Following up this post from Sunday — Harold Meyerson has a must-read column about The Decade That Destroyed Family Values in the Washington Post:
As conservatives tell the tale, the decline of the American family, the rise in divorce rates, the number of children born out of wedlock all can be traced to the pernicious influence of one decade in American history: the ’60s.
The conservatives are right that one decade, at least in its metaphoric significance, can encapsulate the causes for the family’s decline. But they’ve misidentified the decade. It’s not the permissive ’60s. It’s the Reagan ’80s.
(I am reminded, once again, of the definition of pseudo conservative â€” â€œThe pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.â€ â€” Theodore W. Adorno)
In Saturday’s Post, reporter Blaine Harden took a hard look at the erosion of what we have long taken to be the model American family — married couples with children — and discovered that while this decline hasn’t really afflicted college-educated professionals, it is the curse of the working class. The percentage of households that are married couples with children has hit an all-time low (at least, the lowest since the Census Bureau started measuring such things): 23.7 percent. That’s about half the level that marrieds-with-children constituted at the end of the Ozzie-and-Harriet ’50s. …
… Over the past 35 years, the massive changes in the U.S. economy have largely condemned American workers to lives of economic insecurity. No longer can the worker count on a steady job for a single employer who provides a paycheck and health and retirement benefits, too. Over the past three decades, workers’ individual annual income fluctuations have consistently increased, while their aggregate income has stagnated. In the brave new economy of outsourced jobs and short-term gigs and on-again, off-again health coverage, American workers cannot rationally plan their economic futures. And with each passing year, as their level of economic security declines, so does their entry into marriage.
Yet the very conservatives who marvel at the efficiency of our new, more mobile economy and extol the “flexibility” of our workforce decry the flexibility of the personal lives of American workers. The right-wing ideologues who have championed outsourcing, offshoring and union-busting, who have celebrated the same changes that have condemned American workers to lives of financial instability, piously lament the decline of family stability that has followed these economic changes as the night the day.
American conservatism is a house divided against itself. It applauds the radicalism of the economic changes of the past four decades — the dismantling, say, of the American steel industry (and the job and income security that it once provided) in the cause of greater efficiency. It decries the decline of social and familial stability over that time — the traditional, married working-class families, say, that once filled all those churches in the hills and hollows in what is now the smaller, post-working-class Pittsburgh.
Problem is, disperse a vibrant working-class community in America and you disperse the vibrant working-class family.
Sometime during the Reagan Recession, President Reagan made a flip remark about laid-off factory workers. In effect, he said they could “vote with their feet” and move to some other part of the country to find better jobs. He was, of course, oblivious to what “voting with their feet” would do to families and communities.
As I wrote last Sunday, an article by Sharon Lerner in the New York Times discussed declining birthrates in Europe. The European experience suggests that “conservative” social policies discourage women from having children. In a nutshell, “conservative” countries provide little public support for working mothers, so women postpone having children. By contrast, those “socialist” Scandinavian countries that provide subsidized day care and mandate generous maternity leave policies have higher birthrates, because Scandinavian women are less likely to feel they have to choose between work and babies.
The problem with conservatives is that they try to apply pre-industrial models onto an industrial (and post-industrial) world. The “Ozzie and Harriet” family we’ve come to think of as the norm — dad works outside the home, mom stays home and raises kids — is actually a creation of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, most men worked for themselves as craftsmen or farmers and were not separated from their families by jobs. If a man had sons, the sons probably started working with dad while they were very young and, thereby, spent a great deal of time with him. But the industrial revolution changed that; men left the home and family to work in jobs, and in effect the jobs separated them from their children.
(It speaks volumes, I think, that before the 20th century, when a married couple divorced the father automatically got custody of the children. Sometime in the 20th century the idea that children “belonged” primarily to mothers had taken hold, and the law preferred mothers over fathers. The move to revise divorce laws and favor joint custody in the 1970s was actually a by-product of the feminist movement. Most “Father’s Rights” advocates, of course, still complain that the courts favor women and blame feminism for this, but most of these creatures seem less interested in their children than they are in using their kids to bash their wives and gripe about women generally.)
By the 1950s the notion that raising kids was “women’s work” was firmly entrenched. In fact, I clearly remember that when one of the very early issues of Ms. magazine argued that raising kids was “men’s work,” too — the cover featured a smiling man holding a baby — conservatives of the time were actually outraged. Of course, 20 years later conservatives were wailing about how children needed fathers and complaining that “feminazis” were destroying the American family.
Anyway, shortly after World War II Joseph Campbell began to argue that this exclusion of fathers from family life was creating a faux masculinity, which I wrote about yesterday. For that matter, the faux femininity that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique was mostly a post World War II phenomenon, you might recall.
The bottom line is that, over the last couple of centuries, the rise of capitalism as the way most money gets made has had profound effects on society in general and families in particular. We’re still trying to figure out how to blend capitalism with a healthy family life. In America and other “conservative” countries, the burden of making the capitalism-family equation work is put on individuals. And this is true even now that, in most families, both parents are separated from their children most of the day. But conservatives worship at the altar of capitalism and are blind to its pernicious side effects, even as families and marriage itself are literally breaking apart under the strain.
I think it ought to be possible to maintain private property rights and free enterprise and all that — well, in fact, it was possible before the Reagan Revolution began dismantling the New Deal. But to make it work, government must do a better job supporting workers and families. Teddy Roosevelt said almost a century ago,
The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of manâ€™s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.
The Right sees capitalism as the master and workers as capitalism’s servants. And for all their talk about family values, when they have to choose between children and money, money wins every time.