Family Fever

Conservatives and liberals prescribe government ministrations for the ailing American family. But a thorough checkup yields a different diagnosis and a laissez-faire prescription.


"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."

The conclusion seems inescapable: People used to have children because they had to. They used to get married and stay married because they had to. And once they had become old and feeble they used to live with their children and rely upon them for their support because they had to. Once they no longer had to do these things, they stopped doing them.

This is, says Andrew Cherlin, "the way in which the United States—and, indeed, every advanced industrial society—has developed. As we moved from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one, the economic value of children declined and people had fewer of them. As the production of goods and services shifted from the home to the factory or the office, women were drawn into the labor market, thereby becoming more independent of men. And as the school, the hospital and the old-age home took over many of the functions family members used to perform for each other, men and women found it progressively easier to live nontraditional family lives."

Should it surprise anyone that people took advantage of their newfound opportunity? Does it really come as a surprise even to the prating Bible thumpers of the Moral Majority to learn that the "traditional" nuclear family is not the best of all possible worlds for everyone?

"When I can no longer bear to think of the victims of broken homes," says humorist Peter De Vries, "I begin to think of the victims of intact ones." And the latter are legion. "A high incidence of violence within the family has come to light in recent years," write Levitan and Belous. "Almost 1 million children may be neglected or abused each year, and as many as 2 million women may experience violence in the home.…The Office of Domestic Violence in the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that about one of four couples will undergo serious family violence during the course of a marriage or relationship. Roughly 25 percent of all homicides involve spouses, and 20 percent of all police deaths and 40 percent of police injuries occur when an officer responds to a 'family violence' call." Moreover, they report, "automobile accident cases still make up the majority of suits in court, but family-related cases are currently running a close second."

Karen Lindsey, the avowedly leftist and feminist author of the 1981 book Friends as Family, paints an even grimmer picture. "As many as 60 percent of all married women are beaten at least once by their husbands," she writes. "And between 500,000 and one million elderly parents are abused each year by the adult offspring they live with." The National Campaign for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect estimates that "in up to 20 percent of American families, children are subjected to physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect." And then there's the runaway problem. "An estimated 2 million youngsters run away from home every year," the Los Angeles Times reported in late November 1981, "and that rate is steadily increasing. While 15- and 16-year-olds account for nearly half the runaways, they range in age from 10 and 11 on up, and the national Runaway Switchboard reports serving children as young as 8 and 9."

If these kids run away, if their mothers seek divorces, if their grandparents choose to live by themselves, can anybody realistically contend that they have made these choices because an unholy alliance of secular humanists and godless communists has conspired against the traditional family? These people leave the family because in their homes familiarity has bred contempt—and worse than contempt. "The family is the American fascism," said Paul Goodman. And for many in our society, that is precisely what it is.

Of course, for many others, myself included, the family is something else entirely. It is a way of life, and one which we feel we have freely chosen because of the various satisfactions it offers us. Why do we do it? Why do people form families? What are families for, anyway?

There are those—fundamentalist Christians, for example—who argue that such questions are pointless. We live in families because that's the way God set things up in the beginning, with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. That's all we know and all we need to know. Trying to figure out why God set it up that way is as foolish as trying to figure out the significance of the fact that the very first nuclear family in all of human history exploded into an act of violence that left one of its members dead at the hand of another of its members, even though violence on TV, rock music, secular humanism, and the federal government of the United States were not problems in the Garden of Eden.

But set these true believers aside for the moment; we'll be coming back to them soon enough. The conventional wisdom among most other students of the family as a social institution is that its purpose is economic and broadly cultural. On the one hand, it offers its members the easiest or most efficient way of getting a decent living. On the other, it provides its members, especially its child members, with practical training in the skills one needs to deal with other people in the outside world.

When life was mainly agricultural and the home was the workplace, families were large and typically included several generations. This assured an adequate number of able bodies to do the work, and it assured that those who had become too old and feeble to do any hard work would be available to look after those children who were still too small to do any hard work. And everyone benefited from the arrangement. The children and the old folks were obviously able to get a better living for themselves by living in a family than they could have got by themselves. And the able-bodied adults in their prime who might have done all right on their own also gained certain economic advantages by living in the family. Perhaps most important among these was the knowledge that in time of illness or temporary disability, there would be people to care for them and absorb the cost of their daily lives until they could work again. In this sense, the family was a source of security, an insurance policy.

But as the Industrial Revolution simultaneously raised per capita income and moved the population into cities, this kind of security became increasingly irrelevant. The home was no longer the workplace, so it was not advantageous to add members to the household, whether in the form of new children or aged relatives. Now that the work of the family was done outside the home, new additions were no longer added hands; they were added costs—parasites, if you will. On top of that, while space for additional people was cheap in the country, it was very expensive in the city. So people began living in smaller families, and the norm became parents and their children, but neither the parents' parents nor the children's children. The extended family had given way to the nuclear family.

Since that time, per capita income has continued to climb, and various institutions, some of them voluntary, some of them governmental (which is to say compulsory), have begun taking over many of the old functions of the family. You don't have to live in a family any longer to assure yourself of income during time of illness or temporary disability—all you have to do is buy an insurance policy. You no longer need your aged parent at home to watch the kids while you work—you can send the kids to a day-care center or a public school, and you can send the aged parent to an old-folks' home. If your income is high enough, you can pay strangers to do all the things for you that you used to get from family members. And if your income isn't high enough, you can probably get some extra money from the government to make it high enough.

For people who don't like the members of their biological families (and such people have been quite common ever since the days of Cain and Abel), the temptation to hire strangers and live alone is apparently great. Others who don't like the members of their biological families seem to feel a different temptation, however. They leave their biological families, but they don't hire strangers. Instead, they move in with other individuals and form surrogate families of various kinds.

