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Farewell to the Family?

In the past, a woman raising children on her own was usually assumed to be a widow. At worst, she had been deserted, which put her in the “separated” category. However between 1970 and 1980, the proportion of families headed by widows dropped by 49.6 percent. So did the share headed by women who were separated, which underwent an 18.7 percent decline. At the same time, the proportion of divorced women as family heads rose by 33.2 percent. And even more striking were single women (“never married” in census terminology) whose share increased by 90.6 percent. Not only are more single women having babies; more are taking them home and endeavoring to raise them.

We tend to assume it is better for the children if they live with both their parents. Andrew Cherlin is not so sure: “A large number of studies have made it unclear that the absence of the father was directly responsible for any of the supposed deficiencies of broken homes.” The trouble, he suggests, is “not the lack of a male presence, but the lack of a male income.” Again, our most recent figures are for 1979, and they show that mothers raising two children had a median income of $8,314. In contrast, the median for couples with two children came to exactly $23,000. Even if we allow for the expense of a second adult, children in two-parent homes can count on having twice as much or more spent on them.

It may be noted that the Aid to Dependent Children rolls contained 3,843,000 families at the end of 1980.13This would suggest that about two-thirds of families headed by women receive welfare assistance, while the remaining third make it on their own. And for those who are self-supporting, the phrase should be taken rather literally. Of all the women raising children, only 34.6 percent get any payments from the fathers; and of these, only 68.2 percent receive the agreed-upon amount, which tends to be quite modest.14

The precarious condition of so many households has led, as might be expected, to calls for interventions on the part of public agencies. Hence too the demand for something called a “family policy,” and Gilbert Steiner’s book on The Futility of Family Policy. According to his study, the phrase “family policy” expresses a “flexible and fuzzy concept,” having “imprecise goals” and “no consistent, accepted meaning.” (The same could be said of “foreign policy,” but we will let that pass.) While family assistance of various kinds has always been around, its promotion to “policy” can be said to have begun in 1964, with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.

Black households, then as now, were more likely to have a woman head. This, Moynihan implied, was what turns black family life into a “tangle of pathology.” The time had come, his subtitle proposed, for federal intervention which would serve to strengthen families and reduce the anguish they caused themselves and society. In all, the report came close to admitting it was beyond the power of government to make fathers stay at home. After all, even middle-class fathers were taking off in record numbers. The alternative would be to provide “services” to shore up weakened families, regardless of race.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was based on such services. Head Start would combine academic preparation with superior daycare. Then came shelters for battered wives, seminars for pregnant teenagers, and drug counseling centers. Subsidized school lunches were served across the nation, with sex education supported where communities found it tolerable. Even the Nixon administration found itself committed to these programs. However with the arrival of Jimmy Carter, conservatives began to rally. As they saw it, Steiner says, what passed for family policy had turned into an “acceptance of indolence, promiscuity, easy abortion, casual attitudes towards marriage and divorce, and maternal indifference to child-rearing responsibilities.” But the big issue was sex, especially among those whom lawyers like to call “unemancipated minors.”

The rise in youthful pregnancies has caused concern among both liberal and conservative politicians. Both would prefer that they not occur. For liberals, the solution has been contraceptive education and, if that doesn’t work, abortion. Liberals generally take the view that teenage sex is here to stay. Policy should not try to stop it, but should ensure that babies do not ensue. Few advocates of birth control would strongly object to this scene at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Muncie, Indiana:

A rush of girls begins at 3:30 PM, all laughing and talking as they enter. Each holds a stack of books, obviously stopping in from the local high school. Each checks in with the nurse, who…tries to organize the situation, shouting, “Who’s here for pill pick-up? All pill pick-ups here!”15

However most teenagers do not use contraceptives in a regular or reliable manner. For them the major form of birth control has in fact been abortion.

