A New Focus on Family Values
By Hara Estroff Marano published November 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
For years the debate on family values has focused more on ideology than on what actually keeps families together. Now social scientists are trying to shift the basis of family policy from politics to research.
"Family is important because it is the only institution in contemporary society that is unabashedly committed to love and caring as its primary function."
--Michael Lerner in The Politics of Meaning
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 on 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 divorce.
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 increased sevenfold 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 poor.
The political right insists that such problems are fallout from the liberalization of 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 choose a particularly binding marital contract called "covenant marriage" (a biblical-sounding term for the covenant with God embodied in Christian marriage). Couples can still opt for a standard marriage, dissolvable by no-fault divorce, but if they choose a covenant marriage the relationship can be ended only if one spouse can prove that the other has committed adultery, abandoned the home, been imprisoned for a felony, or abused their spouse or children. A separation of at least two years is required before the marriage can end.
But independent thinkers around the country are beginning to alter the nature of the family values 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 affect families and their problems. These factors include the role economic policies play, subtly or overtly, in influencing family composition; the availability of jobs and job training; the supply of suitable men; and numerous others.
The "M" Word
One of the new thinkers is Theodora Ooms, M.S.W., executive director of the Family Impact Seminar, a Washington-based think tank. She contends that while politicians and government 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. But "the cornerstone of the family--the relationship of the couple, whether married or unmarried--has been essentially ignored."
At a recent two-day round table in Washington, D.C., Ooms invited scholars to shift the center 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 (or men) who are raising children on their own.
Ooms believes that making marriages harder to dissolve is not the best way to support families. That has the effect of trapping unhappy families in their misery and, perhaps, of exposing abused women and men to danger. And by raising the "cost" of marriage, it could well push more couples into cohabitation, where legal protection exists neither for partners nor for any children they may have.
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 crucial network of emotional support.
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 report 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 can boost the thrill.
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.
Marriage leads to higher wages for men; it gives them an incentive to work harder. While married motherhood lowers women's wages on average, they often use their husband's support to give them time with their kids, a benefit generally unavailable to the unmarried.
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 from the 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 members.
Unfortunately, since the 1950s black men and women have been less likely to share in the benefits of marriage than whites, Waites 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 married 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 that affect marriage. One of the most important is work.
Business has an important stake in shaping family policy, observes 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 many companies do nothing to support marriage. Although companies now know that family issues--like finding child care--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 marriages:
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 longer a guarantee of lifelong employment, adding an element of uncertainty to couples' long-term plans.
While some companies have become aware of the link between work and family and have implemented policies such as paternity leave, companies are less likely to promote workers who actually use these policies.
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 all.
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 say they 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 most stable.
In Tucker's view, a rational family policy must address economic insecurity. To be pro-family, then, is to be projob, 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, unwittingly enforces gender inequality, because men typically have less to lose than women in leaving a relationship, according to Amy Wax, M.D.,J.D., 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, in part because of their limited reproductive lives. 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, and earning power--that strengthen men's bargaining power."
Participants at the Washington round table agreed that efforts at the beginning of marriage, such as marital education programs that change the way people negotiate, can give women more power. In fact, because marital 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 children.
A GROUP EFFORT
The burden of making marriage work, Ooms concludes, can't be left just for couples to shoulder by themselves. It's something policy-makers, communities, and public officials have a hand in. What binds flesh-and-blood couples is not love alone, or sheer determination, or morality. Real family values must take into account the fact that programs and policies are always making and remaking the marital bed.