National News

Americans Love Families. American Policies Don’t.

Posted June 24, 2018 12:48 p.m. EDT

Politicians are united in their love for families. The very word — “families” — was among those said most often by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in campaign speeches. Democrats and Republicans have platforms for middle-class families, working families, military families. And candidates in need of character witnesses or podium backdrops routinely turn to their own.

But this past week was a reminder of a deep contradiction about the family in U.S. politics: Families make powerful symbols, valuable to politicians and revered by voters. But U.S. policies are inconsistent and weak, relative to many countries, in supporting them.

The focus of recent days was on the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. The contradiction is also clear in many other realms, say critics on both the right and left: criminal justice, child welfare, family leave, child care, health care and education.

“There’s a basic inconsistency in saying we support families, we have family-friendly policies, when in fact we have the worst family policies of any developed high-income democracy,” said Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “We don’t have family-friendly policies at all.”

Families are separated every day in the criminal justice and child welfare systems, often just as abruptly as at the border. Some parents struggle to support children without federal policies like paid family leave and subsidized child care that are offered in other countries.

In less visible ways, even policies and programs intended to support families can undermine them. Some families qualify for fewer federal benefits that help the working poor, like the earned-income tax credit and Medicaid, if the parents marry. Many states that prioritize health care for children offer no help to their parents, despite evidence that children have better outcomes when their parents are healthy, too.

In the child welfare system, case workers frequently neglect the role of fathers, despite mounting evidence of their importance for children’s well-being. And prison systems that hold family visitation ignore what researchers have learned about physical contact: Seeing parents through plexiglass is another form of trauma for children.

Before the 1970s, politicians seldom preached about families, according to research by political scientists Steven Greene and Laurel Elder, who have analyzed the language used in political speeches. By 1992, conservatives were using “family values” as a motto and weapon of critique. Families became more politicized, Greene and Elder argue, as the American family itself went through major changes — with more mothers working, more single and same-sex parents, and the rise of more intensive parenting.

Over this time, the family has come to sit at the center of a core philosophical divide between the left and the right, even as both claim to care about families the most. As the left sees it, government plays an essential role protecting and supporting families, through programs like Medicaid or a higher minimum wage. To the right, it seems government too often burdens families, who need lower taxes and less regulation.

“Family and parenting is just such a potent political symbol,” said Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State University. “Politicians have learned that whatever the policy is, wrapping it in the language of family and children — both Democrats and Republicans, regardless of policy — is really effective.”

By this thinking, even Trump’s family separation policy at the border could be argued as pro-family. “If the immigrants are coming to take away your job, then this policy is pro-family,” Greene said.

He worries that the politicization of the family is bad for policymaking. As the family becomes a culturally loaded symbol, evocative of everything and used to justify anything, it becomes harder to devise real policies that address real needs, he said.

In this climate, families have become the focal point of partisans charging hypocrisy, on both sides.

Conservatives, critics say, value traditional nuclear families and yet support the separation of immigrant families. Liberals, critics charge, say children should not be separated from their parents and yet condone relatively easy divorce and single parenthood.

“For people on the left who have condemned separating kids from parents, that logic would apply to other family issues they wouldn’t be so happy about, like divorce and single parenthood,” said Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and a researcher at right-leaning family research groups.

The research is clear that adverse childhood experiences like separation from parents are harmful to children. But the left and the right also disagree about which intertwined factors to emphasize in helping families: larger structural forces like the economy, or more personal choices like whether to marry.

“By focusing only on family structures that are beneficial, it’s easy to gloss over structural barriers that make it hard,” said Michelle Janning, a sociologist at Whitman College and a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families. “Instead of saying, ‘Support all families,’ it’s saying, ‘Support certain families,’ and ignores the inequalities that exist.”

There is a fair amount of agreement between the right and left, however, on the principles of what would benefit families — like helping parents support their children financially and keeping their children healthy. And there’s strong consensus among researchers about what families need and what happens when children don’t have that support.

What, then, would U.S. policy look like if policies for families more closely resembled the political language celebrating them?

The child welfare system would value fathers, too, researchers say. Prison phone calls that keep families connected wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. Government benefits wouldn’t penalize parents for marrying. The child welfare system wouldn’t mistake consequences of poverty for child neglect. Paid leave and public preschool would help parents stay in the labor force. And policies would support the family bonds that children need, no matter the type of family.