The most recent figures we have for comparing births and abortions are for 1979.16 Births to teenage mothers averaged 560,000 in that year, in which 297,000 of the mothers were married and 263,000 were not. (Some would argue that even many of the married teenagers should not be having babies, especially as many only got married because they were pregnant.) There were also 434,000 abortions performed on teenagers, in which 109,000 of the patients were married and 325,000 were not. The apposition of 325,000 abortions to 263,000 births among unmarried teenagers results in a ratio of 124 abortions for every 100 births. That so many young women have been able to end their pregnancies suggests a fairly effective abortion system is in place. Thus far at least, tightened regulations and curtailed public funds have not yet decreased the incidence of abortions among unmarried women.

Liberals point out that if abortions were not available there would have been 325,000 more babies born to young unmarried women. Some also feel that many if not most of the 263,000 who did give birth might not have done so had clinics and counseling been put within their reach. And the corollary is often added that teenagers must be able to use these services, whether for contraception or abortion, without the knowledge of their parents. Needless to say, this proposal does not betoken confidence in parent-child trust. Even if we know that in many cases the parental reaction would be rage or worse, it is not easy to argue that concealing such information would “strengthen” a family. For conservatives, this concealment—and the concomitant freedom of young people from adult control—became the final straw. An increasing number of states now decree that teenagers applying for contraceptives or abortions can only do so with their parents’ knowledge and consent.

The conservative solution is to counsel abstinence and, if that doesn’t work, to urge adoption. Right now, however, as many as 85 percent of babies born to young unmarried women are kept by their mothers, while another 7 percent are given to other family members, leaving only 8 percent who are offered for adoption. In the past when young women got pregnant before marriage (as more than a few did) one of two things usually happened. For the most part they got married right away and soon announced the early arrival of a baby. The rest bore their children alone, and these were the ones largely taken for adoption. In many cases the baby was all but wrested from its youthful mother—often she never saw it—because keeping the infant was not regarded as her right. (In fact, having an out-of-wedlock child could be considered evidence of her unfitness for motherhood.) Adoption agencies went along with this system because it gave them a steady source of supply. Restoring this system seems virtually impossible.

If conservatives reject abortion, neither are they happy about so many unmarried teenagers setting up as mothers. To deal with this and other danger signs, two bills have been submitted to Congress proposing new approaches to family policy that are congenial to the conservatives who take a strong moral stand. One of them, HR 3955, in the House of Representatives, seeks “to strengthen the American family and promote the virtues of family life.” The other, S 1090, the work of Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, concerns itself chiefly with “the prevention of adolescent sexual activity.” Since they complement one another, the two bills may be treated as a single package.

HR 3955 begins with the “finding” that “certain governmental policies have undermined and diminished the viability of the American family.” One such policy is the one already mentioned, which has allowed unmarried teenagers to obtain contraceptives and abortions without their parents’ knowledge. The bill proposes to restore “family involvement” by ordering that

No program shall receive Federal funds unless such program, prior to providing any contraceptive device or abortion service (including abortion counseling) to an unmarried minor, notifies the parents or guardians of such minor that such contraceptive or abortion services are being provided.17

In addition, HR 3955 seeks to encourage “multi-generational households,” on the premise that families will be strengthened if grandparents are in residence. To this end, all families housing a relative over sixty-five will be eligible for a tax credit of $250 and an extra deduction of $1,000.

In its title, Senator Denton’s bill affirms that “the prevention of adolescent sexual activity…depends primarily upon developing strong family values and close family ties.” It, too, aims to increase the “involvement of parents with their adolescent children.” More precisely, it would aid parents in encouraging “self-discipline and chastity” through “family-centered approaches to the problems of adolescent promiscuity and adolescent pregnancy.” The bill defines an “adolescent” as “an individual under the age of nineteen”; and “promiscuity” as any act of “sexual intercourse out of wedlock.” Its goal, then, is to keep Americans chaste until their nineteenth birthday.

