Flexible Lives

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American History, Family Issues, Republican Party

Following up this post from Sunday — Harold Meyerson has a must-read column about The Decade That Destroyed Family Values in the Washington Post:

As conservatives tell the tale, the decline of the American family, the rise in divorce rates, the number of children born out of wedlock all can be traced to the pernicious influence of one decade in American history: the ’60s.

The conservatives are right that one decade, at least in its metaphoric significance, can encapsulate the causes for the family’s decline. But they’ve misidentified the decade. It’s not the permissive ’60s. It’s the Reagan ’80s.

(I am reminded, once again, of the definition of pseudo conservative — “The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.” — Theodore W. Adorno)

In Saturday’s Post, reporter Blaine Harden took a hard look at the erosion of what we have long taken to be the model American family — married couples with children — and discovered that while this decline hasn’t really afflicted college-educated professionals, it is the curse of the working class. The percentage of households that are married couples with children has hit an all-time low (at least, the lowest since the Census Bureau started measuring such things): 23.7 percent. That’s about half the level that marrieds-with-children constituted at the end of the Ozzie-and-Harriet ’50s. …

… Over the past 35 years, the massive changes in the U.S. economy have largely condemned American workers to lives of economic insecurity. No longer can the worker count on a steady job for a single employer who provides a paycheck and health and retirement benefits, too. Over the past three decades, workers’ individual annual income fluctuations have consistently increased, while their aggregate income has stagnated. In the brave new economy of outsourced jobs and short-term gigs and on-again, off-again health coverage, American workers cannot rationally plan their economic futures. And with each passing year, as their level of economic security declines, so does their entry into marriage.

Yet the very conservatives who marvel at the efficiency of our new, more mobile economy and extol the “flexibility” of our workforce decry the flexibility of the personal lives of American workers. The right-wing ideologues who have championed outsourcing, offshoring and union-busting, who have celebrated the same changes that have condemned American workers to lives of financial instability, piously lament the decline of family stability that has followed these economic changes as the night the day.

American conservatism is a house divided against itself. It applauds the radicalism of the economic changes of the past four decades — the dismantling, say, of the American steel industry (and the job and income security that it once provided) in the cause of greater efficiency. It decries the decline of social and familial stability over that time — the traditional, married working-class families, say, that once filled all those churches in the hills and hollows in what is now the smaller, post-working-class Pittsburgh.

Problem is, disperse a vibrant working-class community in America and you disperse the vibrant working-class family.

Sometime during the Reagan Recession, President Reagan made a flip remark about laid-off factory workers. In effect, he said they could “vote with their feet” and move to some other part of the country to find better jobs. He was, of course, oblivious to what “voting with their feet” would do to families and communities.

As I wrote last Sunday, an article by Sharon Lerner in the New York Times discussed declining birthrates in Europe. The European experience suggests that “conservative” social policies discourage women from having children. In a nutshell, “conservative” countries provide little public support for working mothers, so women postpone having children. By contrast, those “socialist” Scandinavian countries that provide subsidized day care and mandate generous maternity leave policies have higher birthrates, because Scandinavian women are less likely to feel they have to choose between work and babies.

The problem with conservatives is that they try to apply pre-industrial models onto an industrial (and post-industrial) world. The “Ozzie and Harriet” family we’ve come to think of as the norm — dad works outside the home, mom stays home and raises kids — is actually a creation of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, most men worked for themselves as craftsmen or farmers and were not separated from their families by jobs. If a man had sons, the sons probably started working with dad while they were very young and, thereby, spent a great deal of time with him. But the industrial revolution changed that; men left the home and family to work in jobs, and in effect the jobs separated them from their children.

(It speaks volumes, I think, that before the 20th century, when a married couple divorced the father automatically got custody of the children. Sometime in the 20th century the idea that children “belonged” primarily to mothers had taken hold, and the law preferred mothers over fathers. The move to revise divorce laws and favor joint custody in the 1970s was actually a by-product of the feminist movement. Most “Father’s Rights” advocates, of course, still complain that the courts favor women and blame feminism for this, but most of these creatures seem less interested in their children than they are in using their kids to bash their wives and gripe about women generally.)

