Mr. Thompson is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Evanston, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 8-15, 1988, p. 577. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
We need a national vision that unifies the many and complex issues facing families, that understands that human need always exists in the context of relationship.
In their introduction to Domestic Revolution: A Social History of Domestic Family Life (Free Press, 1987) Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg paint a portrait of family life today:
Today the term ‘family" is no longer attached exclusively to conjugal or nuclear families comprising a husband, wife, and their dependent children. It is applied to any grouping of two or more people domiciled together. These family groupings include single-parent households, blended families made up of stepparents and stepchildren or adoptive parents and their children, and couples cohabiting outside wedlock, including gay couples.
Through documenting the changing patterns and forms of family life in America, Mintz and Kellogg dispel the popular sentiment that the American family is in a state of decay. Instead they convincingly argue that the roles and responsibilities of families have always been in flux.
In colonial America, the family was the primary foundation of economics, education, religion and politics. It was the hub from which society’s structures emerged. Those who insist that the solution to contemporary family problems lies in a return to this way of life are wishing for something that is irretrievable. Arguing that family morality is based on a patriarchal form and its past function poorly conceives the modern family.
Mintz and Kellogg contend:
Since the late 1950s, confidence that the American family is growing progressively stronger has eroded. The family, once viewed as the deepest source of affection and emotional support, increasingly came to be seen as an impediment to individual self-fulfillment. In those years the relationship between family values and the values of individualism and personal autonomy has grown ever more problematic. One source of the strain lies in a continuing escalation in the expectations of what a marriage can and ought to fulfill. Rising expectations have proved difficult to meet, and the result has been mounting divorce rates. A further source of strain has been individuals’ increased desire for personal fulfillment, especially the middle-class belief that happiness can be achieved only through a successful, independent career.
A confrontation of family needs with the drive for personal fulfillment among individual members has forced an emerging constellation of family forms. The cultural emphasis on the value of the individual has created a tension in contemporary domestic life. Around whom -- the father, the mother, the children -- should the family be centered’? What happens when assertion of one individual’s rights subverts the needs of the rest of the family? By what moral standards do we establish a social context for the family?
In every culture, the family is a microcosm of social reality. Therefore, a healthy society depends on vigorous families. Public policies can create structures that encourage the cultivation of even the most private of our cherished institutions. Public policies that treat every member as integral to the entire family’s health will diffuse the destructive tendency toward narcissism which is the real threat to family stability and strength. It is the proper role of government not to intervene in family life, but to make possible a healthy, strong and productive life for all families.
Current U.S. income-tax regulations are an example of inadequate public policy. Forty years ago income-tax policy was based on the family wage. In this scheme a breadwinner could support and meet all of his or her family’s needs. At that time a tax deduction of $600 for every child was considered adequate in order to make family life viable. If that deduction were updated for "viability," the child exemption would be $5,600, over twice the $2,000 exemption that exists under current law.
David Blankenhorn, executive director of the Institute for American Values, argues for this kind of pro-family tax reform: Such a family tax credit would boost real income by about $750 per child for precisely the families who have suffered an economic squeeze over the past 15 years." He suggests that such a weighty deduction could be eliminated for the wealthy and a refund given to disadvantaged families. A social policy that truly values the family will offer its most cherished institution the resources necessary to remain economically viable.
Additionally, a society that places a premium on family life must give children their proper role as the custodians of our future. One out of every four preschool children will live below the poverty line sometime in his or her life. From 1982 to 1985 the Reagan administration cut nearly 30 per cent of the budget for school nutrition programs, the Child Care food program and the Summer Food Program. The rationale for these cuts was couched in national budgetary terms, sung with the continuing refrain, "We simply can’t afford these programs." The truth is that we simply cannot afford to ignore our children’s health needs.
It costs about $30.00 a month to provide a supplemental nutrition package to a pregnant woman who cannot afford a sufficient diet. After delivery it costs taxpayers an additional $35.00 a month to offer good nutrition to her infant through the Women, Infant and Children program. If we aren’t willing to pay for family programs now, we will pay much more later. It costs an average of $1,400 a week to hospitalize a malnourished infant. Good nutrition now for the most vulnerable of our family members will minimize future healthcare costs.
