What Righties Mean by “Support”

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Bush Administration, Family Issues, Iraq War

Along with “the troops,” another entity righties claim to “support” is “the family.” As in “marriage” with “children.” So one assumes righties will be disturbed by this story by Blaine Harden in today’s Washington Post:

Punctuating a fundamental change in American family life, married couples with children now occupy fewer than one in every four households — a share that has been slashed in half since 1960 and is the lowest ever recorded by the census.

As marriage with children becomes an exception rather than the norm, social scientists say it is also becoming the self-selected province of the college-educated and the affluent. The working class and the poor, meanwhile, increasingly steer away from marriage, while living together and bearing children out of wedlock.

Does this mean President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative isn’t working? The HMI, you might remember, was George Bush’s cure-all for welfare. Bush budgets carved money out of Medicaid and other “entitlements,” but in 2006 HMI was allocated $750 million ($150 million per year for five years). The goal of HMI is to increase the number of children raised by married couples. (Here is a good analysis of HMI by Emily Amick of Wellesley College.)

The point of the marriage initiative isn’t just to provide children with stable homes, but also to raise families out of poverty. For quite a while righties have noticed that, statistically, poor families are likely to be single-parent families. Therefore, deep thinkers like these geniuses at the Heritage Foundation concluded that if only poor women could be persuaded to get married (like it never occurred to them before) they’d automatically be on the road to the Middle Class. Robert Kuttner explained in 2002:

When the welfare reform program of 1996 comes up for renewal later this year, it will have a new emphasis — wedding bells. The Bush administration wants to spend $300 million of scarce welfare funds to encourage marriage and another $135 million promoting premarital chastity.

Several governors have already jumped the (shot)gun with state programs to promote marriage, not just for welfare recipients but for everyone. Some conservatives, like Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, would go further and provide $4,000 bounties for poor people who marry.

But the Blaine Harden article suggests righties were putting the cart before the horse. It wasn’t the erosion of marriage causing poverty, but increasing financial instability causing an erosion in marriage.

Marriage has declined across all income groups, but it has declined far less among couples who make the most money and have the best education. These couples are also less likely to divorce. Many demographers peg the rise of a class-based marriage gap to the erosion since 1970 of the broad-based economic prosperity that followed World War II.

“We seem to be reverting to a much older pattern, when elites marry and a great many others live together and have kids,” said Peter Francese, demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising firm.

Another grim trend for the “family values” crowd — Sharon Lerner writes in today’s New York Times that women in industrialized nations are having fewer children.

To the dismay of pundits and politicians alike, women in industrialized countries and elsewhere have been bearing fewer and fewer children. More than 90 states have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, and the trend, which began in the early 1960s, is already leading to fewer workers, graying populations and dire predictions about vanishing peoples.

The Right will tell you this is the doing of those liberal anti-family, pro-Hollywood types. But wait …

Curiously, Europe’s lowest birthrates are seen in countries, mostly Catholic, where the old idea that the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the child-raiser holds strong. Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece have among the lowest fertility rates in Western Europe. Meanwhile, countries that support high numbers of working women, like Finland, Norway and Denmark, have among the highest birthrates.

And how did this happen?

One explanation is that the more traditional countries face particular challenges when their women do start to work. In these countries, the welfare of the family is still typically seen as the responsibility of individuals rather than of the government, according to Peter McDonald and Francis Castles, who are demographic theorists. And with little public support for working mothers forthcoming, women are likely to think they must choose work or motherhood. At least for now, it seems, many are choosing neither. Statistics show that women in these countries are both less likely to work and less likely to bear children than their counterparts in, say, Scandinavia.

Scandinavia?

In Scandinavia, extensive public child-care systems offer a slot to virtually every child under 5 whose parents work. Do such programs have an effect? Some experts have linked changes in Sweden’s birthrate to paid-maternity-leave policies. And according to Ronald Rindfuss, a sociologist, Norwegian women who live in towns with more day-care slots available have more children and become mothers earlier. The timing of births is important, because lower fertility rates may owe something to the fact that many women inadvertently delay becoming pregnant until it’s no longer biologically possible.

So what about the United States? Immigrants to the rescue —

Looking at America’s fertility rate, which now hovers around replacement level, you could assume that the U.S. has escaped such problems. But in fact, it’s the relatively large families of new immigrants that are staving off a population crisis — and masking the difficulties women face when they try to “have it all.” With a largely hands-off approach to family policy, the U.S. spends far less than other wealthy countries on child care while guaranteeing no paid parental leave. As a result, being an employed parent may be more difficult here than in countries now experiencing even the most severe baby droughts.

In his 2002 TAP article linked above, Robert Kuttner remarked that, on the American Right, having “family values” means being opposed to having government do anything that might actually help families.

With no sense of contradiction, the welfare reformers demand that single mothers work or lose all benefits — so much for Mom staying home. But missing from the equation is high quality childcare, so necessary to reconcile working motherhood, sane family life, and healthy children, whether for single moms or working couples.

Why is the childcare link missing? Because of conservative ideology: socially provided childcare violates ”traditional values” and costs public money.

Scholarly assessments of the welfare reform experiment reveal a bitter paradox: The more that single mothers ”succeed” by getting off welfare and staying in low-wage employment, the more their unsupervised teenage children are placed at risk.

Kuttner brings up the Scandanavian factor:

So if the administration were serious about promoting healthy marriages and flourishing children (and not just throwing a steak to the religious right), it would be pushing several other policies — jobs that paid living wages, high quality child care, paid parental leaves, sex education that includes birth control as well as early teen abstinence, and generous treatment of children who happen to be born to single parents.

Won’t this just reward single parenthood? In Norway, public policy provides all of these supports, yet a higher percentage of kids grow up with both their parents, more mothers are in paid work, and far fewer families and children are poor.

But policies such as these accept the realities of modern family life and they challenge archaic notions of sex roles and traditional values beloved by the religious right. They also cost tax dollars that were just given away to multimillionaires.

So when righties say they support “family values,” this doesn’t mean supporting families and children. It means supporting an idea of “families” and “children.” Real families and children must fend for themselves. Likewise, when righties say they support “the troops,” this does not, in fact, mean supporting the troops. It means supporting an idea of “troops” as part of their idea of glorious victory in the magnificent war in Iraq (meaning a fantasy of Iraq, not the actual place).

And, of course, “support” means a conceptualization of support. It doesn’t extend to concrete support, such as raising tax dollars to pay for body armor, or hospital care, or covering one’s own precious skin with a uniform and going off to fight in Iraq (the actual place).

I hope that’s clear.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. marijam  •  Mar 4, 2007 @4:31 pm

    “It wasn’t the erosion of marriage causing poverty, but increasing financial instability causing an erosion in marriage.”

    Yes, this is exactly correct!

  2. R  •  Mar 4, 2007 @11:26 pm

    It’s inexpensive in the US to get married, but difficult and expensive to get divorced.



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