By the 1950s the notion that raising kids was “women’s work” was firmly entrenched. In fact, I clearly remember that when one of the very early issues of Ms. magazine argued that raising kids was “men’s work,” too — the cover featured a smiling man holding a baby — conservatives of the time were actually outraged. Of course, 20 years later conservatives were wailing about how children needed fathers and complaining that “feminazis” were destroying the American family.

Anyway, shortly after World War II Joseph Campbell began to argue that this exclusion of fathers from family life was creating a faux masculinity, which I wrote about yesterday. For that matter, the faux femininity that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique was mostly a post World War II phenomenon, you might recall.

The bottom line is that, over the last couple of centuries, the rise of capitalism as the way most money gets made has had profound effects on society in general and families in particular. We’re still trying to figure out how to blend capitalism with a healthy family life. In America and other “conservative” countries, the burden of making the capitalism-family equation work is put on individuals. And this is true even now that, in most families, both parents are separated from their children most of the day. But conservatives worship at the altar of capitalism and are blind to its pernicious side effects, even as families and marriage itself are literally breaking apart under the strain.

I think it ought to be possible to maintain private property rights and free enterprise and all that — well, in fact, it was possible before the Reagan Revolution began dismantling the New Deal. But to make it work, government must do a better job supporting workers and families. Teddy Roosevelt said almost a century ago,

The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.

The Right sees capitalism as the master and workers as capitalism’s servants. And for all their talk about family values, when they have to choose between children and money, money wins every time.

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11 Comments

10 Comments

  1. raj  •  Mar 7, 2007 @11:06 am

    Meyerson is correct in a way, but incorrect in others. The divorce rate peaked in 1980-81 or so, and has dropped off since then. If the divorce rate is to be a measure of “family values” (a meaningless yet emotive term), the divorce rate started rising in the late 1960s, after Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, signed one of the first–if not the first, no-fault divorce law into law. That quickly spawned no-fault divorce laws throughout the country, which led to the increase in divorces that we saw peak in 1980-81 because of pent-up demand. So the divorce rate was not substantially increased during Reagan’s term in the White House, but the increase in the divorce rate can certainly be attributed to his signing the no-fault divorce law while he was governor of California.

    The irony in all of this is that the divorce rate in the blue state of Massachusetts is half that in the red state of Texas, notwithstanding the fact that the rate of people who are married in Massachusetts is higher than that in Texas. So, who has the “family values”?

  2. erinyes  •  Mar 7, 2007 @11:31 am

    Great post, it pretty much sums up the situation.
    The right will not learn until the market crashes.( which they will blame on the left) The majority of right wingers in Florida are the 60 somethings who have retired from the north east or midwest. They had a comfy middle class to upper middle class life, invested wisely, and have a solid pension.
    If I’m reading the “tea leaves” correctly, there will be a lot of pissed off 60 somethings very soon.
    The middle class is under a terrible strain. Here in Florida, property and property insurance have grown dramatically.
    Wages have not . Affordable housing that was destroyed by recent hurricanes has not been rebuilt. As a result, the people that work in the service industry are being bussed long distances to places like Naples and the Florida Keys which are now millionare enclaves.
    When I was a kid in the 60’s, if you knew someone that ran around talking about the end of the earth, calling politicians faggots on television, or advocating the bombing of other countries or killing liberals “just in case”, they would be thought crazy.This is the reality today. The right has lost it’s mind, and they are blaming the left.

  3. maha  •  Mar 7, 2007 @11:31 am

    raj — Pay attention; the problem is marriage rates, not divorce rates. (and if people aren’t getting married to begin with, it stands to reason they aren’t getting divorced as much, either).

    See the original Blaine Harden article for details:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/03/AR2007030300841.html

  4. raj  •  Mar 7, 2007 @11:42 am

    Maha, thanks for the pointer, but I tend to discount much of anything published in the Washington Post.

    The point, which should have been evident, is that the percentage of marriage age people in Massachusetts that are married is higher than in TX, yet the divorce rate in MA is lower. That juxtaposition should be of interest when one considers which region of the country has “family values.”

