age 11. The results showed that, compared to those who remained in intact families, children whose parents had divorced in the interim did have more problems, but they had shown those problems at age 7, before the parents divorced.

Even without discounting the effects of pre-divorce problems, the differences between children of divorced and intact families are not as gross and categorical as these writers insist. The figure "How Divorce Affects Children's Well-Being" illustrates why it is misleading to write, as Whitehead repeatedly does, of the "average child of divorce." Note that while the average score of the divorced group is lower than that of the non-divorced, the two curves overlap. Some of the divorced group score higher than the average of the intact family group.

Despite all the hand-wringing, there is no evidence that the remarkable demographic changes of recent decades represent a basic shift in family values. Indeed, marriage and two-parent families remain the norm and continue to prevail statistically. Anyone reading these books and little else on family structure, however, is likely to be surprised to learn that, according to the Census Bureau, most children are born to married mothers and spend most of their youth with their two parents. And the divorce rate has been revised down to 40 percent from 50 percent. Of course, families are more varied and more fragile than in the past, and today's Ozzies and Harriets are both working outside the home.

But we are far from a culture that has "abolished" marriage and the nuclear family. On the contrary, cross-national surveys reveal that we are the most traditionalist of Western nations in our family values. We have the highest marriage rates in the industrial world. Our attitudes toward divorce would predict that we would have the lowest rates of divorce, rather than one of the highest. Nor is this a recent trend: We have always had higher rates of both marriage and divorce than other Western nations.

The Institute for American Values views the family in a social and economic void, as if family behavior were shaped only by culture and values. Indeed, Whitehead and her colleagues seem to have invented a germ theory of culture, in which bad ideas and values spring up, infect a few minds, and then spread relentlessly throughout the population. But most family scholars believe that the recent transformation of the family results from an accumulation of cultural, social, and economic changes. Shifts in women's roles are pivotal. The shift to a service economy, for example, has drawn women into the workplace; a series of life-course revolutions has reduced the period of active child care in a women's life to a small segment of an 80-year life span. Educational levels of both sexes have risen.



Part of the reason for the impact of Whitehead and colleagues is that they place the well-being of children at the center of the national debate. The number of children involved in divorce is huge—more than a million a year. Children growing up in single-parent families are on the average likely to face greater disadvantages than children in two-parent families. The United States is plagued by a host of social problems, including the highest child poverty rates in the Western world. And it is certainly true that the nation's future depends on finding solutions to the problems plaguing many children and families. But because these writers' definition of family is so narrow, their genuine concern for children has contributed to a frightened and punitive public mood. Instead of seeking ways to assist children who grow up in less-than-ideal family situations, these writers call for policies that will disadvantage them still further.

Whether or not the new welfare bill does threaten more than a million children with destitution, the vast majority of Americans were willing to take that risk to send a message of disapproval to single mothers. Similarly, exaggerating the effects of divorce on children is likely to have unfortunate consequences. In his book Childhood, the anthropologist and physician Melvin Konner writes that "to continue sounding a hysterical alarm about the effects of this experience without better evidence is simply irresponsible. It preserves bad marriages that may harm children more than divorce does, and it creates an epidemic of hurtful guilt and shame in many millions of parents who failed at marriage after doing the best they could."

It is also irresponsible to ignore how the risks to children in divorced and single-parent families can be reduced. Whitehead scoffs at the notion of a "good divorce," but a number of factors do make a great difference. Indeed, a broad scholarly consensus holds that economic hardship and high levels of marital and family conflict are the major causes of stress in children's lives. These are more important than the number of parents living in the home for predicting developmental outcomes.

More recently, researchers have found that maternal stress and depression account for substantial variation in children's psychological functioning, including school achievement. Children do better after divorce when finances are adequate, when both parents remain involved, when parents manage to contain their conflicts, and when other life stresses aren't added onto the stress of divorce. Again and again, the importance of a warm, responsive relationship with the custodial parent comes through as a critical factor. One recent study of adolescents after divorce found that a nonresidential parent's remembering special occasions like holidays and birthdays had a significant impact on the child's adjustment.

