The Political Crisis of
the American Family

Marlene Resnick, MA

dwij 2001

Article 9 in our series on Ethics
dwij Home Forum Ethics
Marlene Resnick, MA is President of Parenting U International, an organization providing service and consultation to parents and professionals who work with families.

Marlene is an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida in Sarasota and is presently creating a film called Death by Discipline, a documentary on fatal child abuse in America.

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The Political Crisis of the American Family

"Too often, Americans blame all society's ills on the breakdown of the traditional family. Poverty, crime, violence, teenage aimlessness—all 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, 2001.

Very 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.

As 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.

We 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.

For 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.

In 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 arrangements.

It 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 Research Program.

Maybe 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 itself.

The 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.

Politicians 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.

These 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.

So 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 for children.

Have 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 we face.

We 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.

We 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.

In 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.

Children 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.

The 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.

Moralistic, 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.

I 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.

For 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.

Marlene Resnick, MA

President of Parenting U International

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Editors note:

Our Ethics segment of the Forum is an effort to hear from many in our communities about the quality of performance and decorum expected from those in positions of leadership; we embrace the fact that each of us is a leader.

This is a complex and paradoxical subject; simply about human interrelationship and intentioning. We'll be highlighting the views and dreams of many folks, while honoring a broad range of perspectives and insights on this journey.

© dwij 2000
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