A Family Tree: The Past and Present of Public Policy and the American Family

Last updated: Mar 04, 2021

Raising and caring for a family is the most important undertaking of our lives, but one that has become more difficult and less valued in recent decades. The result has been a breakdown of the two-parent family: not only fewer marriages, but also fewer children. The underlying causes of these disturbing trends are many. Some are cultural, others economic. Political decisions about public policy often play a role.

The readings here offer some of the clearest thinking on these questions:

  • What role does the family play in society?
  • How and why has the traditional family broken down?
  • How can public policy strengthen American families?

—Part I: Foundations—

Conservativism’s emphasis on formative institutions gives it a unique appreciation for the role and importance of the family in raising children and shaping the habits and character of all its members. Families also serve a crucial social and political function, transmitting the community’s traditions, norms, and expectations to the next generation. The work done across centuries by preeminent thinkers in describing the family’s enduring roles is essential to the task of preserving those roles for an uncertain future.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke located the roots of patriotism and citizenship in the family unit, noting that “we begin our public affections in our families,” whose model of care shapes our approach to broader obligations, and which “we pass on to our neighborhoods” as well as to the nation.

Liberty Fund, 1999. 476 pages.

Selection: Page 181. Liberty Fund, 1999.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Tocqueville famously observed that America’s local institutions were essential to maintaining its democratic spirit. Chief among these was the family, which resisted atomization and cultivated habits of self-government. “As long as the spirit of the family lasted,” Tocqueville wrote, “man who struggled against tyranny was never alone.”

 

University of Chicago Press, 2000. 722 pages.

Selection: “Chapter 9: Of the Principal Causes That Tend to Maintain the Democratic Republic in the United States,” Liberty Fund, 2010. 64 pages.

Carle Zimmerman, Family & Civilization. Zimmerman, an acclaimed Harvard sociologist, analyzed the relationship between the state of the family and the health of a civilization. Drawing upon nations ancient and modern, he outlined the implications of family structure and family breakdown on society.

Michael Novak,The Family Out of Favor.” Novak argues that fewer Americans instinctively recognize the importance of family because the leading institutions of public life are oriented to individuals seeking “liberation” rather than families seeking continuity. The “antifamily sentiments” in contemporary culture, especially those pioneered by large corporations and universities, thus “diminish the moral and economic importance of the family.”

Harper’s Magazine, April 1976. 3500 words.

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—Part II: What Happened—

Family Breakdown

The prevailing structures of family life that evolved over the centuries have splintered in recent decades. With the emergence of the “nuclear family,” extended family members have been excluded from the task of childrearing and homemaking. In the ensuing decades, the nuclear family faced pressure from the push for women to prioritize careers, the sexual revolution, and legal reforms that gave rise to amorphous social norms. While such changes have justly celebrated benefits, they have come with substantial costs too.

The two-parent family, once the norm in American society, has weakened as divorce and one-parent households have been normalized across much of American society. Mutually reinforcing social norms and public policies have spurred this decline, with social and economic consequences that have affected children and reverberated into subsequent generations.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on black poverty identified the breakdown of the family and the rise of single motherhood, not economic forces, as the root cause of intergenerational poverty. Urban ghettos, he argued, perpetuated negative cultural and family norms within the black community. His conclusion was that government policy should prioritize stable family formation to make possible sustained economic growth within urban communities.

 

Andrew J. Cherlin, “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage.” Cherlin, a sociology professor, argues that the “weakening of the social norms that define partners’ behavior” has transformed marriage into a primarily symbolic institution for personal achievement, rather than a social institution for having and raising children. Shifting norms around cohabitation, in particular, contributed to this process of “deinstitutionalization.”

Journal of Marriage and Family, 2004. 8300 words.

W. Bradford Wilcox, “The Evolution of Divorce.” Wilcox delves into the consequences of no-fault divorce over the past half-century, linking it to a perception of marriage as an extension of the personal self. Such legal and cultural changes have led, he argues, to rising rates of divorce, falling rates of marriage, and worsening outcomes for children.

National Affairs, 2009. 5400 words.

Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. Murray charts the evolving social structures of the white working class, showing that the same trends that had alarmed Moynihan in predominantly black, urban communities two generations earlier now appeared as a function of class, rather than race. Social pathologies like declining marriage rates and increasing out-of-wedlock births had become so deeply embedded in the white working class by the 2000s that Murray questions “the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.”

