Effective family policy begins from the institution's ultimate roles and purposes.


It seems fitting that the best summation of contemporary policymakers’ approach to families was delivered by a dancing purple dinosaur:

A family is people and a family is love, that’s a family. They come in all different sizes and all different kinds, but mine’s just right for me.

As children’s programming goes, so goes the nation. Our policymakers prefer that no one feel left out, promoted, or discriminated against, and so “family policy” is too often just a gloss on the conventional progressive agenda with an ever-expanding definition of family – parents, kids, relatives, would-be parents, “chosen families,” roommates, the “socially infertile,” pets, and so on.

Indeed, without a definition of what actually constitutes a family, or an understanding of why it deserves special treatment, “family policy” turns out to be essentially an expensive commitment to nothing in particular. As the long-time policy scholar Allan Carlson observed, “If there can be no definition [of family] that excludes any form of human cohabitation, then what is a family policy trying to save, or restore, or strengthen, or help?”

It thus falls to conservatives to stress that family is more than a contract between two consenting adults, that the definition of the family must necessarily leave some on the outside. Certainly, few conservatives have the stomach for yet another beating in the culture war over “family values.” But that should not preclude pressing for a definition that is empirically grounded and conceptually clear, buttressed by economic and sociological research confirming conservatives’ intuition: that families matter for children, adults, and society.

A long tradition within the center-right – from Burke and Tocqueville to Nisbet and Moynihan to Quayle and Santorum – has stressed the importance of the family and the significance of its decline. It has understood the family in a sociological context: as an essential institution for instilling habits of self-giving and for bearing and rearing of children, as the vehicle by which, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the barbarians of each generation are brought into being and then civilized. But appreciating this economic and social role – as the locus of society’s literal regeneration – also means drawing clear lines. Family requires a sense of mutual obligation and procreation. Without these, it becomes an institution of convenience.

Just as our dominant cultural paradigm of autonomy has subsumed vows and responsibilities to desire and self-actualization, so too has marriage itself evolved. The “companionate marriage” of the twentieth century has given way to the “individualized marriage” of today. As tying the knot become a mark of prestige instead of a rite of passage, Andrew Cherlin notes, marriage has become less a cornerstone than a capstone. This evolution has benefited those with means to pursue such self-expression. But as Kay Hymowitz observes, it has been disaster for those without. Indeed, marriage rates among the college-educated have remained relatively steady, while those of the working class fall ever further.

“Family requires a sense of mutual obligation and procreation. Without these, it becomes an institution of convenience.”

Meanwhile, the evidence of the basic social and economic bases for the two-parent family remain. Marriage continues to instill norms of maturity and self-control, especially for men, who appear to work harder and more effectively after marriage, earning a significant marriage premium. Family structure continues to have tremendous importance for children’s well-being.

Children who grow up in single-parent households are more likely to grow up in environments with more stress and fewer financial assets, have lower incomes, lower educational attainment and less economic mobility, and are less likely to be married as adults. An academic journal (for whom, in the interest of full disclosure, I once interned as a research assistant,) published by the not-especially-conservative Brookings Institution and Princeton University encapsulated the growing conventional wisdom in 2015:

Reams of social science and medical research convincingly show that children who are raised by their married, biological parents enjoy better physical, cognitive, and emotional outcomes, on average, than children who are raised in other circumstances.

To be fair, none of the research around marriage and family life is unassailable. Until ethics review boards approve experiments that randomly assign children to single parents or adults to placebo marriages, it will be difficult to say research is capturing the causal impact of being married or having two married parents. Even so, no one gets married because of a regression analysis.

Indeed, the real benefits of family life are immeasurable: the ways it shapes those within it, nudging them to subsume selfishness, lust, greed, and the other vices in pursuit of the good of the other. In his classic 1976 Harper’s essay, “The Family Out of Favor,” Michael Novak outlined this essential function of the family:

The family is the seedbed of economic skills, money habits, attitudes toward work, and the arts of financial independence. The family is a stronger agency of educational success than the school. The family is a stronger teacher of the religious imagination than the church…If infants are injured here, not all the institutions of society can put them back together.

Some benefits of family life are economic and social, yes – we provide daily bread and companionship for our loved ones – but the lessons it teaches us are also valuable for their own sake. We do not teach our children respect, kindness, and self-control for their instrumental, but for their intrinsic value. Indeed, family life is one of the few remaining institutions that operate outside the logic of the marketplace.

No one charges rent to a four-year-old or bills a parent for services rendered. Opportunities to inculcate the habits of self-sacrifice and devotion, of giving without expectation of reward, are few and far between in the modern meritocracy. (This, in passing, is why the nomenclature of a “parenting wage” is a misguided attempt to sell broader child benefits – parenting is certainly hard work, but it’s not a job.) We need children to be formed by more institutions, not fewer, who run to rhythms not set by the pace of post-industrial capitalism.

