New Focus on Family Values:
Politicians and leaders keep championing family values, but
where are the programs that can truly help the diverse tapestry
of American families? We sent editor at large Hara Estroff
Marano to a groundbreaking conference to discover what really
brings and keeps families together.
For years the
debate on family values has focused more on ideology than on
what actually keeps families together. Now social scientists are
trying to shift the basis of family policy from politics to
Family issues have
long been held prisoner by politics, and a particularly narrow
cell of politics at that. To care about families is to have
"family values," a term that has been co-opted by ideologies,
especially those on the political right. Conservatives have not
simply dominated public discourse of family issues; they have
framed the debate. And for some time now, to be "pro family" has
largely boiled down to one thing: being against divorce.
Certainly there have
been great changes in the American family over the past several
decades. One child in four is now born to unmarried parents. The
number of couples who live together outside of marriage has
increasedsevnfold since 1970. Divorce has been epidemic for some
25 years. And families with children are feeling particularly
burdened these days, as more and more kids grow up poor.
The political right
insists that such problems are fallout from liberalization of
the divorce laws which occurred throughout the 1970s and early
80s, and it has begun a campaign to rewrite or repeal laws that
allow easy-to-obtain, no-fault divorces. In late June, Louisiana
marked the first legislative success of a nationwide movement
led by conservative Christians: the state now permits couples
who are tying the knot to chose a particularly binding marriage
contract, called "covenant marriage," a biblical-sounding term
for the covenant with god embodied in Christian marriage.
Couples can still chose a standard marriage, dissolvable by
no-fault divorce, or they can choose a covenant marriage, which
can be ended only if one spouse can prove the other has
committed adultery, abandoned the home, been sentenced to prison
for a felony, abused the spouse or child. A separation of at
least two years would be required before the marriage could end.
But around the country independent thinkers are beginning to
alter the nature of the debate. They believe that family issues
and family policy have been defined too narrowly for too long.
They see a much broader array of actions--by government and
business as well as by individuals--that impact families, their
problems, and the forms they take: the role economic policies
play, subtly or overtly, in influencing family composition;
likewise the availability of jobs or job training; the
availability of suitable men; and much more.
The "M" Word
One of the new thinkers is Theodora Ooms, MSW, executive
director of the Family Impact Seminar, a Washington-based think
tank. She contends that while officials have vowed to
"strengthen and support families," they have left out the
primary ingredient. "Programs and services designed to support
families in fact focus only on mothers and children," she says.
Worse, "the cornerstone of the family--the relationship of the
couple, whether married or unmarried--has been essentially
At a recent two-day
roundtable in Washington, Ooms invited scholars to shift the
epicenter of family-values discussion from ideology to
research-based information. The ultimate goal: to broaden family
policy so that it is informed by all the facts, takes into
account the needs of all the members of a family, and supports
the relationship that is the family foundation--without
condemning those women who are raising children on their own.
Ooms believes that a
primary way to support families is not to make the marriage
contract more binding legally. That has the effect of trapping
unhappy families in their misery and, perhaps, exposing women to
danger. And by raising the "cost" of marriage, it could well
drive more couples into cohabitation, where no legal protection
exists for either partner or for any children.
The most sensible
approach is not to make marriage harder to get out of, but to
make marriage better to be in. After all, Ooms points out,
marriage remains a goal for the vast majority of Americans.
Ninety percent marry--and, of course, want their marriages to
work. "It's puzzling," she says, "that policy-makers have
invested so little in finding out what, if anything, can be done
to help marriages succeed." In "tribute" to their avoidance,
Ooms often refers to marriage as "the M-word."
One reason marriage is desirable is that when it works well, it
has emotional payoffs for partners. But Linda Waite, Ph.D., a
sociologist at the University of Chicago, has marshaled evidence
that marriage also has substantial benefits for health and
well-being. Among the findings Waite reports:
* Married men drink
less, live more safely, and live longer. Especially for men,
marriage supplies a network of emotional support.
* Married women have better health, and live in better material
circumstances, than single or cohabiting women.
* Married people lead more active sex lives. While cohabiting
couples have similarly high levels of sex, married men and women
have more satisfaction in the bedroom. That's because married
people know the tastes of their partner better and can safely
cater to them, while the emotional investment in the
relationship boosts the thrill.
* In addition to having more sex, the married have more money.
Two can live, if not as cheaply as one, then certainly as
cheaply as one and a half; they spend less to maintain the same
lifestyle than if they lived separately. Further, married
partners are more productive around the home than single people
because each spouse can afford to develop some skills and
neglect others, thereby increasing efficiency. Married couples
also save more of their earnings than do single people at the
same level of income.
* Children do better in two-parent families. Children in
single-parent households are twice as likely to drop out of high
school, and they are more likely to become teenage parents. They
are also far more likely to grow up poor. They may suffer lack
of access to the time and attention of two adults; when fathers
are married to the mothers of their children, the fathers'
involvement in their children's life tends to be far greater.
Children of single-parent families also move more often, thereby
losing such important sources of support as neighbors and other
* Marriage leads to higher wages for men; it gives them an
incentive to work harder. While married motherhood lowers
women's wages, they use their husband's support to give them
time with their kids, a benefit generally unavailable to the
nonmarried. Divorce drastically diminishes women's financial
the 1950s, black men and women have been less likely to share in
the benefits of marriage than whites, Waite notes. Although
marriage rates have dropped for both blacks and whites, the
decline among blacks is far steeper; currently six in 10 black
adults are not married.
rates of cohabitation have increased, the evidence clearly shows
that "living together" is qualitatively different from marriage.
