The American Family Is Making a Comeback

Marriage is on the decline, birthrates are down, and divorce rates are high. But politicians in both parties are finally putting forth proposals to help—and strengthen society.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

On April 24, 2012, President Obama went on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to make his case for student-loan forgiveness and college affordability. After slow-jamming the news, Obama pointed to a surprisingly traditional justification for helping young people reduce their student loan debt: It was causing them to delay marriage.

This moment encapsulates the overlooked underpinning of President Obama’s economic message: his focus on family. It is an approach fit for our times, as families in America face extraordinary pressures, obstacles and burdens. Both parties would be wise to emulate this in the upcoming midterm elections.

It is true that marriage is on the decline, birthrates are down, and divorce rates are high. Some are even suggesting we need to move “beyond marriage.” But people’s aspirations, rather than just their status, suggest family is still important in American life. This was affirmed in a New York Times feature on “the changing American family” last year which observed that “the old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America—but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite.” While this perception may result in part from a set of assumptions that need revision—for instance, the view of marriage as a “capstone,” rather than a “cornerstone”—the decline of marriage is not simply a matter of culture. The strains on families and family formation are real, rational, and profound.

A commitment to building a stable family is not the deal it used to be in America. The average American family is poorer than it was 10 years ago. As Stephanie Coontz has pointed out, over the last 40 years changes in the workforce and growing socioeconomic inequality have conspired to stoke familial instability. Our policies have failed to address this new landscape, and because of it we are inhibiting one of our nation’s greatest contributors to the public good, and Americans’ most personal aspirations: family.

It can be easy to miss the value of family to our nation because its contributions are so ingrained into our lives. Perhaps the best way to assess the value of a stable family is to examine the social costs of broken families. When Americans don’t have family to care for them, government must step in to provide those services. For instance, Matthew Zill at the Brookings Institution points out that state and federal governments spend billions of dollars each year to care for children in foster care—$9 billion through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act alone. There are longer-term costs for children who grow up outside of safe, permanent families as well, including the $5.1 billion the government spends incarcerating former foster-care youth each year.

Similarly, familial bonds help defray the costs of caring for the elderly. Filial responsibility—foundationally a moral responsibility, but also a legal responsibility in the United States and in nations around the world—has been central to social cohesion and distribution of social costs and responsibility. However, as family breakdown becomes more common, Medicaid (i.e., taxpayers) will have to bear more of the burden for care of adults. How much of a burden? In 2009, 61.6 million Americans gave uncompensated care to an adult “with limitations in daily activities” at some point during the year—an economic value of $450 billion in unpaid services. From cradle to grave, the social and personal benefits of a healthy family, and the costs of its absence, are evident.

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These benefits of family are certainly evident to the president. Obama’s experiences as a father and a husband are essential to understanding Obama the politician. His first book, Dreams from My Father, is driven by his search for identity not just through the prism of race, but as a man who hardly knew his father. He has addressed some of the most important moments and causes of his political life through his perspective as a father and husband: his speech on race in April 2008 and his remarks about Trayvon Martin, his case for the Affordable Care Act, and his advocacy for women. He has made promoting fatherhood a signature issue of his presidency. As someone who personally knows the “hole in the heart” that a child has when a father is absent, Obama has withstood criticism from some on the left for focusing on the role of fathers in children’s lives. In private prayers I’ve shared with the president, and public moments where he leads through his perspective as a son, husband, and father, Obama’s value of family has always been clear and moving to me.

The case for Obamacare was not just about the benefits an individual would receive directly, but the indirect benefits received through family members. It’s not just college students who appreciate being able to stay on their parents’ plan until they were 26 but also the parents who no longer have to worry about their child going without care. Men benefit when their wives and daughters can no longer be denied health-care coverage because they are pregnant. Children don’t want to see the money their parents saved up to help them with college costs evaporate, because their sick parent or sibling hit the cap on their health-insurance plan.

As he closed his speech to a Joint Session of Congress on the Affordable Care Act in September 2009, Obama spoke about why the late Senator Ted Kennedy was so passionate about health reform:

Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.

