Calling a Truce in the Ideological War Over Families

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 28, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Ever since the 1970s, public debate about family has sounded like a therapy session run by the Hatfields and the McCoys. Family has been a fighting word.

At times, Americans have shown more interest in the definition of family than in its condition. One parent, two parent, gay parent, straight parent, step-parent. We were all supposed to choose sides. Time and space were taken up in a rivalry over title to the home ground.

When conservatives claimed they were pro-family, their family was described in strictly traditional terms. Being in favor of family values meant opposing mothers who worked. When liberals on the other hand, supported women's rights, they were often reluctant to talk about any trouble at home. Worrying about children sounded like guilt-tripping mothers.

By the end of the '80s, most Americans knew that children had suffered the trickle-down effect of Reaganism. The Decline of the American family became a staple of cover stories and campaign speeches. But in public life, the battle moved only slightly to a higher moral ground.

Republicans were most often heard talking about the immoral or amoral behavior of parents. Their favorite targets were drugs, permissiveness, the drift from religion and toward willful indifference.

Democrats were most often heard talking about the immoral behavior of the government. How could a government not provide prenatal care? How could the White House let children sleep on the street?

Now, into this combat zone comes the National Commission on Children. The report the commission published this week shows that while this lengthy struggle raged, another generation grew up even worse off than their parents. One in five children lives in poverty. One is 12 is born to an unwed teen-age mother. One in four is reared in a single-parent family. Half a million drop out of school every year.

And there is enough blame to go around. ''Some adults take on the responsibilities of parenthood with little thought or planning; other shed them with equal abandon,'' reports the commission. ''In the halls of government, public investments in strong families and healthy, whole children are grudging and piecemeal.''

The 34-member group chosen by a Democratic Congress and a Republican White House is one of those blue-ribbon panels full ++ of good intentions and but armed with only one tool: the power to persuade. What separates this report from its long-shelved predecessors is that commissioners from both sides seem determined to negotiate a settlement, to create a peace agenda.

The report reflects a consensus about children and family that has gradually grown up under the polarized and public family feud. It doesn't shy away from describing parents as moral teachers -- words that never used to trip off liberal tongues. Nor does it shy away from the need for government programs -- words that conservatives often scorned.

The report, optimistically named ''Beyond Rhetoric,'' is not a ''wish list'' as some in the administration immediately claimed. But it is a checklist of ideas which are no longer very controversial. Tougher child-support enforcement for parents who desert kids. Head Start for every eligible child. Family-life programs for teens that urge abstinence and offer contraception. Family medical leave.

Even the centerpiece of the proposal -- a $1,000 tax credit per child -- is controversial because of its cost, not its purpose. The major arena of dissent is health insurance.

This is not to say that the recommendations will become reality. The $52 billion price tag -- most of it for the tax credit -- is imposing. The commission's suggestions for paying that piper through various taxes or eliminating the space station will all find opponents. The politicians might prefer to have an election issue instead of a consensus.

But at long last, old opponents are leaving their battle stations. We are no longer as divided over the sorry state of the family. Liberals, too, are appalled by crack mothers and teen-age pregnancy. Conservatives, too, are ashamed of national neglect of the young. They are laying down arms and staking out some common ground.

It just may be that we can do what families do at their very best. Put the children first.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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