The Siege of the Family

All Our Children: The American Family Under Pressure

by Kenneth Keniston. the Carnegie Council on Children
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 255 pp., $10.95

The plight of the family, so long a professional preoccupation of social scientists and social pathologists, now commands anxious attention among legislators and government bureaucrats. Everyone talks about the need for a “family policy.” President Carter has repeatedly stressed the importance of holding the family together, and a growing number of agencies—the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Youth, the Select Committee on Education of the House of Representatives, the HEW Office of Human Development, among others—devote at least part of their time to problems of the family.

According to a theory currently popular in Washington, the United States already has a de facto policy on families, since the income tax, social security, medicaid, and many other governmental programs impinge in one way or another on the family. Tax laws reward marriage and discriminate against single taxpayers. Welfare programs help to break up families by restricting aid, in half the states, to fatherless households. Military and foreign service transfers often contribute, inadvertently, to the same result. The $750 personal exemption in the income tax code, which amounts to a partial subsidy of child care, favors the rich, like all personal tax exemptions, and thus puts an additional burden on the poor. These and other programs, formulated with an eye to other objectives, influence the family in an unplanned and often contradictory fashion. What the country needs, according to this reasoning, is a policy designed to promote “family health” and to correct the “anti-family bias” that often results, unintentionally, from other programs.

Current concern about the family probably derives not so much from the crisis of the family itself as from two important policy studies of the Sixties, the Moynihan Report and the Coleman Report. Government officials respond more readily to events in Washington than to events in the rest of the country, and both these documents have had great influence in official circles. The Moynihan Report, although widely criticized and denounced, reinforced a longstanding belief that poverty and broken homes go hand in hand. The Coleman Report, followed a few years later by Christopher Jencks’s elaborate study of education and achievement,1 seemed to show that schooling has little effect on academic achievement (or on jobs, income, or social mobility)—that achievement for the most part reflects the attitude toward schooling that children bring to school from their families.

According to Coleman, “it appears that variations in the facilities and curriculums of the schools account for relatively little variation in pupil achievement insofar as this is measured by standard tests.” Even racial integration showed a “rather small” correlation with scholastic achievement. On the other hand, “a pupil’s achievement is strongly related to the educational backgrounds and aspirations of the other students in the school.” In other words, middle-class children in middle-class schools expect more from schooling and get it. Jencks insisted even more strongly that families, not schools, determine the course of a child’s educational career and hence his access to good jobs and a good income. Because “family background explains…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.