Dan Quayle was widely ridiculed last spring for depicting Murphy Brown as a bad model for inner-city teenagers. But even his liberal critics took the theme of family disintegration seriously. The brouhaha that followed the vice president's remarks revealed that discussion of family issues must go beyond questions of day care and tax deductions. At its heart, the debate is about what government can do to change behavior.
Before discussing how the lives of families should be improved, let us see whether a problem exists. Are America's children living better or poorer lives than in past decades? The best summary of the evidence is provided by Stanford economist Victor R. Fuchs and National Bureau of Economic Research associate Diane M. Reklis in the January 3 Science.
Between 1960 and 1990, the number of American children remained constant at about 64 million, while the number of Americans aged 18 to 64 rose from 100 million to 152 million. The children received a steadily rising amount of tax dollars: Measured in constant 1988 dollars, children received $83.1 billion (or $1,289 for each child) in federal, state, and local government funds in 1960. By 1988, Fuchs and Reklis calculate, this aid rose to $188.1 billion in constant dollars, or $2,946 per child. (Spending for adults rose much faster, thanks to the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.)
While more government funds flowed to children (largely through schools) and more adults were able to look after the kids, children's lives, by many measures, changed dramatically. The child of 1990 was far less likely to live in a traditional two-parent household in which the mother stayed home. In 1960, only 18.6 percent of married American women with children under age 6 worked; by 1988, this figure had risen to 57.1 percent.
The likelihood that a child would be illegitimate or live in a single-parent home also increased. Single-parent households rose from 5.5 percent of all families in 1960 to 14.2 percent in 1988. In 1960, 5.3 percent of U.S. births were to unwed mothers; in 1988, 25.7 percent were. Children were also more likely to commit violence against themselves or each other. The suicide rate for youth aged 15 to 19 tripled between 1960 and 1990; the homicide rate nearly tripled.
Some additional data can be found in the February American Demographics, a special issue devoted to young people. James U. McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A&M University, finds that American children under age 13 earned $9 billion in 1989 from allowances and doing chores but successfully convinced their parents to buy $132 billion worth of goods and services in that year, "a vast sum, more than the Gross National Product of Taiwan." According to McNeal, America's kids in 1989 persuaded their parents to spend $22.8 billion on fast foods and $14 billion on soda, but only $2.6 billion on fresh fruits and vegetables.
So America's young people are, in many ways, more pampered than in the past. On average, they have more money to spend, have more money spent on them, and get more tax dollars than their parents did at a comparable age. But the problems children now have are more moral than economic. Whatever causes children to commit suicide or be killed, it is not that these children are deprived of life's essentials.
And because the problems of America's children are largely moral and ethical rather than economic, issues of learning right and wrong rather than being able to afford food or clothing, there has been a subtle shift among some of America's best and brightest social-policy analysts. In the last few years, a new group has emerged, known as either "communitarians" or "neotraditionalists." These thinkers are for 1992 what the neoconservatives were in 1966 or 1967: scholars who have begun to question traditional liberal wisdom but have not yet abandoned it.
Certainly the communitarians are big fishes in the small pond of American social-policy thinkers. They have their journals: The Responsive Community, a quarterly, and New Oxford Review, an unpredictable Catholic monthly. They also are regularly published by the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank; some of them have influence on leading Democrats, most notably Bill Clinton. (But as Garry Wills notes in a recent New York Review of Books, the communitarian influence on Clinton will probably be slight, since Hillary Clinton, in several published papers, has shown that she advocates the orthodox liberal position on children: Spend as much on welfare as possible.)
Communitarians tend to favor traditional morality and Old Left economics. There is little evidence that they want women to leave the office for the kitchen, and they do not automatically see government as the answer to every social problem. But most of them tend toward socialism and social conservatism.
"An appreciation of authority, patriotism, self-discipline, personal accountability, high standards of workmanship, marital stability, and two-parent families," historian Christopher Lasch observes in the October 1991 New Oxford Review, "does not imply enthusiasm for the free market, itself one of the main sources of our false conceptions of personal liberalism and unlimited choice."
But while communitarians believe that children should become more moral, they are divided on the question of whether traditional welfare programs will help them achieve their goal. In the December 2, 1991, New Republic, University of Maryland philosopher William Galston calls for a "neoprogressive" agenda of aid to children. He supports raising the personal exemption from $2,050 to $7,000, with extra tax credits for parents with very young children. And while he favors spending on some government programs (particularly Head Start) and supports tougher enforcement of child-support payments, Galston believes that parental choice is crucial in government-aid programs for child care. Democratic reformers, says Galston, "are looking for new forms of non-bureaucratic, choice-based public activism as a supplement to the frequently cumbersome and intrusive institutions of the welfare state."
This split among communitarians (nearly all of whom are Democrats) is part of a broader split in the Democratic Party on issues affecting children. Many older Democrats favor traditional regulatory command-and-control approaches for children; the younger ones prefer more flexibility, allying themselves with advocates of "entrepreneurial government."
The split has roots in the failure of the Great Society. In the 1960s, the social-worker organizations scored victory after victory by convincing politicians that the family could be saved by increases in government spending. Families were not redeemed by the Great Society; by many measures they became much worse. One of the major reasons the United States does not have European-style child allowances or federally subsidized day care is that advocates of increased spending could not persuade politicians that their calls for tough licensing of day-care workers were anything more than the traditional union tactic of mandating high wages through unnecessary restrictions on entry into the labor force.
Many of the old ways of dealing with the family are still valid. A parent who teaches firm moral principles does a better job of raising a child than a bureaucrat administering a regulation. An increase in the personal exemption large enough to provide a truly flexible market in child care (in which a mother looking after a few additional kids could compete on a level playing field with day-care workers) does a better job of aiding parents than restrictions and licensing.
When government tries to be a universal parent, the result frequently is an oppressive society. The philosophies of the socialist nanny state of Sweden and the fascist warrior state of Nazi Germany resulted partially from deluded politicians believing that they were better able to instill values in the young than parents or religious leaders.
Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a writer, editor, and researcher living in Silver Spring, Maryland.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Magazines: All in the Family".