In general, Whitehead and her colleagues have a highly selective approach to the research literature. Many of the family researchers cited in Whitehead's Atlantic article protested her misuse of their data. Sara McLanahan, for example, has objected to efforts to "demonize single mothers." "The evidence does not show," she wrote in these pages ["The Consequences of Single Motherhood," TAP, Summer 1994], "that family disruption is the principal cause of high school failure, poverty, and delinquency." She points out that the high school dropout rate for children in two-parent families is 13 percent, compared to an overall rate of 19 percent. "So the dropout rates would be unacceptably high, even if there were no single-parent families." Further, while McLanahan points to vulnerabilities in single-parent families in order to propose policies to remedy them, Whitehead and her colleagues point to them as signs of the moral failings of such families.

McLanahan's comments highlight an even larger problem with the analysis: The passions aroused by debates about Dan Quayle and the virtues of two-parent families have obscured the stresses and anxieties experienced by families in all living arrangements and across class, racial, and ethnic lines. The largest source of family change and family stress is the shift to a postindustrial, globalized economy, a change that many scholars have compared to the industrial revolution. Indeed, the effects of today's transformation on the family are precisely to reverse the gender-based division of labor that emerged when work moved out of the home and men followed it. The breadwinner-housewife family, with the accompanying domestic ideology of "separate spheres," was a social arrangement associated with the earliest stages of the industrial revolution. Further economic development has drawn women out of the home in a slow and, until the 1970s, nearly invisible revolution that has been in progress for more than a century.

Commentators on both sides of today's family debate agree that the shift in gender roles has unraveled the traditional marriage bargain—she does all the family work, he brings home the bread and the bacon. Now that wives are also employed outside the home, they expect husbands to share in caring for the children and the housework. Men are doing more than their fathers did, but not enough to live up to the ideal of equal sharing that increasing numbers of both men and women claim as their ideal marriage.

Economic shifts have also had unsettling effects on families by pulling the rug out from under blue-collar families and people with no more than a high school education. As sociologist Frank Furstenberg has pointed out, marriage has come to be a luxury item, something many young men feel is beyond their economic reach. Living in a society that is becoming polarized economically, we should not be surprised that family life is also becoming polarized. In the 1950s, a young man just out of high school could support a family. In the 1990s, the lack of high-paying industrial jobs and the need for higher education has prolonged the transition to adulthood. Living together unmarried—which in a legal sense counts as single parenthood—has been the low-cost way to start a family.

No country has anything like the polarized, partisan "family values" debate we have here. Even in England, John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign became an embarrassment. Instead, both right and left in most other rich industrial nations have supported attempts to mitigate the strains arising out of family change. Why has the United States been unable to adapt pragmatically to late-twentieth-century social realities?

Paradoxically, it may be our very devotion to family values that makes the theme so politically appealing and yet so ineffectual. Despite the decline of "traditional" family households and the rise of single-parent families, these demographic shifts don't necessarily reflect a fundamental change in what Ameri cans believe and value. Ac cord ing to surveys and other studies of American culture, marriage and parenthood remain essential ingredients of the American dream.

Indeed, John Gillis argues that our current obsession with family values reflects Americans' reverence for the family as a religious symbol, whether or not they are traditionally religious or live in "traditional" families. He describes how American family culture has become increasingly like a religion; living rooms have been turned into shrines of family photographs, and family rituals like Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, and a host of others have been elaborated in ways that were unknown until recent years.



The country badly needs a realistic national conversation about family matters where we could explore our concerns, differences, and ambivalences—and seek the common ground buried under the polarizing, moralizing rhetoric. Above all, we need to ask whether secure, family-sustaining jobs are a possibility or a pipe dream in the kind of economy we now have, and what we can do if they are not.