Immunization policies are inadequate, too. Thirty per cent of all children -- 50 per cent of black children -- are inadequately immunized against preventable diseases. As with nutrition, each dollar spent now on childhood immunization will save Americans $10.00 in future medical costs. Moral sensitivity and fiscal responsibility are not mutually contradictory.
Pro-family public policies will recognize that preventive medicine is good not only for our children’s bodies, but also for their minds. A child’s education begins at birth, and half of all learning takes place before entering kindergarten. Because one out of four of our children suffer from poverty, they need the advantage of early educational opportunities. The Head Start program has demonstrated that education is a great preventive medicine for poverty’s liabilities. Quality early-childhood education programs that involve families reduce school dropout rates in later years, diminish welfare dependency and teenage pregnancies, and result in lower crime rates when children grow up. Unfortunately, Head Start serves only 18 per cent of eligible disadvantaged children.
Approximately 500,000 of the nations children are homeless. Some live on the streets, others with their families in welfare hotels. Homelessness breaks the spirit, shatters hope and creates a living nightmare for children and their families. Society must refuse to rest until every child has a place to call home, a place where the spirit is nourished in hope. The Chicago Tribune reported on a family living in a welfare hotel in Manhattan. A ten-year-old girl named Olga, who lived in the hotel with her father and sister, spoke of her frightened and broken spirit: "Sometimes when I wake up and Daddy is in a separate bed, and I see I’m in a shelter, and all of the people in the same room . . . there’s no privacy." Olga talked of nightmares. She said that sometimes in her sleep it seems everybody is going to get her. "When I wake up," she said, "there are bad faces all around"
The prevalence of homelessness, whether among children or adults, is indicative of our failure to comprehend the real moral issues of family life. Our domestic public policy is essentially reactionary, developing programs after a crisis hits. It was only after the Reagan administration recognized the reality of homelessness that it reluctantly agreed to restore federal money that had been cut from the Housing and Urban Development budget.
One family member’s problems are inextricably bound up with those of other members. It is inaccurate to see one member’s crisis as solely an individual crisis For this reason contemporary families need local family resource centers where they can talk about their stresses, receive guidance from family caseworkers and share problems with other families. In such supportive settings, families may not only deal with their problems but may discover their strengths.
Workers at these resource centers would be trained to recognize the whole range of family needs. For example, if a lesbian couple adopts a homeless girl, a resource center could assist the couple with child rearing and assist the child with adjusting to a stable home. Or, if a monogomous gay couple provides for a foster child diagnosed with AIDS, hoping to give him a few years of loving care, a resource center could help the couple with support and information as well as helping to add social dignity to their compassion.
If a middle-class couple is having financial difficulties. a family resource center could help put their money in order. If middle-aged parents are struggling with an elderly relative’s future, a resource center could become an essential source of encouragement. The possibilities for family resource centers are limitless.
We must help keep or make possible the life-giving family connections that sustain us all. This advocacy must mandate that every place of employment become family -sensitive by offering flexible work hours, parental leave, job sharing and on-site or nearby childcare; We cannot continue to value the family and work independently. Family life will be strengthened by minimizing the conflict between home and job, fostering cooperation rather than competition between them.
We must teach the responsibilities and consequences of family life. Almost 1 million teen-age girls become pregnant every year and nearly one-half of these have abortions. Some high schools have begun teaching family planning by bringing in teen-age mothers to talk about the responsibilities of caring for a baby. Several schools have even created a pro-family environment for teen-age mothers, providing daycare so they may bring their children to school. This enables the teenage mother to complete her education -- and it shows her classmates the consequences of pregnancy.
We need a national vision that unifies the many and complex issues facing families, that understands that human need always exists in the context of relationship. This vision could lead to a national agenda that makes family life the cornerstone of all domestic public policy. This is an enormous task requiring a partnership between the public and private sectors. And it will obviously cost money. But it is by the way we order our lives and spend our money that we reveal who and what we truly value.