Crown Forum, 2012. 432 pages.

Selection: “Chapter 8. Marriage.” 19 pages.

Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam describes the yawning opportunity gap between the lower- and upper-class children and details the ways in which different family norms and parenting practices—what parents do “to and for their kids”—affect children’s long-term outcomes.

Simon & Schuster, 2015. 400 pages.

Selection: “Chapter 2. Families.” 35 pages.

David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Brooks illustrates the demise of the extended family in America over the 19th and 20th century and notes how it was displaced by an ill-equipped, isolated, nuclear family.  Nuclear families are less resilient than extended families, he argued, which have the capacity to support members in the event of crisis. Brooks attributes these changes to the Industrial Revolution and the post-war economic boom that made the nuclear family more economically feasible.

The Atlantic, March 2020. 9000 words.

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Declining Fertility

Fertility throughout the developed world has steadily declined for several decades; nearly all developed countries now have fertility rates below replacement. Though the consequences of falling fertility have not yet been fully realized, they will inevitably shape American life for generations to come.

Ross Douthat, “More Babies, Please.” High religiosity and a low cost-of-living once led the United States to have a higher birth rate than other developed nations. No longer: America’s birth rate is now lower than some European nations. Most troubling, Douthat observes, is that our falling birth rate may, in fact, be a product of an exhausted culture that has chosen modern comforts over “the basic sacrifices that built our civilization.”

The New York Times, December 2012. 800 words.

Jonathan V. Last, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. Last notes that greater access to contraception and abortion have made it easier for Americans to avoid having children while the rising costs and difficulties of childrearing have penalized parents more so than in past generations. The economic and social consequences of America’s rapidly falling birthrate, such as low economic growth and unaffordable entitlement spending, have been and will continue to undermine the nation.

 

Encounter Books, 2013. 240 pages.

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—Part III: Explanations—

Culture

Over the last half-century, the culture surrounding family life has changed dramatically–arguably more so than in any other sphere of American life. Norms of marriage and childbearing have weakened, both have become less common, and the connection between the two has frayed.

Myron Magnet, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass. Magnet argues that the liberal social values promoted by the upper classes during the 1960s eroded traditional family and social structures. While leaving the upper class largely unscathed, these changes inflicted harm on lower-class Americans who depended upon such structures and instead found themselves relying on ones that led toward vicious cycle of poverty and social malaise.

Encounter Books, 1993. 238 pages.

George A. Akerlof and Janet Yellen, “New Mothers, Not Married: Technology shock, the demise of shotgun marriage, and the increase in out-of-wedlock births.” Akerlof and Yellen analyzed the rise of out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. and identified the widespread acceptance of contraception and the decline of ‘shotgun marriages’ as the leading factors refashioning relationships between the sexes. According to their analysis, women “who reliably used contraception no longer found it necessary to condition sexual relations on a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy.” Without this condition, women placed themselves at greater risk of becoming pregnant with an uncommitted partner.

Brookings Institution, 1996. 2300 words.

See also: “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1996. 41 pages.

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. Edin and Kefalas investigate the reasons poor women have children before marriage. They find that, for these women, marriage “is no longer primarily about childbearing and childrearing. Now marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment.” Many see that milestone as unachievable or else further in their future and disconnected from their decisions about motherhood.

University of California Press, 2005. 300 pages.

Eli Finkel, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage.” Finkel identifies two consensus views on marriage: that marriage has become stronger since people choose to marry only when they want to, and that marriage has weakened as an institution because more people are getting divorced, or not married at all. Finkel says that reality is a mix of these views. Marriage has become stronger for the wealthier and better educated, whose divorce rates have stabilized over the last half-century. But for most Americans, marriage has declined in importance.

The New York Times, February 2014. 1600 words.

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Policy

The origins of family breakdown are not a result of “culture” alone. Public policy has changed the incentives and institutions governing family life, and of course policy influences culture as well. However unintentionally, government programs relating to marriage and the welfare state have abetted America’s falling rates of marriage and rising rates of out-of-wedlock birth.

Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. Murray’s examination of Great Society programs showed how the welfare state perpetuated and even exacerbated family breakdown and poverty by altering the incentives surrounding childbearing, marriage, and work. Murray’s analyses and conclusions inspired Republican-led efforts to reform federal welfare in the 1990s.