    Aside from that, the article in the Post refers to the percentage of couples with children who are married, which is pretty much an irrelevant statistic. As long as the couple is in a committed relationship and stay together while raising the children, what is the relevance of whether or not they are married?

  5. maha  •  Mar 7, 2007 @11:50 am

    I tend to discount much of anything published in the Washington Post.\\

    So the Brookings Institution is wrong because their study was explained in the Washington Post? Critical analysis is not one of your stronger skills, huh?

    what is the relevance of whether or not they are married?

    If we’re talking about social and family stability it’s actually quite relevant.

  6. erinyes  •  Mar 7, 2007 @12:17 pm

    Here’s an interesting little something I read last week, written by a man in Cape Coral FL.(The News Press, Ft Meyers FL)

    [ RIGHT now and right
    Liberals oppose war because being liberal frees them from traditional responsibilities and constraints.It makes them and their ideas more important so they can say and do what they want and be envied for their free lifestyle. This is called Humanism. It’s only real law is “What’s right, right-now is what’s right.

    History and precedent disapprove of “hooking up” but right now it’s all right.

    Eons look unfavorably on slipping a hook into a young woman’s body to kill her baby but Humanism says it’s all right, right-now. The same goes for men having intercourse with each other but right now, that’s all right now too. What Humanism says is that history is wrong.

    The problem is that right now may not be all there is for everyone.Liberals ignore the judgement possibility by advancing sexual immorality and the killing of babies. Small wonder non-violent Muslims really believe we’re the big Satan.

    But denying the judgement possibility doesn’t make it go away.

    Thinking about it, like right now, brings on a fear that must be repressed by hanging onto the make believe world of right-now.
    So don’t rock the boat with talk of war because war would bring on sacrifice and rationality. It would threaten the do-as-you-please world.

    The lessons of history and the awful, awful wory about punishment would rush back. Liberals oppose the war because it would question their immoral behavior.
    David Huck
    Cape Coral ]

    Can anyone explain what the hell he is talking about?I swear I copied this word for word .
    The nut makes it sound like “liberals” have hobbies like killing babies of young women and having dude on dude sex for entertainment.Who is spreading this garbage?The fundy preachers or right wing nut radio jockies?

  7. Lynne  •  Mar 7, 2007 @6:07 pm

    I’m glad you are bringing this up again, Barbara, for all our short memories. I’d like to add that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, every member of the rural family worked to produce income for the family, just as soon as physically able. Women worked alongside men in agricultural communities. Few “stayed home” unless unable to do work outside at all. You can see this in communities today that remain tied to traditional ways.

  8. marijam  •  Mar 7, 2007 @6:21 pm

    … Over the past 35 years, the massive changes in the U.S. economy have largely condemned American workers to lives of economic insecurity. No longer can the worker count on a steady job for a single employer who provides a paycheck and health and retirement benefits, too. Over the past three decades, workers’ individual annual income fluctuations have consistently increased, while their aggregate income has stagnated. In the brave new economy of outsourced jobs and short-term gigs and on-again, off-again health coverage, American workers cannot rationally plan their economic futures. And with each passing year, as their level of economic security declines, so does their entry into marriage.
    Sometime during the Reagan Recession, President Reagan made a flip remark about laid-off factory workers. In effect, he said they could “vote with their feet” and move to some other part of the country to find better jobs. He was, of course, oblivious to what “voting with their feet” would do to families and communities.

    This is my life story. Thank you so much for posting this. I cannot live in my home state, in my dream home, because there are no jobs at a reasonable wage for someone with my skills.

  9. Bonnie  •  Mar 7, 2007 @8:32 pm

    When I was a little girl watching Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and I Love Lucy, I always wondered why my Mom and Dad were so weird and abnormal because they slept in a double bed not twin beds.

    I think there are many men out there who thank the women’s movement because they were given the opportunity to be real fathers and families became real families.

  10. Lynne  •  Mar 7, 2007 @8:53 pm

    Oh, Bonnie, you made me laugh over the past! I recall wondering why tv people slept in twin beds because, in my experience, only children did that. All the adults in my life had big beds. I asked my mother, but she really had no comment!

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