Such a conversation began in the middle 1970s, when President Ford supported the ERA as well as the International Women's Year, newspapers carried pictures of the President as the New Man making his own breakfast, and the First Lady was an outspoken feminist. The Democrats introduced the family theme to national politics under the banner of "family policy." Walter Mondale and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were among the first to propose that government had a role to play in "strengthening families"; Jimmy Carter picked up the theme in his presidential campaign and promised, if elected, to convene a White House Conference on the Family.

For a brief time, the country seemed ready to confront the changes in the family. The Ford and early Carter years were a time of relative social calm. Policy intellectuals began to take an interest in the family, out of disillusion with the social programs of the 1960s and as a way to give policies for the poor a more universal appeal. An array of study groups, foundations, and government task forces began to take stock of the state of the nation's children and families in order to propose policies to cope with older problems as well as the new realities.

In a 1979 article in the Harvard Education Review, Joseph Featherstone summed up reports by the Carnegie Council and the National Science Foundation among others: American families were under stress, though recent changes did not amount to a collapse of the family. The impact of the economy and working conditions on families was a central theme; the reports addressed the conflict between work and family by proposing government and corporate policies such as flexible work schedules for men and women and leaves for pregnancy and child rearing. Jobs, a decent income, and adequate housing and health care, they said, are the minimal conditions for a healthy family life. The care of young children is an important form of work, and anyone who does it should have an adequate income. These recommendations sound utopian in the 1990s, yet are generally similar to family policies that most other advanced Western countries have adopted.

Ironically, writing in the 1970s, Featherstone felt obliged to defend these proposals against "the current fashion for sneering at liberal reforms" then rampant on the left. Incremental liberal reforms would not overthrow capitalism, he conceded, but would temper "the viciousness of the system" and lead to further reforms. Yet Featherstone was presciently pessimistic that a new focus on the family would help spawn new policies; instead, he feared that it would lead to an era of private solutions to public problems—"an era of empty therapizing and empty spiritualizing."

The fate of the White House Conference on the Family justified this pessimism. The idea of such a conference had wide appeal across the political spectrum. Yet its planning stages quickly became a battleground over abortion, sex education, the equal rights amendment, gay rights, and the very definition of family. The conference was renamed "The White House Conference on Families." The planners, considering this move a simple recognition of the reality of family diversity, assumed the issue was, as one put it, "How do we make it healthy and functional and positive for those people who find themselves in those many situations?"

They were surprised to find that the name change galvanized conservative forces determined to limit the definition of family to the basic unit of husband, wife, and children. One of the original architects of the New Right, Paul Weyrich, whose idea it was to use moral issues to "ignite people who do not ordinarily vote Republican," recently recalled that the White House conference was the decisive event that turned religious activists toward Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.

In the early 1990s, it again seemed reasonable to hope that the ideologically polarized debate about family values might give way to a more constructive, nuanced discussion. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of conservatives and liberals attempted to find common ground on a number of child and family issues—for example, child care and enhanced economic security for families raising children. Once again, however, pragmatism was overcome by moral panic.

The war over family values has been a convenient way for both conservatives and liberals to avoid confronting the harder political questions: What kind of country are we becoming? Will we become more like the other rich democracies, conservative and social democratic, who invest in families, whatever their form, as an essential part of the nation's social infrastructure? Or will we continue further down the path of increasing inequality, toward what Edward Luttwak has called the Brazilianization of American society, as more Americans live in middle-class suburban comfort or the well-guarded enclaves of the wealthy while those outside the gates grow poorer and angrier.

There are some signs of hope. One is the fate of the 1994 Republican revolution, which demonstrated that although liberalism may have become a dirty word, naked conservatism is frightening. As a campaign epithet, "liberal" lost its sting; the candidates who made the most derogatory use of the L-word went down to defeat. With welfare off the table, the 1996 debate shifted away from talk of virtues and values and toward the small incremental policies aimed at "soccer moms": 48-hour hospital stays, extension of medical and family leave, and the like.