Basic Books, 1984. 352 pages.

Scott Yenor, “The Form and Function of the American Family.” Writing about the central role that families play in American democracy, Yenor critiques American public policy for having run “a series of social experiments on the importance of marital form.” Since the 1960s, most U.S. public policy has been ambivalent about traditional family structure and the results have been devastating for families. Yenor argues that public policy can be used for good, however, and that government should take a greater interest in “promoting marriage, procreation, and responsible parenthood.”

National Affairs, 2018. 5700 words.

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Economy

The family exists, in part, as an economic institution that provides material security amid turbulent economic forces, but also finds itself shaped by those forces. America’s transition to a post-industrial economy and the changes this wrought for both labor markets and consumption habits has undermined the economic foundations of family formation and made the middle-class lifestyle increasingly unaffordable on a single income.

William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Unlike the neoconservative who argued that family breakdown was the root cause of urban poverty, Wilson focused on shortage of jobs for less-educated men. Without work, he argued, men are deemed less ‘marriageable’ by women and are less likely to settle down and raise a family. Public policy, he concludes, should focus on improving a community’s economic prospects rather than providing an income to individuals.

University of Chicago Press, 1987. 261 pages.

Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke. Warren and Tyagi examined the economic consequences of women entering the workforce en masse. The rise of the two-earner household, they argued, left households with less financial flexibility and fueled a bidding war that drove up the costs of housing and childcare. Even as households double their incomes, affording a middle-class lifestyle remained challenging. Families preferring to have only one parent in the workforce faced prohibitive budgetary strain.

Basic Books, 2004. 288 pages.

Oren Cass, “The Cost-of-Thriving Index: Reevaluating the Prosperity of the American Family.Cass highlights an “irreconcilable” divergence between economic data, which suggest that wages have risen faster than prices, and the experience of many American families who find it harder than ever to make ends meet. He argues that standard measures of inflation fail to account for many of the ways that household costs rise and proposes a new formula for measuring the cost of living: The Cost of Thriving Index (COTI). COTI tracks the prices of a typical family’s major expenditures—housing, health care, education, and transportation—and finds that a median male wage can no longer cover them.

Manhattan Institute, 2020. 9500 words.

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—Part IV: Modern Debates—

Natalism

American families are not just having fewer children; they’re having fewer children than they would like. Thus, falling birthrates not only threaten the future prosperity of the nation, but also frustrate people’s own ambitions. In principle, “pro-natalist” public policy could make it easier for couples to have children. In practice, the challenge is a vexing one.

  • Lyman Stone, Laurie DeRose, and W. Bradford Wilcox, “How to Fix the Baby Bust,” Foreign Policy (July 2019).
  • Ross Douthat, “The Case for One More Child,” Plough Magazine (November 2020).

Lyman Stone, Laurie DeRose, and W. Bradford Wilcox, “How to Fix the Baby Bust.” Stone et al. argue that the low fertility rates around the world are “a product of too little feminism.” Pro-natalist policies like public financial support and flexible work schedules have been found to increase birth rates, even in countries with strong gender equality.

Foreign Policy, July 2019. 2000 words.

Ross Douthat, “The Case for One More Child.” American society has long made it difficult, economically and socially, for larger families to exist, despite parents’ desires for more children. Douthat argues that social factors, such as secularization, are the most obstinate barriers to be overcome.

Plough Magazine, November 2020. 4500 words.

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Raising Children

One of the clearest yet most controversial findings in the social science literature is that children benefit from a two-parent household and have suffered from its decline. Rising rates of divorce and single parenthood have placed children under enormous stress with emotional effects that reverberate into adulthood. Evidence also indicates that rising reliance on daycare weakens parent-child bonds with consequences that are only now being understood.

  • David Popenoe, “American Family Decline, 1960–1990: A Review and Appraisal,” Journal of Marriage and Family (August 1993).
  • Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan, “Universal Childcare, Maternal Labor Supply and Family Well-Being,” NBER (April 2008).
  • “Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited,” The Future of Children (2015).
  • Steven Rhoads and Carrie Lukas, “The Uncomfortable Truth about Daycare,” National Affairs (2016).

David Popenoe, “American Family Decline, 1960–1990: A Review and Appraisal.” Popenoe, a Rutgers sociology professor, provides a definitive survey of the importance of the stable, two-parent family. Charting its decline over the latter half of the 20th century, Popenoe he enumerates the harms for children with a particular focus on emotional issues.

