Civil Liberties

Family Matters

Welfare reform has liberals and conservatives calling for government action.


Lately, I've been questioning why I'm not an enthusiastic modern liberal, a real let's-call-in-the-government-to-do-good-things progressive. After all, I relish the world that the forces of liberalism seem to have produced. The liberationist movements of the 1960s and '70s have enriched my life immeasurably. I was free to marry whom I wanted thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision made two years before my birth that abolished state laws banning interracial marriage. My 6-month-old daughter has an openly gay godfather, a man who'll no doubt provide her with a moral foundation less disturbing than the one given to hundreds of children by certain Catholic priests. My wife has a better job than I do, if such things are measured in money and cultural prestige. I have no interest in trading this world for any that has gone before, even if the feds neither taxed personal income nor published the Federal Register back in the supposedly good old days.

Then the mailman brought the April 8 issue of The American Prospect, a magazine dedicated to presenting a "practical and convincing vision of liberal philosophy, politics, and public life."

This special double issue calls on assorted social policy mavens to enlighten us on "The Politics of Family." The issue (available online at is in part a reaction to George W. Bush's welfare reform package. Bush is calling for $300 million in taxpayer spending to promote marriage among people unfortunate enough to be dependent on the federal government.

"The federal government is suddenly very interested in marriage," says the Prospect. "The principal target of this matchmaking is the welfare population, though many traditionalists would turn the marriage movement into a generalized crusade. It adds up to something that most conservatives ordinarily abhor—social engineering, and in the most intimate of human realms."

There's plenty to lambaste "pro-family" right-wingers about, and the Prospect scores many points against the conservative marriage counselors. For instance, if marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, then why not allow gays and lesbians access to wedded bliss? Furthermore, contrary to the hippie-hating right, family breakdown didn't start in the 1960s. Historian Stephanie Coontz, author of the important book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, shows that marriage has been in "crisis" at least since the 1920s, when everyone began to demand more from matrimony than simple economic security.

Yet the Prospect's contributors don't limit themselves to critiquing conservative foibles, exposing ideological inconsistencies, and providing an overview of the health of contemporary American families. As good liberals, they too are keen on using the state to create exactly the sort of families—and larger society—they want, regardless of the invasiveness such programs inevitably entail. Worse, they apparently believe that such an overhaul can be achieved via the easy implementation of bossy policy. They must have missed the day at school when the rest of the country learned that Great Society programs were most successful at creating more social problems, not fixing existing ones.

It all sounds so authoritative. The contributors give the impression that good-hearted planners can easily achieve their intended aims. They also throw around amorphous terms such as we and society, obscuring the real actors in the welfare state: local civil servants who are accountable to federal civil servants, who are accountable to political appointees, who are accountable to Congress.

"Our goal should be to help less-educated women follow a similar path," writes Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The path to which she refers is the now common practice of holding off marriage and mommying until the late 20s. "The [conservative] alternative—to encourage girls in their teens or early twenties to marry—is not consistent with society's interest in encouraging people to acquire the skills needed in the new economy or with the job opportunities available to today's young women."

Why exactly it's up to "us" to set goals for less-educated women and to slot them into their proper role in promoting that great fiction of "society's interest" is left unsaid. Maybe even less-educated women are smart enough to get by without conservatives shoving them to the altar—or liberals shoving them into classrooms.

Sawhill has nothing on Theodora Ooms of the Center for Law and Social Policy. People "lack access to jobs that pay decently," writes Ooms, as if workers are barred from the elevator that reaches the executive suite. In fact, they don't have the skills to convince anyone to hire them for a decent-paying job.

Ooms likes to speak of the U.S. as one big family domiciled in D.C. "We should reach out to young parents to help them achieve their desire to remain together as a family," she argues, referring to young parents dubbed "fragile families" by creative researchers. These are unmarried couples who have children and who are still sleeping together with some frequency. Ooms never says why such couples can't achieve their desire to stay together—perhaps the office handing out marriage licenses is on the same floor as the executive suite.

As for the "we," Ooms and her friends are of course free to provide the services she recommends. Or, same thing, to create a nonprofit to do so. She already has a suggested curriculum, a "combination of 'soft' services—relationship-building and marriage-education workshops, financial management classes, and peer support groups—and 'hard' services—job training and placement, housing, medical coverage, and substance abuse treatment, if necessary." Perhaps she can pass out advanced degrees in being poor to the few people who complete this patronizing gauntlet. (Few will, as versions of this course plan have been offered for years with little effect.)

Most Americans who've survived at least two years of college are familiar with the gripe that the U.S. government doesn't live up to Europe when it comes to tucking citizens snugly under a safety blanket of taxpayer-funded social services. But the Prospect wants to make really sure you know it. "In Sweden and France, 80 percent to 95 percent of children ages three to five are in publicly supported day care," writes University of Pittsburgh sociologist Karen Christopher.

The European benchmark is especially intrusive when combined with a call for the government to promote equality inside marriages—think of bureaucrats drawing up the household chore list. Janet Gornick, a political scientist at the City University of New York, is not content for the government to transfer massive resources from the two-thirds of U.S. households without children to the one-third with them. (That is, after all, what her proposals for a mandated maximum work week of 37.5 hours, extended paid maternity and paternity leave, and universal taxpayer-supported child care would do.) She understands full well that even when American men are given every option to embrace the role of Mr. Mom, they may still need a push.

Writes Gornick, "Policy makers in Europe have learned that parental-leave benefits that can't be transferred to female partners and that include high wage-replacement rates encourage fathers to take the leave to which they're entitled." Translation: It's not enough to pass a law forcing employers to provide paternity leave. Fathers must be paid nearly their entire salaries to stay home and be prevented from transferring the leave time to mothers. But even here, the progressive social engineer's task is not complete. Planners can't be sure that men will make good use of their mandated leave. So we need a taxpayer-supported propaganda campaign urging men to pitch in around the house. The usually sensible Swiss have allowed their government to bombard them with a "Fair Play at Home" campaign that, Gornick notes approvingly, "is aimed at 'nudging married men' to share the work at home."

Tax me to pay advertising agencies, newspapers, and television stations to tell me to change more diapers, make a better dinner salad, and empty the dishwasher? That's reason enough to reject modern liberalism. Thanks to The American Prospect for refreshing my memory.