For one thing, the commitment of marriage makes specialization
in chores and responsibilities sensible; spouses count on their
partners to fill in for them where they are weak. By contrast,
cohabitation is unstable, easy to get out of, and makes
specialization less rational. Second, marriage is far superior
at connecting people to others - work acquaintances, in-laws -
who are a source of support and benefits. It links people to a
world larger than themselves.
Waite believes the
evidence supports a public health approach to marriage: make the
evidence of its emotional and physical benefits widely
available. Some folks who have been skeptical of marriage, she
believes, will then reconsider.
Love's Loss to
In addition to the private aspirations of two partners, there
are many forces in the culture impact marriage. One the most
important is work.
Business has an
important stake in shaping family policy, observed Dana
Friedman, Ph.D., who heads Corporate Solutions, a New York
consulting firm. She notes that marital status is absolutely
critical in companies' promotion decisions; a Business Week
survey, for example, found that 98 percent of top male corporate
executives were married and had kids. Yet companies do nothing
to support marriage. Although companies now know that family
issues - like finding childcare - carry over into work
performance, they have yet to recognize that work issues carry
over into the home. In fact, reports Friedman, there are many
aspects of work that actively impede good family relationships
and place great strains on marriages:
* Work is more stressful today. At many companies, people are
working longer hours at a faster pace, cutting into family time
and making it more difficult to shift from work mode to family
mode. And lowered work morale is generally dispiriting,
affecting not just on-the-job performance but home life as well.
* As a result of corporate restructuring, there is no more a
guarantee of lifelong employment, adding an element of
uncertainty to couples' long-term plans.
* While some companies have become aware of a relationship
between work and family and have implemented policies such as
paternity leave, companies are less likely to promote workers
who actually use these policies.
* As important as company policies are to the balance between
work and home life, a study at Johnson & Johnson identified
other elements of the work environment as even more crucial:
control over work hours, particularly during a crunch time; a
sensitive supervisor; and a generally supportive work
The impact of work
issues on home life is three times greater than the impact of
home life on work, Friedman reports. Yet companies fail to take
responsibility for this, even though surveys show that achieving
balance between home and life is a leading concern of employees,
and that those who achieve this work-life balance become the
most motivated workers.
family-friendly company is no longer just about programs and
policies," says Friedman. "It's about the culture of work and
changing the relationships among co-workers." Work/life balance
must be a strategy that's totally integrated with missions and
It's not just the nature of the workplace that can wreak havoc
on families. It's also whether there's a workplace to go to at
all. And for African-Americans, especially, job uncertainty
not only has an impact on families, but may determine whether
marriages occur at all.
conventional wisdom, moral values or individual inclinations are
not the main factors that influence African-Americans' decisions
to marry, reports M. Belinda Tucker, Ph.D., professor of
psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. The single most
crucial factor is the climate of economic uncertainty in their
Tucker is in the
midst of a 21-city survey of factors that influence family
formation. So far, results show that African-Americans still
value marriage and raising kids in marriage. In fact, she has
found that in general, African-Americans hold more traditional
values than whites. African-American women hold particularly
traditional expectations for male roles. Simply put, they expect
husbands to work. And when men don't work, women don't marry.
Like many women, African-American women don't want to take on a
mate with lower economic prospects than their own. The trouble
is that the economic prospects of the available men often do not
come close to meeting their expectations.
unemployment creates enormous instability within the marriages
that do occur. In those cities where unemployment rates are
lowest, relationship satisfaction is greatest and marriages are
In Tucker's view, a
rational family policy must address economic insecurity. To be
pro-family, then, is to be pro-job, especially for
African-Americans. Indeed, other panelists suggested, one way
government policy can be family-friendly is to open up the
economic prospects for low-income men, perhaps by giving them
priority in job training and welfare-to-work programs.
The Shadow of Divorce
The law also influences the actions of couples. No-fault
divorce, for example enforces gender inequality, because men
typically have less to lose than women in leaving a
relationship, according to Amy Was, MD, JD, an associate
professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. For
example, women over the age of 40 face a much lower remarriage
rate than their ex-husbands. And women are generally worth far
less on the labor market, especially if they stopped working
full-time to have kids. These advantages increase men's
bargaining power within marriages. In short, the "threat
factor is higher for men," Wax says.
toughening divorce laws doesn't help women: it leaves untouched
men's disproportionate power within marriage. And since
marriages, even successful ones, "are always conducted in the
shadow of divorce," Wax insists that "any discussion of the
methods, costs and benefits of keeping marriages together must
take into account the gender asymmetries--in remarriage
prospects, roles, tastes, and earning power--that strengthen
men's bargaining power."
Participants at the
Washington round table agreed that efforts at the beginning of
marriage, such as marital education programs that change the
wway people negotiate, can give women more power. In fact,
because marriage education increases the benefits of staying
together for both parties, it was called "the most promising
reform." Also singled out was the creation of tax policies that
favor married couples. And state governments should consider
restructuring welfare programs that penalize married couples by
providing higher benefits to single women with children.
A Group Effort
The burden of making marriage work, Ooms concluded, can't be
left just for couples to shoulder by themselves. It' s
something policymakers, communities, and public officials have
a hand in. What binds flesh-and-blood couples is not love
alone, or sheer determination, or moral ity. Real family
values must take into account the fact that programs and
policies are always making and remaking the marital bed.