28 November 2012

Are Family Values Obsolete?

There’s been a change in households that will obsolete the politics of family values. Adjusting to this new reality may prove conservative’s most challenging task because it goes against what they hold most dear.

It seems ridiculous to oppose family values. Who doesn’t love the idea of mothers, fathers, children and grandparents connected through love and respect? But this ideal as a basis for social policy doesn’t hold up to modern realities. Family values suggest simple answers to basic questions. How do we pay for grandma’s retirement and old-age healthcare? Her children do. How do we pay for the children’s education and healthcare? Their parents do.  Family values suggest self-reliant families.

The model of the self-reliant family misses the fact that so many individuals within these families are actually quite reliant. Families have a lot of deadbeats who don’t contribute. Grandparents no longer work and the children don’t yet. But the household is self-sufficient because dad and mom are are working to pay for these folks. At least that's the model in the minds of many. But it's worth teasing that model apart. While the family may look self-reliant, within the family there is rampant dependency, entitlement, and redistribution of income.This transfer of income is becoming more visible as family members form their own households.

Perhaps the least reported change to “normal” households is the percent that contain just one occupant.

“Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million— roughly one out of every seven adults— live alone. People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type— more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.”
Klinenberg, Eric (2012-02-02). Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Kindle Locations 126-131). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

The working poor are even more likely to live outside of traditional family groups. In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray defines as problematic three groups: single males who are unemployed or only part-time employed, single females who are raising children, and any single adults who report no social affiliation, people he calls isolates (e.g., people who not only live alone but belong to no church group, volunteer group, civics club, sports club, etc., that would connect them to people outside of work). He then estimates that “the percentage of [working class whites] who are problematic in one way or another rose from 10 percent at its low throughout the 1960s to 33 percent in 2007, the last year before the recession.”  That is, a third of the working poor have no traditional family or social support network.
Murray, Charles (2012-01-31). Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Kindle Locations 3809-3810). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Further, knowledge work has scattered us across the country. The children no longer stay in town to work on farms or in the mine. Instead, they head off to college, get recruited to the big city or to another city and then never come back. They aren’t able to easily check in on mom and dad as their parents age and the hours they spend each week with parents – with visits, phone calls, and chat – are less than what they would be if they lived down the street or even across town.

Compounding the problem of support for old parents, the elderly are less likely to have many – or even any – children. Birth rates have steadily dropped for decades. Women with one or two children are less likely to have an adult child able to support them in their old age then women with five or six children; women with no children have a zero percent probability of such support.

It is not just that divorce rates have risen in the last half century. Marriage rates have dropped. All these new realities have contributed to the dramatic increase in the percentage of households with just one person.

What all this means is that the invisible deadbeats within the family have become the visible deadbeats within society. The quiet transfer of income and time that once took place within the family – mom tending to grandma, dad slipping his teenager $20 – has become something played out in the public arena, through government agencies. Family values have given way to public policy. When they lived within the family, they were invisible. Now that they live within the community, these deadbeats show up in government statistics. Curiously, this is reminiscent of the growing formalization of the economy when an increasing percent of transactions evolved from barter and informal trade into cash transactions that could be measured. Now something similar is happening with all social support.

Not everyone who finds themselves in these situations choose to be alone or childless but curiously, these new realities are not seen as tragic by many of the players in them. Everywhere, women with more education and affluence consistently choose to have fewer children.  Also, a surprising portion of people with the resources to do it choose to live along; growing affluence in areas as diverse as Sweden, New York, and China lead to growing percentages of people choosing to live alone.  (Albeit preferably in urban areas where they have lots of opportunities to connect with people they don’t live with but do live near). People seem to prefer enough distance from families so that they have the freedom to define their own lives. The comfort of family can also feel stifling and much of the change from traditional family arrangements seems chosen rather than imposed.

Still, many bemoan the loss of traditional families. Many  conservatives put even more emphasis on religion as a means to support and realize their family values. In light of all this, it is no wonder that Republicans chose a Mormon as their presidential candidate. Probably no American religion has put more emphasis on the family.
“In Mormon theology, humans are given mortal existence and bodies in a state of probation. Marriage and procreation are central to exaltation. ‘We were placed here on earth to progress toward our destiny of eternal life,’ Apostle Dallin Oaks told a 1993 General Conference. ‘To the first man and woman on earth, the Lord said, “Be fruitful and multiply.”…This commandment was first in sequence and first in importance. It was essential that God’s spirit children have mortal birth and an opportunity to progress toward eternal life.’ In Mormonism God is married. Like God, humans can progress to godhood, continuing their progression and procreation in the afterlife. The Mormon heaven is a very domestic concept, and celestial marriage is essential to exaltation.”
Ostling, Richard; Ostling, Joan K. (2009-10-13). Mormon America - Rev. Ed. (pp. 331-332). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Families are wonderful and still – for all their flaws – the place we’re most likely to find love and acceptance.  Family values in that sense are not obsolete and never will be. But it looks as though family values are less likely to be a guide for practical policy in the modern world and may instead have to be a guide for the ideal that folks aspire to in the next. Giving up on family values as a basis for public policy may seem defeatist, tragic, or foolish. Perhaps. It seems to me, though, that it would be the start of dealing with reality as it is rather than how we imagine it to be.

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