At the same time, Senator Denton’s bill is not really sure why teenagers have taken so to sex. Accordingly, it is prepared to finance “research into the causes of adolescent promiscuity.” However, even while this knowledge is being gathered, ways should be found for “reaching adolescents before they become sexually active,” the better to “prevent adolescent sexual relations.” On one point the bill is firm: no program may promote “contraceptive use,” because its very practice encourages promiscuity.

If self-discipline and chastity fail and a teenager does become pregnant, then the Denton bill would want the baby to be born and would provide funds to “promote adoption as an alternative for adolescent parents,” including “counseling and referral services which present adoption as an option.” The bill does not propose that babies be taken for adoption without the mothers’ consent.

Whether these bills will pass Congress remain to be seen. And if they do, it will be even more interesting to observe whether they can have much effect. What is intriguing at this point is how their language parallels that of liberal legislation. All those references to “services” and “research,” and “counseling” and “involvement,” recall the Great Society experts who also thought they had the key to strengthening the family.

What we call a “strong family” requires a degree of dedication that most of today’s adults and children can no longer give. In any given case we may make judgments about how people might be more considerate of one another, but if “the family” as an institution is eroding, it is no one’s and everyone’s fault. We are simply not the kinds of people our grandparents were, and we live in a world that is vastly different from theirs. One hope is to find other sources of satisfaction. This is what Karen Lindsey wants to tell us in Friends as Family.

It is easy to be put off by her book. For one thing, it is chiefly about her friends. We hear more than we want or need to know about Eva and Russ and Lydia and several dozen others. All are “loving,” “caring,” “committed” human beings adept in the art of friendship, but unfortunately not very interesting people. Lindsey also has several dragons to slay, in particular the myth of the “happy traditional family,” which various “intellectual pseudoleftists” have set up as a model. Far from being a haven, the family in Lindsey’s view was a pretty gruesome place. As Lindsey tells it, children were molested or neglected by cold and heartless parents; wives were regularly abused, sometimes with hobnailed boots. Households, which were sternly patriarchal, “lived together in hopeless toleration.”

Many will challenge this picture of the way they grew up. I am not prepared to say how much hatred and resentment seethed beneath the surface, or how great was the incidence of physical harm. Still, it is clear that for a woman, being a wife and mother often set severe limits on what she could do with her life, and, for better or worse, a formidable number of women are no longer ready to accept those limits. Lindsey is saying that women who want to explore a larger world would do well to avoid the family trap. The same undoubtedly holds for many men.

So Friends as Family is really a proposal for the single life, to be integrated with “fictive families” at work, in neighborhoods, and of our own creation. Lindsey assumes that relationships we choose will fare better than those constrained by birth and marriage vows and the demands of raising children. She tends to skirt the question of children, taking the position that only those who really want them and have the temperament should embark on parenthood. As things are going, we may discover that a diminishing fraction of us feel so qualified. If that is so and we want a population in which there is not a rising proportion of the old and a much smaller proportion of the young, we had better reconsider our immigration quotas.


The High Cost of Living July 15, 1982

Farewell to the Family? May 27, 1982

Farewell to the Family? May 27, 1982

Farewell to the Family? May 27, 1982

  1. 13

    Social Security Bulletin, December 1981, p. 52.

  2. 14

    Child Support and Alimony, Bureau of the Census, P-23, No. 112, September 1981.

  3. 15

    Theodore Caplow, Howard M. Bahr, and Bruce A. Chadwick, Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity (University of Minnesota Press, April 1982), p. 163.

  4. 16

    Abortion Surveillance, US Centers for Disease Control, November 1980; Monthly Vital Statistics Report, US Public Health Service, September 29, 1981.

  5. 17

    In fact, a “family planning law” passed last year required federally financed clinics to notify parents when contraceptive devices are given to girls aged seventeen or younger. Orders to implement this provision are scheduled to go out early in 1982. HR 3955 would raise the age to eighteen, and notify parents about abortion services as well.

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