Decline of the family: Conservative, liberal, and feminist views

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Giele, Janet Z. (2005) [1996]. “Decline of the family: Conservative, liberal, and feminist views.” In David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn (eds.), Promises to keep: Decline and renewal of marriage in America. Lanham: MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 89-115.
In the 1990s the state of American families and children became a new and urgent topic. Everyone recognized that families had changed.

*Divorce rates had risen dramatically.

*More women were in the labor force.

*Evidence on several fronts had put children at risk:

*rising teenage suicides,

*high rates of teen births,

*disturbing levels of addiction and violence
Conservatives have held that these problems can be traced to a culture of toleration and an expanding welfare state that undercut self-reliance and community standards. They focus on the family as a caregiving institution and try to restore its strengths by changing the culture of marriage & parenthood.
Liberals center on the disappearance of manual jobs that throws less educated men out of work and undercuts their status in the family as well as rising hours of work among the middle class that makes stable two-parent families more difficult to maintain. Liberals argue that structural changes are needed outside the family in the public world of employment and schools.
The feminist vision combines both the reality of human interdependence in the family and individualism of the workplace. Feminists want to protect diverse family forms that allow realization of freedom and equality while at the same time nurturing the children of the next generation.
The Conservative Explanation: Selfishness and Moral Decline
The new family advocates turn their spotlight on the breakdown in the two-parent family, saying that rising divorce, illegitimacy and father absence have put children at greater risk of school failure, unemployment, and antisocial behavior. The remedy is to restore religious faith and family commitment as well as to cut welfare payments to unwed mothers and mother-headed families.
Conservative Model

Cultural and moral weakening


Family breakdown, divorce, family decline


Father absence, school failure, poverty, crime, drug us

To many conservatives, the modern secularization of religions practice and the decline of religious affiliation have undermined the norms of sexual abstinence before marriage and the prohibitions of adultery or divorce thereafter. Sanctions against illegitimacy or divorce have been made to seem narrow-minded and prejudiced.
Gradual changes in marriage laws have also diminished the hold of tradition. Restrictions against waiting periods, race dissimilarity, and varying degrees of consanguinity were disappearing all over the United States and Europe.…The resulting transformation lessened the family’s distinctive capacity to serve as a bastion of private freedom against the leveling effect and impersonality of public bureaucracy.
One of the most visible causes of family erosion was government welfare payments, which made fatherless families a viable option.…Sociologist Brigitte Berger notes that the increase in children and women on welfare coincided with the explosion of federal child welfare programs — family planning, prenatal and postnatal care, child nutrition, child abuse prevention and treatment, child health and guidance, day care, Head Start, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Medicaid, and Food Stamps.
…Some argued that the rise in teenage illegitimate births was proof that government sponsored welfare programs had actually contributed to the breakdown of marriage.
The proportion of all households headed by married couples was falling. Rising cohabitation, divorce rates, and births out of wedlock all contributed to the trend.…These statistics…appeared to provide ample proof that the two-parent family was under siege.…The rise in single-person households was also significant, a trend fed by rising affluence and the expansion of the housing supply after World War II.
The growth of single-parent households was the most worrisome to policymakers because of their strong links to child poverty. In 1950, 20% and in 1988, 50% of children were found in mother-only families.
In 1959, 73% of children in poverty lived with two parents and 20% lived with a mother only.

In 1988, 35% of children in poverty lived with two parents and 57% lived with a mother only.

Between 1940 and 1990, the divorce rate rose from 8.8 to 21 per thousand married women.

Out-of-wedlock births went from 5% in 1960 to 26% in 1990.