Obama described this as Kennedy’s “large-heartedness.” In our personal lives and in our politics, familial relationships provide a pathway to greater empathy. People naturally disbelieve or do not wish to consider a future misfortune of their own, and when they do they would like to think they could manage it. However, everyone can imagine their parent, sibling, or child hitting hard times and how desperately they would search for help.

The White House continues to appreciate the value of approaching economic and social issues through the lens of family. The president hosted a Summit on Working Families in late June that packaged a mixture of tax reforms, women’s rights, and workplace policies under the banner of supporting working families. Obama told attendees that these issues are “personal” to him: As the husband of a “brilliant woman who struggled” with work-life balance issues, as the son of a “single mother” who “had to take some food stamps” to feed her family, and as a father of “two unbelievable young ladies ... I want them to be able to have families.”

The summit promoted a slate of policies that progressives put forward as supporting working families, including equal pay, raising the minimum wage, paid leave, child and elder care, and fighting workplace discrimination. Some of these are less about family than they are about supporting individuals who may happen to have families of their own. None of them explicitly value stable, two-parent families over other family types, and Democrats continue to show no interest in meeting Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s call to “stigmatize illegitimacy indirectly” through tax benefits available only to married parents. As the costs of family breakdown become even more apparent, Democrats’ no-judgment approach may seem insufficient in the face of a demographic and sociological tidal wave.

Still, Democrats are no longer just playing defense on “family values.” The summit, and much of the president’s political record, reflects Obama’s convictions about where American families are hurting the most, and the policies that will serve America’s families best. Hillary Clinton recently called for "family-centered economics." In fact, it is the Democrats that have dominated the policy conversation around families since 2008 as the GOP has retreated to a radical individualism in rejection of the Democrats’ more communitarian politics.

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That is beginning to change. An emerging group of reform-conservative leaders is pushing a more family-focused economic agenda is emerging from top conservative leaders and thinkers. As Ross Douthat explained: “The immediate reformist priority, the raison d’etre of the movement, is serving the interests and winning the votes of those ‘middle class parents with kids’ (and people who might want to be middle class parents with kids) on economic issues.” These conservatives understand that people neither live, nor want to live, in isolation from one another—and certainly not members of their own family.

"Room to Grow," the “reformicon” manifesto, features a chapter on pro-family policies by W. Bradford Wilcox, which includes reforms to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, eliminating the “marriage penalty,” and looking at job training and vocational education through the lens of the family. National Affairs has advanced family-friendly tax reform. Senator Marco Rubio tied the strength of the family to the strength of the American economy in remarks at Catholic University in late July.

This pro-working family approach did have something of a standard-bearer on the Republican side in 2012: former Senator Rick Santorum. During the 2012 Republican primary, Santorum—who wrote a book called It Takes a Family—was often a voice to address our obligations to one another, and he has continued to focus on this message since dropping out of the race.

He even spoke about family to a group of college students at the Heritage Foundation last summer. Of course, this group is not representative of college students in general (they were select politically active, primarily religious conservatives), or even the average young Republican activist, but Santorum is testing a message about families to audiences that do not have families of their own yet. Speaking after a presenter whose entire message was about applying the leadership lessons and ideology of Ronald Reagan to today’s problems (one audience member asked what Reagan would think about Common Core), Santorum argued bluntly that a Reagan-era message of cutting taxes and shrinking government is no longer adequate. When asked what Republicans should focus on in 2016, he answered energy policy, manufacturing, and the family.

“We need to focus on marriage, not the definition of marriage, but reclaiming marriage as a public good,” Santorum said. “Marriage and family is central. Every family in America is a little business … in fact, the word economy comes from the Greek word ‘oikos,’ which means home. Every home is a little economy. And when those little economies struggle and suffer … then America fails.”

In a widely read article in May, E.J. Dionne previewed the two central progressive critiques of the reformicon vision should it take hold in the GOP:

Who can disagree that the breakdown of family structures has been a tragedy for low-income Americans? And why would these reformers not entertain interventions in a marketplace that has failed to secure a modicum of equity? Setting aside the novel notion that the Founders had family life rather than property rights in mind when they edited Jefferson’s language, the more interesting question is what sorts of families the reformicons have in mind; surely not those composed of same-sex couples with children produced by in vitro fertilization.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig recently made a similar critique of "Room to Grow," suggesting that reformicons have chosen the sanctity of the free market over a robust family-leave policy that would help women and families proposed by congressional Democrats in the FAMILY Act.

