Family Fever

"The family is a hot issue," writes Letty Cottin Pogrebin, long-time feminist and one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine, in her book Family Politics, published last year. "Judging by the proliferation of magazine cover stories, television features, talk show discussions, academic research, and public policy discourse being devoted to the state of the American family, it seems safe to say that what civil rights and Vietnam were to the Sixties, and women's rights and the environment were to the Seventies, family issues have become to the Eighties."

Pogrebin may be overstating the case somewhat, but not by much. The evidence in support of her contention is to be found not only in the magazine articles, academic publications, and TV shows to which she alludes, but also in the pages of the many books on marriage and family matters that have been published over the past few years.

In one of these books, What's Happening to the American Family? (1981), sociologists Sar Levitan and Richard Belous write, "Marriage and family appear to have fallen on hard times," and the resulting "sense of something falling apart has even reached the White House.... Both Democratic and Republican Presidents have foreseen disturbing omens in current family trends. The Carter administration launched a nationwide White House Conference on Families in an effort to cope with these problems. Not to be outdone, Ronald Reagan proclaimed, upon accepting the Republican nomination, that his administration would be a crusade to revitalize American institutions. The first institution on his list was the family."

Nor is this official concern for the vitality of the family confined to the White House. Over on Capitol Hill, a group of Republican lawmakers has also been anguishing over the plight of the family. And in every session of Congress since 1979, these congressmen have been proposing a Family Protection Act to set things right again. For the moment, the act is dead. But odds are it will resurface in the fall. Those who have been backing it for the past five years are unlikely to give up so easily on their desire (in the language of the act) "to preserve the integrity of the American family, to foster and protect the viability of American family life... and to promote the virtues of the family."

The problem is that what the Moral Majoritarians and hidebound traditionalists behind the Family Protection Act really mean when they talk about "the family" is the so-called traditional family: a breadwinning father, a full-time housewife mother, and one or more children. But fewer than one American household in five these days is inhabited by such a family. In fact, even if you consider families like mine to be "traditional"- families in which both parents work, both parents are on their second marriages, and the children have different fathers and different surnames-even then the traditional family is in a minority. More than half of all American households are now occupied by untraditional families or by single individuals living alone.

According to the partisans of the Family Protection Act, what lies at the heart of the current crisis of the American family is precisely the fact that the traditional family-the household type that (they contend) has always been the norm in America-has lately begun eroding away, mostly in response to certain meddlesome policies of the federal government. It is true, of course, that certain recent federal programs have created incentives to break up traditional families-the welfare rules, for example, that reward an unemployed father for deserting his family. Yet in point of fact, the decline of the traditional family did not begin a mere few decades ago with the birth of federal meddling. It began long, long before.

The family, in its old sense," wrote a contributor to the Boston Quarterly Review of October 1859, "is disappearing from our land, and not only our free institutions are threatened but the very existence of our society is endangered." Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy reports in his book Marriage, Love, Sex and Divorce (1981) that the same state of affairs existed 300 years ago in Stuart England, where many of the original American colonists came from. "So far from stable," writes Gathorne-Hardy, the family in 17th-century Britain "was in a state of 'collapse' which it has not yet reached even in America. At Clayworth (one of the parishes where evidence over time exists) in 1688, 39 percent of marriages were with a partner married before; 13 percent were second marriages, 3 percent were third marriages, 4 percent were fourth and one person had had five previous partners. From other sources one can gauge that approximately one-third of all marriages in Stuart England were second marriages or more."

Of course, the reasons for marital termination were different in those days. "Death played the part then that divorce does now," Gathorne-Hardy notes. And " one can speculate that, if the same conditions existed today and if death struck by chance as often, then one-third of the marriages which today solve their difficulties by divorce would have solved them by death.

"The idea that the instability of modern Western marriage, all the divorcing and splitting and affairs, somehow means that society is actually less stable, is not true," Gathorne-Hardy concludes. "The institutions in the old world were expedients to provide an illusion of permanence in a world which was impermanent and insecure. They were therefore talked and written about as permanent to such an extent that we have come to believe it. The evidence, however, is that they were not." All in all, "we are just as stable as the past." Is more evidence needed? Very well. "In the 1860s," Richard Sennett wrote eight years ago in The Fall of Public Man, "social workers in both London and Paris were.. worrying about the demoralization of the poor, and linking that demoralization to the family conditions in which the poor lived. In the 1860s, as in the 1960s, a 'broken home' was usually taken to be the specific culprit, again with a female as the usual head of the household." Levitan and Belous, in What's Happening to the American Family?, sum the matter up: "marital disruption was also a problem in the 'good old days,' even though its causes have shifted. With vast improvements in health, plunging death rates for all ages counterbalanced increases in the divorce rate during this century to such a degree that the rate of marital disruption for all causes was fairly stable until 1970."