Journal of Marriage and Family, August 1993. 10,000 words.

Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan, “Universal Childcare, Maternal Labor Supply and Family Well-Being.” Baker et al. find powerful evidence that Quebec’s program of free childcare harmed child behavioral and physical health. Children formed weaker relationships with their parents, resulting in greater long-term emotional issues.

NBER, April 2008. 52 pages.

“Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited.” This issue of The Future of Children, a collaboration between the Brookings Institute and Princeton University, reviews the importance of the two-parent household. Several of the essays demonstrate the negative effects that the decline of marriage has had on children.

The Future of Children, 2015. 180 pages.

Steven Rhoads and Carrie Lukas, “The Uncomfortable Truth about Daycare.” Rhoads and Lukas note that despite the relative popularity of public daycare, there is little knowledge of the negative consequences that daycare poses to children. They highlight a number of studies that demonstrate the negative effects of mothers returning to work soon after a child’s birth and propose several policy solutions to help parents stay home to care for their children.

National Affairs, 2016. 4000 words.

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Families in the Labor Market

The American family’s relationship to paid work has changed. Stay-at-home parents have become less common, and the two-earner families is treated as not merely the norm, but the ideal. Policymakers are left to untangle questions of what families want, what options are available, and what if any role they have to play.

  • Reihan Salam, “A New Agenda for Social Conservatives,” Slate (February 2017).
  • Helen Andrews, “Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?” The New York Times (April 2019).
  • Michael Strain, “Stop Poor-Mouthing the Two-Earner Family,” Bloomberg (May 2019).
  • Ross Douthat, “The One-Income Trap,” The New York Times (May 2019).

Reihan Salam, “A New Agenda for Social Conservatives.” Salam proposes that conservatives should turn their attention to the plight of stay-at-home parents and craft policies that allow parents to more easily raise their kids themselves. Women in particular, he writes, “are highly responsive to policy choices and prevailing public attitudes towards women and motherhood.”

Slate, February 2017. 1000 words.

Helen Andrews, “Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?” The conservative movement today includes many more women than a half-century ago, writes Andrews, but the right-of-center nonetheless continues to lose policy debates over gender. Its own policies often seem to conflict with its own values. In response to stagnating wages, for instance, “the response of the conservative establishment” was “to double down on shoveling women into the work force.”

The New York Times, April 2019. 2800 words.

Michael Strain, “Stop Poor-Mouthing the Two-Earner Family.” Responding to Helen Andrews, Strain rejects the ‘two-income trap’ and argues that households canon a single income if they want to. Women have demonstrated that they prefer to be in the workforce, he argues, by virtue of working. Government should focus on policies that reduce costs for families, not worry about the choices that families make about their own labor force participation.

Bloomberg, May 2019. 1100 words.

Ross Douthat, “The One-Income Trap.” Douthat mediates the debate between Strain and Andrews. Conservatism in the 21st century cannot reject female workforce participation, he argues, rather, conservatives should seek to confront the social and economic barriers to women having as many children as they want.

The New York Times, May 2019. 1300 words.

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Economic Policy

Looking beyond “family policy” per se, conservatives have debated how to make more aspects of economic policy “family friendly” and whether policies should reflect normative commitments to particular family structures.

Yuval Levin, “Putting Parents First.” Levin observes that while families and the market economy are “mutually reinforcing to an extent,” they are also “in tension” in a way that creates “unease for American families, and … a source of friction in the conservative movement.” Addressing this tension, he argues, is perhaps the only want to attract parents to the conservative movement for the long term.

The Weekly Standard, December 2006. 3400 words.

Robert Stein, “Taxes and the Family.” Stein argues that conservatives must rethink America’s tax code in response to declining fertility and recognize that “economic man is also a family man.” He suggests that policymakers find ways to reduce disincentives to family formation and fertility.

National Affairs, 2010. 5400 words.

Michael Lind, “Home Economics.” Lind locates the principal division in modern society not between political parties or ideologies, but between “familism and individualism.” Modern economics’ focus on goods produced in the marketplace, as well as the decline of labor activists who push for family wages, are examples of the triumph of individualism over the family. From this, Lind proposes several solutions to reintroduce the family into economics, such as making the family the primary unit for the welfare state and lowering property taxes for families with children.

American Affairs, 2020. 2300 words.

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