A 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
For years the debate on family values has focused more on
ideology than on what actually keeps families together. Now social
scientists are tryng to shift the basis of family policy from
politics to research.
By Hara Estroff Marano -Nov 97, Psychology
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
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
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
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
* 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
* 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 community
* 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 well-being.
Unfortunately, since 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.
Moreover, while 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 Labor
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
* 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 tworkers 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 atmosphere.
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.
"Being a 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 business goals.
It's the Economy, Stupid
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
Contrary to 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 particular community.
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.
Furthermore, 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 more stable.
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.
That's why 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
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
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.
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