These surrogate families have become quite controversial of late, particularly among those who feel that since God has decreed what sorts of groups we are to live in, that settles the matter and anyone who chooses to live in a group of any other sort is tantamount to a sinner. "The public continues to receive a steady parade of examples 'proving' that divorced, never-married, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, communal, and living-together units form the bulk of today's 'families,'" writes Jeane Westin, author of The Coming Parent Revolution (1981). "The most noted 'family experts' huddled together for a four-day conference in the late 1970s to answer the question, Who can define 'family' in a way everyone would accept? No one pointed out that 'family' has always been defined as parents plus children and that family experimenters can jolly well come up with their own concepts rather than asking the traditional family to move over." Westin asserts, "The continual extension of the concept of family to include every social fad and sexual fancy has resulted in the trivialization of the family."

"If you recall," Sen. Roger Jepsen (R–Iowa) told his fellow members of the upper house of Congress in June 1981 when he introduced the then-current version of the Family Protection Act, "after the 1970 White House Conference on Children and Youth, the Forum 14 report redefined the family as a group of individuals in interaction.

"The American Home Economics Association has determined that the family is a unit of two or more persons who share values and have a commitment to one another over time. Unfortunately, such all-encompassing definitions, which at first glance may appear bland and academically accurate, actually extend the meaning of family to include anyone and anything from group marriages to homosexual and lesbian couples who want to adopt children."

The question is, why is this "unfortunate"? If the purpose of the family is economic—if, that is, the family is an institution that is entered into by its members in order to improve their overall standard of living and provide themselves with a measure of security during hard times—why isn't any group of individuals who live together for these purposes properly considered a family? If another function of family life is to provide moral and emotional support for family members when they are demoralized, disgraced, or defeated, why isn't any group of individuals who live together and support each other in this way properly considered a family? If still another function of the family is to provide education in living skills for children, why isn't any group of adults and children who live together properly considered a family? If it weren't possible for biologically unrelated individuals to interact satisfactorily as family members, conventional marriage—that is, marriage to nonrelatives—would be impossible, as would adoption. The old adage that you can choose your friends but not your relatives is universally acknowledged to be untrue when it comes to husbands, wives, and adopted children. Why then is it true of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings?

In fact, people have been exercising choice with respect to their family members for hundreds of years, albeit in a more informal manner than the one that typifies legal marriage or adoption. All of us have heard people remark of unusually close friends that "I love him like a brother," or "I love her like a sister," or "She's been like a second mother to me," or "He's like the father (or son or daughter) I never had." Many of us have known people who have informally adopted other unrelated adults into their families, shared holidays with them, and named them "honorary" aunts or uncles of their children. Many of us have friends who are looked upon by all the members of our biological families as loved ones and who are entitled, in our minds, to the same treatment we would extend to our own brothers or sisters. We tell these friends to feel free to visit any time, even on an unannounced basis. We tell them to "make themselves at home." We lend them our money and our cars and our irreplaceable treasures—things we make a policy of never lending to anyone else. We give them keys to our homes, trust them with our children, turn to them for moral and emotional support. And we feel able to call upon them in any emergency, just as they feel able to call on us. What are these special friends but adopted family members, people we have adopted without the usual bureaucratic rigmarole that ordinarily accompanies adoption, but adopted nonetheless?

Social observers Karen Lindsey and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy see this phenomenon of "friends as family" as the wave of the future. But as we have seen, it might equally be regarded as the wave of the past re-establishing itself after a brief apparent absence during the 1950s. For most of the past two centuries, with the exception of that brief but crucial period of slightly more than a decade, the "traditional" family has been merely one of a number of possible household units, all of which have been common. It may be useful at this point to repeat the admonition of Levitan and Belous that "with diminished social pressures to follow any one pattern, a good portion of the reported increase in this behavior [unconventional family types] may represent only the increased willingness of people to be open about what has always taken place."

But of course such increased openness can only serve to encourage those who waver between following established social practice despite the fact that they find it unrewarding and doing their own things, unconventional though those things may be. Inevitably, some of the apparent increase in unconventional family life that we seem to see all around us is new, is a real increase. It is the natural tendency of market economies to gradually increase the personal wealth of almost all who participate in their operation. And increased personal wealth means wider personal choice—in the current vernacular, more options. So it is that as per capita income has grown in our country, it has become increasingly possible for more and more people to live in untraditional households. The expanding market for goods and services has led to the establishment of an expanded market for types of families. And the majority of Americans have voted with their feet and their pocketbooks and their hearts for untraditional family lives.

And what should be the role of government in all this? There is widespread consensus that it should be an active one. Letty Cottin Pogrebin speaks for the political left, but no right-wing defender of the family would disagree with her when she writes, "Families might be less sophisticated political activists than the farm or tobacco lobby…but who's to claim families are not more entitled to federal supports and subsidies?" No, the only real argument between the liberals and the conservatives when it comes to government family policy is over which kind of family should be singled out for benefit—traditional families or untraditional families. The reactionary right would have government set up incentives so that Americans who opted for traditional family life would be rewarded, often at the expense of those who prefer untraditional family life. The liberal left would have government subsidize untraditional family life, often at the expense of those who prefer traditional family life.

I say a pox on both their houses. To each his or her own. Let government adopt a family policy of laissez-faire. Let each man and woman, and to the extent that it is feasible each child, do what he or she wants. They have, all of them, the inestimable advantage of knowing much better than any government bureaucrat exactly what they want, and what price they are willing to pay to get it.

REASON contributing editor Jeff Riggenbach lives with his wife and two children in Oakland, California.