Political Crisis of the American Family
often, Americans blame all society's ills on the breakdown of
the traditional family. Poverty, crime, violence, teenage aimlessnessall
are blamed on the purported breakdown of the family. We fear
that parents are too selfish and preoccupied with their own
gratification to raise children properly, that we are becoming
a fatherless society, and that our children are becoming aliens,
deeply disconnected from the adult world."
Steven Mintz, John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History,
University of Houston, The Contemporary Crisis of the Family,
often, we hear politicians harking back to the nostalgic, golden
age of the families of the past. However, alcohol and poverty were
major problems at the turn of the last century. In addition, there
were many children raised in fatherless families after both world
wars. In reality, the family responds to the social and economic
environment that demands a change of culture and family relations.
For instance, industrialization at the turn of the nineteenth century
influenced the family by enticing people off the farms and into
the cities. People were attracted by jobs and greater economic opportunity.
a result, cities grew and we changed from a population where 90%
of families lived in rural areas, working on agriculture, to a population
where 90% of families lived in the cities, and worked primarily
in factories and other commercial enterprises. Another major influence
on the family has been the automobile. It has created substantially
more mobility, the development of the suburbs, and the rearranging
of the family environment once again.
tend to think of the family as a static arrangement of related individuals:
the nuclear family. That, however, is not the case. "Family" is
a constantly changing entity that responds to the challenges that
the social environment presents.
example, fifty years ago, young children and elderly family members
were cared for at home. This is no longer the case. Women, who provided
this support in the past, have had to enter the workplace in greater
and greater numbers. Perhaps, if we truly wanted to return to that
type of environment, we could offer women a salary to stay home
and care for children and elderly relatives. I suspect, however,
that this would not be a popular political position. Many women
would no longer choose to play this role, and most politicians would
not consider this to be a fundable agenda.
recent years, we have witnessed a massive political movement to
get poor women into the workforce. This has taken place with little
or no regard for the young children of these women. Some child care
funds have been made available, but the quality of care, and the
availability of hours often do not match the required work schedule
of the mother. Consequently, many children are left in poor quality
care centers, with siblings, and/or with neighbors or relatives,
creating a patchwork of care that fails to meet the needs of the
children, as well as ignoring the long-term ramifications of such
must be noted that women who don't have reliable childcare are often
not reliable workers. Also, children receiving poor quality care
are found to be unready for school at a far greater rate than children
who are cared for at home or in a quality setting. This means that
we are creating a second generation of citizens who are unprepared
to become productive members of society. Short-term, bottom-line
thinking leads to massive, long-term expense in both financial and
social costs down the road. A few of the studies that provide a
startling glimpse of this reality are: The Carolina Abecedarian
Project, The Perry Preschool Project, and The Yale Child Welfare
what we really need to do is to take a closer look at the elements
within families and the larger community that help to create good
outcomes for children, rather than to stay so focused on the family
structure of the family is not the most critical issue if you are
looking at what produces good outcomes for children. The quality
of the relationships within the family is a far better determiner
of success or failure than the family structure. For instance, the
number of evenings that a parent and child share dinner together,
and the involvement of a parent in a child's academic career are
much stronger indicators of a child's success in school and social
life than whether the parents are married, whether they are gay,
or whether the child is being raised by a single parent.
decry the dissolution of the nuclear family and hold that institution
responsible for all of our social ills, yet it seems that we must
look beyond this superficial answer to a complex situation. Although
some studies have shown that children of divorced or never-married
parents are more at risk for a number of social ills than children
who are a part of a stable nuclear family, it is also true that
a number of studies have found that many children of single fathers
and also of a gay parent score as well, or better, than children
in intact families when looking at child outcomes.
studies point to the necessity of looking beyond the structure and
into the substance of life quality. Poverty, drug and alcohol addiction,
malnutrition, deprivation, unemployment, and dangerous neighborhoods
create high risk for any child. What we do know is that a high level
of conflict within the home is the strongest indicator for creating
a troubled childhood. Where children are subject to parents who
scream and yell, hit and hurt on a regular basis, they are far more
at risk for failure than a child raised by a single parent who is
attentive and caring.
maybe we really need to look at solving those problems rather than
trying to legislate a particular type of family structure. If we
truly care about the best interests of children we must ask: What
are the real answers to the problems of today? In reality, poverty
and conflict are the two most powerful negative influences on outcomes
we made a commitment to end childhood poverty? Statistics would
indicate that we have decided, in fact, to invest in poverty. The
number of children raised in poverty in America has dramatically
increased since the War on Poverty. One in five children in America,
the richest country in the world, grows up in poverty. Quality childcare
is one proven resource that is capable of improving outcomes for
preschool children. Government has been slow to recognize this fact,
and has not committed the necessary funding required to begin to
address this issue. We have chosen to invest, instead, in prisons,
in high technology weapons, and in non-renewable energy sources.
These have been responses that do not address the challenges that
have moved at lightning speed into the privatization of many public
services without truly examining the reality that many of these
services are not profitable. For example, health care is only profitable
when providing care for relatively healthy people. We have watched
this situation grow into a national disaster.
have seen the dissolution of institutions that cared for people
who were unable to care for themselves. This was a Reagan initiative
that resulted in the ballooning problem of homelessness; a perfect
example of bottom-line decision making. One of the first states,
to de-institutionalize long-term mental health patients, Massachusetts,
found that this short-sighted attempt to save government dollars
by letting the private sector compete in this arena was largely
responsible for creating the growing problem of homelessness.
addition, the cost of mental health services to these same individuals
has skyrocketed. Mental health service costs, which had been contained
because the government ran the mental hospitals, are now much higher.
This is the same problem that exists in all for-profit human services.
Those individuals whose maladies are easier to treat are more likely
to receive the required care. This process of preferential treatment
is called creaming. Those individuals who have long-term intractable
mental health problems may be relegated to the streets without treatment
or care. This is an inappropriate and irresponsible response. The
end result has been that Massachusetts is paying more for mental
health services, but fewer people are being cared for. An added
"benefit": the development of a large homeless population in many
cities. There are some services that simply cannot be profitable.
Trying to make them profitable increases the cost, because a profit
must be added on to that cost. It doesn't make sense.
and families are caught in the same narrow view. The institution
of the family, while being heralded as the solution to all our problems,
is not getting the social and institutional support necessary to
fulfill its most important job: raising children.
fifty richest people in Los Angeles have a combined annual income
that exceeds the combined incomes of the poorest two million people
in that city. We continue to move in the direction of extreme polarization
in regard to income. This polarization is a true threat to a strong
democracy. It encourages crime, drug abuse, violence, and supports
poverty. It inspires alienation and anger in young people because,
when they are poor, they see no hope.
superficial, short-term answers to deep, long-term problems only
create bigger problems. You can be assured that the fifty richest
people in the city of Los Angeles have a lot more influence on who
gets elected and what laws are passed than the poorest two million
in that city.
believe that among our government's many roles is to identify and
understand society's needs, determine how to meet those needs, and
provide the education and support needed to allow everyone the opportunity
of achieving their dreams and becoming self-sufficient and self-supporting
individuals. Economic development is a critical part of that equation,
but it must be viewed from a long-term perspective.
our children, this means that we need to invest in quality childcare.
It means that we need to ensure access to health care for everyone.
It means that we support parental leave with pay, and ensure that
people who work full time get a decent, livable wage. This is the
work of government. "Of the people, by the people and for the people,"
is included in the tenets of our country's constitution. It is obvious
that we have all but forgotten the basic principles on which our
country was founded, and urgent that, for our children's future,
we identify the ways of rectifying this.
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