Who would have predicted, even a few months ago, that George Bush and Michael Dukakis would today be waging much of their battle for the presidency on the issue of child care? Or that speaker after speaker at both conventions would deliver an ode to the American family and a pledge of allegiance to family values? Why is every politician with access to a pollster and a microphone suddenly intent on becoming the electoral equivalent of Bill Cosby – the pro-family candidate?
The reason is simple. Americans increasingly sense that the family, society's most important institution, is in trouble. The candidates quite correctly detect in the electorate a yearning for stronger families and a new cultural tilt toward family values. Evidence abounds in every corner of our society – from opinion polls, to debates in statehouses and in Congress, to popular television shows such as "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties," to changing practices in the workplace – that the status and future of the American family have emerged as culturally resonant and politically potent themes for millions of voters.
And not only for voters in general but for particular blocs of voters each party views as crucial to its campaign strategy. Bush, told that women voters aren't crazy about him, tries to woo them by promising to deliver on a $2.2 billion child-care plan. Similarly, Dukakis, told that Reagan Democrats are crucial to his chances in November, touts parental leave and child support to entice them home.
This beginning of a national debate on family issues may be the central social- policy fact of the 1988 elections. It offers hope for the emergence of what might be called a national family agenda – a coherent and broadly shared commitment to stronger families as our top domestic priority in the 1990s. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the family debate remains weak and unfocused. Each tosses out a few answers, but neither understands the basic question.
To Bush and Dukakis, that question is: How can public policy help people? One result is that both mistake kitchen-table chitchat – How are the kids doing in school? Can we afford a new house or car or vacation? How are things at work? – as the family issues. Such vague definitions allow them to use family rhetoric as feel-good packaging for whatever suits their purpose at the moment.
Accordingly, Dukakis, in a July speech billed as his statement on the family, simply rounded up the-usual suspects: plant-closing legislation, drugs and good jobs at good wages. The vice president's new family-policy statement throws in housing, health care and economic development
Certainly, these issues are important. But unless family is nothing more than a metaphor – a political Rorschach test to be used by every politician with an agenda to peddle – it's hard to see what binds the proposals together as family policy.
Thus, the basic question must be redefined. It is not: How can we help people as individuals? Rather, it is: How can we strengthen families as families? How will our policies help or hinder the family unit as it goes about what might be called family business? To marry. To bring children into the world and raise them to be productive citizens. To pass on basic social and moral values to the next generation. To care for aged parents and grandparents. And, most fundamentally, to build and maintain those bonds of long-term affection, nurture and mutual support that constitute the very definition of family life.
If Dukakis and Bush seek to propose family policy, as opposed to random good ideas, they must begin with precisely such family business. If they do, they will find that this more focused challenge is also a more difficult one, for several reasons.
First, it may at times conflict with powerful currents in our culture. Our society celebrates individualism and choice. But family is less about choice or lifestyle options than it is about commitments and givens. That's why Robert Frost defined family as the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Second, family business is mostly private business. It is not easily or directly influenced by the actions of policy-makers – especially in our pluralistic society, which does not often legislate values or regulate private behavior. Frequently, the best that policy-makers can do, besides refraining from doing harm, is simply to foster a supportive empowering environment in which famly business can thrive and prosper.
There are deeper problems. Too often, the dialogue on how to strengthen families degenerates into a sterile ideological and special-interest battle pitting one family type against another.
Republicans champion what they term traditional families. Democrats favor what they call working families. Each party seeks special treatment for its favored group. (This explains much of the Bush-Dukakis divergence on childcare policy.) Each side tries to denigrate the other group and even define it out of existence.
That's why liberal Democrats are fond of asserting that the old "Leave It to Beaver" family – Dad as breadwinner. Mom as homemaker – is virtually extinct and certainly irrelevant to today's policy agenda. It's also why conservative Republicans love to contrast real (traditional) families with Volvo-driving, two-career Yuppies who want other people to subsidize their child care.
The facts undercut both stereotypes. Of all mothers with children under age 18, about 40 percent work full time, 40 percent are not in the paid labor force and 20 percent work part time. Of all families with preschool children, the numbers of traditional families (Mom at home) and working families (Mom and Dad work full time) are virtually equal. Thus, no family agenda worthy of the name can ignore either those parents in the paid labor force, or those who work as homemakers, or those who straddle both worlds.
Another ideological quagmire for family-policy concerns is the role and size of government. An important strain of conservative thought, evident in most Republican pronouncements on family policy, holds that government itself is always the enemy – it never reduces problems, but instead, always makes them worse. Democrats frequently turn this view of government on its head, looking instinctively to government, rather than to families themselves, to solve problems that are largely the result of family breakdown.
But the left vs. right argument simply clouds the issue. It's not size that matters, it's the impact on the family – whether specific policies promote or hinder family well-being. Those who favor activist government must recognize that substituting government functions for family functions will not strengthen families. At the same time, pro-family government is not do-nothing government. The tools of government can and should be used to empower and support family business. So far, neither Republicans nor -Democrats seem prepared to revisit this old debate from a family perspective.
Here are a few ideas on how to achieve that:
Establish the pro-family workplace – child-care assistance, flexible work hours and benefits packages, maternity and paternity leaves, job-sharing and part-time options – as a new national norm in both the public and private sectors.
Reform the tax code to help families with young children. For example, increase the dependent exemption for young children and double it during the year of birth or adoption.
Toughen child-support requirements for non-custodial parents, usually fathers, who leave their families.
Recognize children in poverty as a tragedy closely linked to family breakdown, requiring not only new investments in nutrition, education and health care, but also public and moral leadership to discourage unwed parenthood and promote strong families.
The 1988 family debate, though growing rapidly in volume, still lacks its own voice. Both Republican and Democratic efforts to address family issues remain enfeebled by common enemies – emphasis on imagery, special-interest pleading, ideological straitjackets. Our national family agenda, with all its urgency and appeal, still awaits its political champion.