[The number of unmarried, opposite-sex couples living together has climbed from 439,000 in 1960 to more than 5 million now. Not in text; U.S. Census Bureau.]
To explain these changes, conservatives emphasize the breakdown of individual and cultural commitment to marriage and the loss of stigma for divorce and illegitimacy. Both trends are seen to be the result of greater emphasis on short-term gratification and on adults’ personal desires rather than on what is good for children. Children are conceived, born, and then often abandoned without thinking about who will support them.
There appears to be a strong connection between erosion of the two-parent family and the rise of health and social problems in children. Parental investment in children has declined — especially in the time available for supervision and companionship. Parents had roughly 10 fewer hours per week for their children in 1986 than in 1960, largely because more married women were employed and more mothers of young children (under age 6) were working. By the late 1980s just over half of mothers of children under a year old were in the labor force for at least part of the year.
Fathers were increasingly absent from the family because of desertion, divorce, or failure to marry. …Father absence is blamed for the rise in violence among young males.…The lack of a positive and productive male role model has contributed to an uncertain masculine identity which then uses violence and aggression to prove itself.
Without a parent to supervise children after school, keep them from watching television all day, or prevent them from playing in dangerous neighborhoods, many more children appear to he falling by the wayside, victims of drugs, obesity, violence, suicide, or failure in school. In 1995 the Council on Families in America reported, “…that children from broken homes, when they become teenagers have 2 to 3 times more behavioral and psychological problems than do children from intact homes.”
David Elkind suggests that parents’ work and time constraints have pushed down the developmental timetable to younger ages so that small children are being expected to take care of themselves and perform at levels which are robbing them of their childhood. The consequences are depression, discouragement, and a loss of joy at learning and growing into maturity.
The solution to a breakdown in family values is to revitalize and reinstitutionalize marriage. The culture should change to give higher priority to marriage and parenting. The legal code should favor marriage and encourage parental responsibility on the part of fathers as well as mothers. Government should cut back welfare programs which have supported alternative family forms.
The cultural approach to revitalizing marriage is to raise the overall priority given to family activities relative to work, material consumption, or leisure. Marriage is seen as the basic building block of civil society, which helps to hold together the fabric of volunteer activity and mutual support that underpins any democratic society.
David Blankenhorn believes “a stronger sense of shame about illegitimacy and divorce would do more than any tax cut or any new governmental program to maximize the life circumstances of children.”
Another means to marriage and family revitalization is some form of taking a “pledge.” Prevention programs [e.g., abstinence] for teenage pregnancy affirm the ideal of chastity before marriage.
The new fatherhood movement encourages fathers to promise that they will spend more time with their children. The National Fatherhood Initiative argues that men’s roles as fathers should not simply duplicate women’s roles as mothers but should teach those essential qualities which are perhaps uniquely conveyed by fathers — the ability to take risks, contain emotions, and be decisive. In addition, fathers fulfill a time-honored role of providing for children as well as teaching them.

Full-time mothers have likewise formed support groups to reassure themselves that not having a job and being at home full-time for their children is an honorable choice, although it is typically undervalued and perhaps even scorned by dual-earner couples and women with careers.

Conservatives see government cutbacks as one of the major strategies for strengthening marriage and restoring family values.…The new congressional solution is to cut back on the benefits to young men and women who “violate social convention by having children they cannot support.…The solution is to turn back the debilitating culture of welfare dependency by decentralizing the federal government’s power and restoring the role of intermediary community institutions such as the neighborhood and the church.
The mechanism for change would be block grants to the states which would change the welfare culture from the ground up.…The states would use these funds for a wide variety of alternative programs to discourage illegitimate births and to care for children born out of wedlock, such as promoting adoption, closely supervised group homes for unmarried mothers and their children, and pregnancy programs (except abortion).
The Council on Families in America…enunciates four ideals: marital permanence, childbearing confined to marriage, every child’s right to have a father, and limitation of parents’ total work time (60 hours per week) to permit adequate time with their families. To restore the cultural ideal of the two-parent family, they would make all other types of family life less attractive and more difficult.

Economic Restructuring: Liberal Analysis of Family Change
Liberals agree that there are serious problems in America’s social health and the condition of its children. But they pinpoint economic and structural changes that have placed new demands on the family without providing countervailing social supports.
The economy has become ever more specialized with rapid technological change undercutting established occupations. More women have entered the labor force as their child-free years have increased due to a shorter childbearing period and longer lifespan. The family has lost economic functions to the urban workplace and socialization functions to the school. What is left is the intimate relationship between the marital couple, which, unbuffered by the traditional economic division of labor between men and women, is subject to even higher demands for emotional fulfillment and is thus more vulnerable to breakdown when it falls short of those demands.

Liberal Model

Changing economic structure


Changing family and gender roles

Diverse effects: poor vs. productive childre


The current family crisis thus stems from structural more than cultural change — changes in the economy, a paired-down nuclear family, and less parental time at home. Market forces have led to a new ethic of individual flexibility and autonomy. More dual-earner couples and single-parent families have broadened the variety of family forms.

