Families and 'family values'

September 07, 1994

Was Dan Quayle right after all? Last week the Census Bureau reported that the conventional model of American family life -- a married couple with kids and a stable home -- is on the verge of becoming the exception rather than the rule. The latest figures are bound to renew the "family values" debate highlighted by former Vice President Quayle during the 1992 presidential campaign.

The bureau found that in 1991, only 50.8 percent of American children lived in a traditional "nuclear" family -- defined as one where both biological parents are present and all children were born after the marriage. By contrast, a quarter of all American children now live with a single parent. The rate is highest among African-American children, half of whom live with only one parent. Among Hispanics the rate is nearly a third, and among whites it is 20 percent.

The increasing prevalence of non-traditional families reflects powerful societal trends, say census officials, including a continuing migration from rural communities to urban areas, the growing ranks of working mothers, declining church and community influence, more social programs that offer assistance to poor families and greater tolerance of divorce and single parenting.

But while the religious right has denounced these trends, none of them will be easy to reverse. The decline in the staying power of the nuclear family is basically the combined result of sweeping demographic changes during the course of this century. As one census official put it, "That does not mean public policy cannot do something to turn around that trend. But they would have to be very powerful policies to have any impact."

That, no doubt, is one reason why the "family values" debate has been so contentious. It is ironic that conservatives, who tend to see government as an intrusive force in people's lives, are the ones calling for action most stridently. Any effective program to address the root causes of the nuclear family's decline would have to involve massive intervention by the federal government in virtually every aspect of citizens' lives -- from strictly enforced urban population quotas to compulsory church attendance. Obviously, such measures haven't the slightest chance of being enacted.

Instead, we get politicians who scapegoat welfare mothers and pretend that railing against TV sitcom characters is equivalent to a national debate on family policy. Given that the politicians seem incapable of appreciating the difference between the tough problems real families confront and the sound-bite ideology of their next election campaign, is it any wonder we've made so little progress thus far toward solving the problem?

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