Levitan and Belous remind us also that 19th-century America "was full of experimental communities that explored new family forms," communities like John Humphrey Noyes's Oneida, which did away with traditional marriage altogether on the grounds that it was contrary to human nature. But, Levitan and Belous comment, even when it has been "granted that alternative family structures have always existed, it has been argued that a growing number of individuals are availing themselves of these opportunities. Even this point is highly debatable. For example, while there has been a vast increase in the reported number of couples living together without the blessings of state or church, it is quite difficult to know how much of this shift is really a new trend. With diminished social pressures to follow any one pattern, a good portion of the reported increase in this behavior may represent only the increased willingness of people to be open about what has always taken place. 'Swinging' is probably one of the oldest indoor sports known to humanity, as even a casual reader of the Bible would easily find, and not all of the participants were villains. What may be new is the willingness on the part of the players to publicly extol its virtues to the multitudes."

Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, author of Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage (1981), carries this line of thinking to its obvious conclusion by arguing that what we see around us today, what the Moral Majoritarians decry as the crisis of the family, is in fact the norm in American life, the norm from which our national experience during the hallowed 1950s was a unique deviation. "The birthrate has been declining since the 1820s," Cherlin writes, "the divorce rate has been climbing since at least the Civil War, and over the last half century a growing number of married women have taken paying jobs. Thus, many of the changes we witnessed in family life in the 1960s and 1970s were a continuation of long-term trends that have been with us for generations.

"The only exception occurred during the late 1940s and the 1950s," Cherlin continues. "After World War II, Americans raised during the austerity of the Depression and the war entered adulthood at a time of sustained prosperity. The sudden turnabout in their fortunes led them to marry earlier and have more children than any generation before or since in this century. Because many of us were either parents or children in the baby-boom years following the war, we tend to think nostalgically that the 1950s typify the way twentieth century families used to be. But the patterns of marriage and childbearing in the 1950s were a historical aberration: the patterns of the 1960s and 1970s better fit the long-term trends."

What is the meaning of these long-term trends? What is their cause? If they have been with us since the last century it would seem obvious that they can hardly be attributed to the interventions of big government and the welfare state. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that even in recent years government interventions have been only a minor factor in accelerating these trends. It is common knowledge, for example, that the federal welfare program known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children encourages the formation of single-parent households, commonly consisting of unmarried, unskilled, unemployed women and their children. Yet Levitan and Belous report that "most of the increase in the number of female headed households is accounted for by childless women who are ineligible for public assistance benefits."

These childless women are forming their own self-headed households, not because of some action of some government, but because that is how they choose to live their lives. Cherlin refers to "the growing likelihood that unmarried individuals will choose to maintain their own households rather than live with kin" as perhaps the most important change [that has] affected the composition of households." He writes: "It used to be common ... for a woman to move back to her parent's home after she separated from her husband, but today separated and divorced women are much more likely to set up their own households. Never-married young adults, whose numbers have been increasing, are less likely to remain at home until they marry than they were twenty years ago. Similarly, more older, widowed people are living by themselves rather than moving in with their children. It may be that the preferences of unmarried adults concerning living arrangements have changed. I suspect, however, that most unmarried adults always have preferred to live independently, only today they are more likely to have the financial resources to do so."

It might also be argued, of course, that most married adults always have preferred to remain married only when they found their marriages personally satisfying but are more likely today to have the financial resources to exercise such a preference. "Many of the traditional reasons why people got married and stayed married are less compelling today," Cherlin writes. "The greater economic independence of women means that marriage is less necessary as an economic partnership, as a common enterprise that creates a joint product neither partner could produce alone. And as the success of the economic enterprise becomes less crucial to husbands and wives, their personal satisfaction with their marriage becomes relatively more important. Consequently, it seems to me, husbands and wives are more likely today than in the past to evaluate their marriage primarily according to how well it satisfies their individual emotional needs. If their evaluation on these terms is unfavorable, they are likely to turn to divorce and then, perhaps, to another marriage."

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