These are serious charges. Ultimately, Dionne and Bruenig suggest, conservatives will value their ideology over the security and prosperity of families. But these are debates that conservatives have proven they can win. Reformicons are hoping they can convince Americans that the Republican Party once again cares not just for family values but for families’ realities. It would be a good thing for America if we had that debate.

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The 2014 midterms are shaping up to reflect the most vapid of our partisan sniping over the last year and a half: Democrats will try to convince America Republicans are crazy, and Republicans will do their best to live up to that billing. Of course, this kind of politics does not serve America well, and it also does not help our politicians, who win elections with no policy mandate and enter Congress ill-equipped to work with the other side.

This is a shame, because for the first time in Obama’s presidency, the opposition—at least part of it—is putting forward real ideas and policies. There is also a growing consensus that the help families need includes both promoting family stability and cohesion, and providing economic supports. “Today, it is harder and harder to be good parents and good workers for many working families. That's a tradeoff that is neither good for our country or our families,” Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, told me. “That's why policies like paid leave, sick days, and child care are so vital, because they support families as they create economic security for their families.”

But Tanden also noted that “it’s important to have two parents involved in the life of a child whenever possible. As progressives, we see both greater economic support and support for family stability as key ingredients for success. We just wish conservatives saw both issues as well.”

In fact, Santorum took a similar both/and approach when I asked him about these issues. “Strong families produce a strong economy, and I absolutely think there is a role for the federal government to play when it comes to promoting marriage and family,” he said. “In 2009, the Brookings Institute released a study that, among other things, said if you graduate from high school, get a job, get married and then have children (in that order), your chance of being in poverty is just 2 percent. Yet our country—whether through tax policy or through the rhetoric of our current president—does very little to support the institution of marriage.”

The insecurity families are facing and the barriers to creating new families, acknowledged across the partisan divide, demand attention. The upcoming midterm should be about which party supports policies that best promote stable, secure and thriving families.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recognized the new burdens families face. He recently announced that policies in the U.K. must pass a “family test,” which means “every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.” As British MP and economic expert Mark Hoban told me, “We look at equalities and business impact of policies—this adds vital new dimension.” Obama should announce a similar policy and call on Congress to do the same.

Congress can move forward on some specific areas of reform where there is general bipartisan agreement: expanding the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits, eliminating the marriage penalty, promoting workplace flexibility, expanding paid family and medical leave and addressing the high cost of child care. Dionne recently suggested in his column that some of these reforms could be part of a “plain vanilla bipartisanship” set of proposals Congress could pass right away.

We should also look at the two purchasing areas that create the greatest obstacles to marriage and having children: housing and higher education. Due to rising real-estate costs, the concentration of young people in urban areas, and their expectations for their careers and lifestyles, young people are becoming first-time homebuyers not with their spouses but with their friends. Though some young married couples are experimenting with communal households—living with one or more additional married couples—the vast majority are either delaying marriage because of the financial burden of buying a home, or renting for far longer than their peers due to income constraints. We should consider options—tax credits, interest-rate incentives, family-friendly zoning and city planning—that align America’s interest in marriage as a public good, and stability as an important factor in a child’s educational and social development, with our housing policies.

Similarly, we should help young couples that combine their student-loan debts through marriage by offering them lower interest rates. This would not only lessen an obstacle to marriage, but it would also respond to the fact that marriage is often a stabilizing force when it comes to managing and paying off debts.

The popular conception of the American Dream is a spouse, two and a half kids, and your own house with a car in the garage and a picket fence around the yard. When we talk about the American Dream slipping away, we tend to focus on the possessions: the house, the car, the picket fence. At a time when the income of American families is declining, this makes some sense. Materialism can be alluring, but mere consumption alone is unsatisfying: Our possessions do not make us human. The American struggle to acquire and consume more is not new. It is a more fundamental hope that is challenged today. The people that make up the American Dream—the spouse, the children, our dearest relationships—seem out of reach for millions of Americans.

Politics alone cannot restore this hope, but it will only further fuel Americans’ cynicism if Washington does nothing to address it.