Another sign of hope is the revival of the AFL-CIO in the last election, under the new direction of John Sweeney. Seeking ways to move its agenda forward, labor is beginning to reclaim the language of family by speaking of "working families." One survey found that 83 percent of a national sample agreed with the statement that "working families have less economic security because corporations have become too greedy and care more about profits than their employees." The idea of appealing to core American values like fairness and loyalty is a strategy that can help liberals transcend the identity politics that has outlived its usefulness.

Executives of some of our largest corporations are also at the forefront adapting to the new realities of family life. Still another sign of hope is the moral vision that has been articulated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other religious groups offended by the claims of the Christian Coalition to define family values for the rest of the country. A recent article in Christian Century called for "a new political agenda" that stresses "both personal responsibility and social justice, good values and good jobs, sexual morality and civil rights for homosexuals. . . ." If liberals want to add their own approaches to the problems of American families, a good starting place would be the old memos and reports issued in the 1970s—not just as a source of good ideas, but also as a warning of where the pitfalls lie.

But liberals find themselves in a far more difficult situation than they did 20 years ago. The demise of the political left has transformed liberals into the only left there is.

The right wraps itself in the mantle of virtues and values, intones the standard litany of social crisis—crime, drugs, illegitimacy, teenage pregnancy, divorce, welfare dependency—and blames liberal permissiveness and policies. And when cultural conservatives argue that only the stable, monogamous, two-parent family can raise healthy children and keep social chaos at bay, liberals are left either defending everything but the nuclear family, or joining the anti-single-mother, anti-divorce, anti-remarriage crusade.

Seemingly, reconciling these contradictions would require the sleight of hand of a Dick Morris. In fact, Morris sheds some useful light on these dilemmas. In his recent book, Morris says his polling found that voters were far less polarized than the public debate; massive majorities embraced an "amalgam" of conservative and liberal views. On welfare, for example, majorities favored work requirements and time limits but also day care, job opportunities, and training. In other words, they favored the kind of welfare bill Clinton proposed in 1994.

During the 1996 campaign, Morris and Clinton even considered advocating sex education and condom distribution in the schools, based on a program Clinton carried out in Arkansas. "Until we get real and give out birth control in schools," Morris advised the President, "you'll never crack teen pregnancy." In one poll, Morris asked voters which they preferred, a program that promoted abstinence or one that gave out birth control information and condoms. Voters backed birth control by two to one. Yet Morris thought it was too risky to go into an election without at least 70 percent support. "We chickened out," he writes.

Nevertheless, liberals can take heart from these numbers and other statistics like them. Americans repeatedly have shown that while they cherish the family, they define family in an inclusive and pluralistic way. In short, Middletown pragmatism is alive and well, along with Middletown morality. Whitehead, Popenoe, and their colleagues have missed an opportunity to speak to both sides of American ambivalence, to open up a national discussion of the complexities of American family life today. Liberals needn't swallow the ideological bait and become the advocates of divorce and every nontraditional alternative. Indeed, it is hard to find a liberal or feminist who argues that a loving, harmonious, two-parent family is not preferable to a post-divorce single or recombined family.

But that's beside the point. Loving, harmonious families are unlikely to break up. "Just Say No" to divorce is the answer that Whitehead and her colleagues propose for those who find themselves in unloving, miserable marriages. The family restorationists claim to speak for children, but their primary concern is to castigate parents in the "wrong" family forms. Ironically, in their ideological zeal, they fail to consider how the divorce process can be made less destructive to the millions of children already living in divorced and single-parent families. In effect, they are writing off the well-being of these children. The liberal response to hand-wringing about the decline in family values should be to shape a political and economic climate that values all our children and supports those who care for them. We should have no part of efforts to hold children hostage to a narrow definition of family that looks only at form and not at love, care, and responsibility.

Because social change has come on as suddenly as an earthquake, it is not surprising that nostalgia has engulfed American culture in recent years. In a sense, we are all pioneers, leading lives for which the cultural scripts have not yet been written. But liberals need to retain and support our enduring values of compassion and democratic hope, and not succumb to the easy language of loss and moral crisis. We are going to have to make our politics fit the families we live in, not the families we would like to live by.

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