Taking Care

In her new book Power Politics, the novelist Arundhati
Roy observes the way that the government of India with one hand causes distress
and with the other directs people's anger about it elsewhere. Do harm; then
scapegoat. She calls it a "pincer action."

Does it sound familiar? In the United States, we have been subjected lately
to an ever more deregulated capitalism; to reduced job security, lower benefits,
and longer work hours; to a shift of the tax burden from the rich to the poor and
a shift of government spending from butter to guns. In his current budget
proposal, President George W. Bush adds $48 billion to his $379-billion military
budget while cutting funds for maternal-and-child-health block grants, early
learning, class-size reduction, emergency medical services for children, newborn
and infant hearing screening, hospital insurance for the uninsured, youth
training, mental-health programs, substance-abuse prevention, and
youth-opportunity grants, among other programs. And that's just the cuts. He's
also proposing spending freezes for Head Start and Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families (TANF) that, given inflation, amount to cuts.

Together, the tougher economic climate and reduced social protections have
created a scarier world. That's one prong of the pincer. And then Bush gives the
nod to the Gary Bauers of the Republican right wing who say: "You see that
gay man? You see that single mother? They're a danger to America's
children." That's the other prong. The right wing mislabels it "family values."

The pincer action befuddles our thinking about a very real set of problems
facing the American family today. Implicitly, it unhitches actions in the public
realm from their consequences in the private realm. At the same time, it throws
the public spotlight on the official forms of family life and off its deeper
emotional realities.

But if we rehitch those links among government action, society, and the
family, we begin to see what it would mean to have a government that really
believes in family values. Consider even the issue of family form: If we want
more Americans to get married, stay married, and have their children while
married, we need to reduce the growing class gap, end poverty, and expand
opportunities for education. In their study of the 1998 Current Population
Survey, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer report that while two-thirds of American
children live in two-parent families, only 43 percent of children in households
headed by a high-school dropout do. In households headed by a college graduate,
84 percent of children live with two parents. Similarly, 3 percent of births to
women with college degrees take place out of wedlock, compared with 60 percent of
births to those who lack a high-school diploma. If you want traditional families,
think social class.

And don't forget the problem of the "average man." As William Julius Wilson
has pointed out with reference to African Americans, there aren't enough "average
men" for single moms to marry. And this applies increasingly to whites as well.
Laissez-faire economics and regressive taxation are making the rich richer -- and
more and more of the rest of the population poor. Increasing numbers of poor men
are thus restructured out of a future, and they don't marry or pay child support.
To the extent that the government reduces the class gap, eliminates poverty, and
fully supports education as an important step in the welfare-to-work program -- and
really, only to that extent -- it is "walking the talk" on family values.

Once married, Americans have a hard time making their marriages last. Some of
the children in traditional-looking, two-parent families have parents who've
remarried, and we don't know how well those remarriages are doing. If we want
marriages to go on "happily ever after" or even come close to doing so, we would
do well to recognize another source of great strain in most of them -- a stalled
gender revolution. Over the last 40 years, women have changed greatly while the
rest of society -- the partners they live with, the workplaces they go to, the
hours they put in, the child care they depend on -- has not changed as rapidly or
as deeply. Women are now virtually half of the labor force, but we still don't
have universal paid parental leave, widely available flextime and flexplace, or
even part-time jobs with security and benefits, let alone child allowances and
career sabbaticals. And, of course, we've never believed in real vacations.
Indeed, as more women have gone to work, work hours have increased. Workplace
speedups subtract from the time we need for "family values."

Meanwhile, we increasingly leave the care of young and old to the free market.
Yet according to a 2000 federal report on the nation's nursing homes, 91 percent
were understaffed, leaving elderly residents to suffer from bedsores,
malnutrition, weight loss, dehydration, and pneumonia. For adequate care,
according to the report, homes should have 1 nurse's aide for every 5 or 6
residents. Today, ratios vary from 1:8 to 1:14. And even though 20 percent of
Americans end their lives in nursing homes -- a figure predicted to rise to 40
percent by 2020 -- Bush has no plans to set minimum staffing levels.

Since the 1930s, government has played a key role in keeping the
American economy functioning well. Even in the current massively deregulated era,
we have Alan Greenspan hovering protectively over the marketplace. So it is
curious that we have not pursued a parallel course to provide protection for the
American family, the great shock absorber of the boom-and-bust cycles of

From nations such as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, where there is strong
government support for parents, including single parents, we know that this kind
of government intervention works. In Norway, 75 percent of children grow up in
intact families with both their biological parents; they also grow up in an
activist state that guarantees 48 weeks of fully paid parental leave, a decent
income for single mothers, excellent child care, and flexible work hours. This
isn't a coincidence. Family protections and family durability go together.

It's not that we don't have personal problems that call for nongovernmental
solutions. We do. In a culture that pressures us to shop, buy, discard, shop,
buy, discard, we've unconsciously come to consume intimacy, too. We've become
less inclined to hang in there through the hard times at home. Tolstoy famously
said that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in
its own way. Given the commercial spirit of intimate life, many American
marriages nowadays are unhappy in the same way.

Still, their well-being depends on several things that governments can ensure
them -- an absence of poverty, the time to nurture families, and well-paid care
attendants for those, old and young, who need care. In George Bush, we have
instead a practitioner of the pincer action, a deadbeat dad of family policy, the
Herbert Hoover of family problems. Which leaves the coast clear for a Democratic
candidate in 2004 who sees that it's as important to protect America's families
as it is to protect its businesses. You know, family values.

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