“Cultural and economic trends have transformed the ideal and logic of child-bearing from part of the base package of family life to an expensive add-on.”

But cultural and economic trends have transformed the ideal and logic of child-bearing from part of the base package of family life to an expensive add-on. The shift can be seen in public polling. In 1962, the share of American mothers who felt that “all married couples who can, ought to have children” stood at 84 percent. The next year, as Phillip Larkin informs us, sexual intercourse began, and not even two decades later, that same fraction was down to 43 percent. In polite company today, of course, the fraction would be far below that.

As children have become less common, a cultural feedback loop has kicked in. Kids are no longer expected parts of society; they are stricken from wedding invitations, forgotten about in street design, treated as unprofitable liabilities in the cities of the “creative class.” Such subtle anti-natalism has spread from the elite, who treat parenthood as one more lifestyle to try on between career changes, to the working class, for whom, according to the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, marriage “is no longer primarily about child-bearing and -rearing. Now marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment.”

We see the result in today’s low fertility rates. A society that treats child-bearing as simply one consumer option among many cedes too much to the hedonists. Stressing families’ procreative dimension provides a rationale for a family policy distinct from any other worthy economic policy goals. Conservatives are used to reminding society that children need families; they must now emphasize that families need children.

At the same time, progressive activists on the bleeding-edge of the zeitgeist want to diversify the family, not to bury it. Part of their critiques draw blood. There is nothing preordained about the white picket fence and 2.5 kids, and a post-industrial economy chews up extended families for lunch – upwardly-aspirational careers lead to moves, large families are penalized, and the (often messy) relationships between parents, relatives, and children are attenuated. The nuclear family of the 1950s, as David Brooks pointed out in The Atlantic, is in some ways the aberration from the more clan-like environment which was the norm for much of human history. Conservatives owe the former first lady an apology – it really does take a village.

“Conservatives are used to reminding society that children need families; they must now emphasize that families need children.”

But the deconstructivists have no intention of reifying the support of extended families or building multigenerational housing. They instead seek to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and to replace it with a new paradigm, pioneered by the LGBT community facing the scourge of AIDS in the 1980s: so-called “chosen families.” Of course, extrapolating from those extreme circumstances makes for a conceptual muddle. Such relationships were hardly chosen, but rather “forged” out of tragedy and suffering until they recreated elements of domestic life that provide support and solace. That the progressives now seek to ratify “chosen families” into law stresses, contra Barney, that family is more than just “people” and “love.” Even our language around marriage – mother-in-law, son-in-law – suggests the importance of legal structures to supplement the voluntary formation of a new family with bonds that mimic kinship as closely as possible.

If new arrangements can recreate some of the till-death-to-us-part ideals embodied in the traditional family, so much the better. That does not obviate the need for a social institution, codified in law and supported in public policy, intended to be the locus of childbirth and child-rearing, nor erase the fact that for most people, the tried-and-true institution of family life is the best chance to experience that level of commitment. The parent-child bond stretches and shapes us into varying roles across the life-cycle – provider, caretaker, nurturer, teacher, dependent – that are categorically different from choosing a committed roommate or joining a collective of like-minded individuals.

Progressives prefer to address policy at the level of the ethnic or social group; libertarians stress the unencumbered individual. Conservatives’ emphasis on family has often been heavy with cultural rhetoric but light on economic prescription. Such a strategy will no longer suffice. The biggest threat to families in the twenty-first century is neither the oppressive hand of the state nor the elusive reins of the culture, but the seductive capacity of the market to attenuate bonds of unchosen obligation. The family cannot be left exposed and expect to emerge unscathed.

Families used to have a near-monopoly on certain goods – long-term affection and companionship, procreation, efficiencies of scale. These all now face increasingly stiff competition. Individual fulfillment is now the name of the game, and the family’s core competencies can increasingly be outsourced – an app for your next sex partner, a surrogate to bear your next child, an educational system happy to relieve you of the duties of moral formation, and, in old age, a robot to change your bed pans. Without counterbalancing intervention, letting the market do what markets do best – isolating components, optimizing for efficiency, and sanding away the stickiness of non-monetizable goods like family and community – will continue to undermine the family.

So long as our shared understanding of family is essentially formless and detached from its social functions, we will struggle to justify anything but a laissez-faire attitude to family policy.  Family is the institution in which the next generation is born and bred by two parents, where young and old alike acquire habits of self-sacrifice, where we civilize our barbarians. Building a policy and legal framework that acknowledge and support that institution is the work that lies ahead.

Patrick T. Brown
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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