Magazine article The American Prospect

Taking Care. (Cover Story)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Taking Care. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

IN HER NEW BOOK POWER POLITICS, the novelist Arundhati Roy observes the way that the government of India with one hand causes distress and with the other directs people's anger about it elsewhere. Do harm; then scapegoat. She calls it a "pincer action."

Does it sound familiar? In the United States, we have been subjected lately to an ever more deregulated capitalism; to reduced job security, lower benefits, and longer work hours; to a shift of the tax burden from the rich to the poor and a shift of government spending from butter to guns. In his current budget proposal, President George W. Bush adds $48 billion to his $379-billion military budget while cutting funds for maternal-and-child-health block grants, early learning, class-size reduction, emergency medical services for children, newborn and infant hearing screening, hospital insurance for the uninsured, youth training, mental-health programs, substance-abuse prevention, and youth-opportunity grants, among other programs. And that's just the cuts. He's also proposing spending freezes for Head Start and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that, given inflation, amount to cuts.

Together, the tougher economic climate and reduced social protections have created a scarier world. That's one prong of the pincer. And then Bush gives the nod to the Gary Bauers of the Republican right wing who say: "You see that gay man? You see that single mother? They're a danger to America's children." That's the other prong. The right wing mislabels it "family values."

The pincer action befuddles our thinking about a very real set of problems facing the American family today. Implicitly, it unhitches actions in the public realm from their consequences in the private realm. At the same time, it throws the public spotlight on the official forms of family life and off its deeper emotional realities.

But if we rehitch those links among government action, society, and the family, we begin to see what it would mean to have a government that really believes in family values. Consider even the issue of family form: If we want more Americans to get married, stay married, and have their children while married, we need to reduce the growing class gap, end poverty, and expand opportunities for education. In their study of the 1998 Current Population Survey, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer report that while two-thirds of American children live in two-parent families, only 43 percent of children in households headed by a high-school dropout do. In households headed by a college graduate, 84 percent of children live with two parents. Similarly, 3 percent of births to women with college degrees take place out of wedlock, compared with 60 percent of births to those who lack a high-school diploma. If you want traditional families, think social class.

And don't forget the problem of the "average man." As William Julius Wilson has pointed out with reference to African Americans, there aren't enough "average men" for single moms to marry. And this applies increasingly to whites as well. Laissez-faire economics and regressive taxation are making the rich richer--and more and more of the rest of the population poor. Increasing numbers of poor men are thus restructured out of a future, and they don't marry or pay child support. To the extent that the government reduces the class gap, eliminates poverty, and fully supports education as an important step in the welfare-to-work program--and really, only to that extent--it is "walking the talk" on family values.

Once married, Americans have a hard time making their marriages last. Some of the children in traditional-looking, two-parent families have parents who've remarried, and we don't know how well those remarriages are doing. If we want marriages to go on "happily ever after" or even come close to doing so, we would do well to recognize another source of great strain in most of them--a stalled gender revolution. …

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