More single-parent families and more working mothers have decreased the time available for parenting. Loss of the father’s income through separation and divorce has forced many women and children into poverty with inadequate health care, poor education, and inability to save for future economic needs.…Most liberals espouse a government-sponsored safety net which will facilitate women’s employment, mute the effects of poverty, and help women and children to become economically secure.
Liberals attribute the dramatic changes in the family to the intrusion of the money economy rather than cultural and moral decline. In a capitalist society individual behavior follows the market.…The cash economy has “invaded” the diffuse personal relationships of trust between family and community members and transformed them into specific impersonal transactions.…Modern society erodes this social capital of organization, trust among individuals, and mutual obligation that enhances both productivity and parenting.
The market has also eroded community by encouraging maximum mobility of goods and services.…Many…jobs left the country. Loss of manufacturing jobs has had dramatic consequences for employment of young men without a college education and their capacity to support a family.
Many new jobs are located in clerical work, sales, or other service occupations traditionally associated with women. The upshot is a deteriorating employment picture for less well educated male workers at the same time that there are rising opportunities for women. Ever more middle-income men and women combine forces to construct a two-paycheck family wage.
Despite its corrosive effect on family relations, the modern economy has also been a liberating force. Women could escape patriarchal domination; the young could seek their fortune without waiting for an inheritance from their elders. …Dramatic improvements took place in the status of women as they gained the right to higher education, entry into the professions, and the elective franchise. Similarly, children were released from sometimes cruel and exploitive labor and became the object of deliberate parental investment and consumption. Elders gained pensions for maintenance and care that made them economically independent of their adult children. All these developments could be understood as part of what William J. Goode has referred to as the “world revolution in family patterns” which resulted in liberation and equality of formerly oppressed groups.
The current assessment of change in family forms is mostly negative because of the consequences for children. More parental investment in work outside the family has meant less time for children. According to liberals, parents separate or divorce or have children outside of marriage because of the economic structure, not because they have become less moral or more selfish. Young women have children out of wedlock when the young men whom they might marry have few economic prospects and when the women themselves have little hope for their own education or employment. Change in the family thus begins with jobs.
Women have continued in the labor force because of irreversible normative changes surrounding women’s equality and the need for women’s income to finance children’s expensive college education. In light of globalization of the economy and increasing job insecurity in the face of corporate downsizing,…uncertainty about the future has made women invest more strongly than ever in their own careers. They know that if they drop out for very long they will have difficulty reentering if they have to tide over the family when the main breadwinner loses his job.
Many liberals believe that the current economic structure leads to two kinds of underinvestment in children that are implicated in their later dependency — material poverty, characteristic of the poor, and “time” poverty, characteristic of the middle class.
It appears possible that poverty may not just be the result of family separation, divorce, and ineffective childrearing practices; it may also be the cause of the irritability, quarrels, and violence which lead to marital breakdown.
“Time” poverty used to be almost exclusively associated with mothers’ employment. Numerous studies explored whether younger children did better if their mother was a full-time homemaker rather than employed outside the home but found no clear results. Lately the lack of parental time for children has become much more acute because parents are working a total of 21 hours more per week than in 1970 and because there are more single-parent families. In 1965 the average child spent 30 hours a week interacting with a parent, compared with 17 hours in the 1980s.
Since it is not realistic for most families to take a cut in salary in order to have more family time, parents appear to spend more money on their children as a substitute for spending more time with them.
Since liberals believe in a market economy with sufficient government regulation to assure justice and equality of opportunity, they support those measures which will eradicate the worst poverty and assure the healthy reproduction of the next generation. However, liberals are aware of the perception that since 1970 the growth of government welfare programs has been associated with a rise in poverty among children. Payments to poor families with children, while not generous, have nevertheless enabled adults to be supported by attachment to their children. United States is trying to address material poverty through further government subsidy and time poverty through policies on parental leave and working hours.
Measures for addressing material poverty would stimulate various kinds of training and job opportunities. More recently, the focus has been on moving mothers off the welfare rolls by giving them job training and requiring them to join the labor force. Such action, it is believed, would bring their economic responsibility for supporting their children into line with their parental authority. A whole program of integrated supports for health insurance, job training, earned income tax credits for the working poor, child support by the noncustodial parent, and supported work has been proposed.
An opposite strategy is to consolidate authority over children with the state’s economic responsibility for their care by encouraging group homes and adoption for children whose parents cannot support them economically.
Means for addressing time poverty are evident in such legislative initiatives as the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. By encouraging employers to grant parental leave or other forms of flexible work time, government policy is recognizing the value of parents having more time with their children, but the beneficiaries of such change are largely middle-class families who can afford an unpaid parental leave.
Changing the tax law to remove the incentives for splitting, establishing paternity of children born out of wedlock, and intensifying child support enforcement to recover economic support from fathers are all examples of state efforts to strengthen the kinship unit.
Interdependence: The Feminist Vision of Work and Caregiving
A feminist perspective has elements in common with both conservatives and liberals, a respect for the family as an institution (shared with conservatives) and an appreciation for modernity (valued by the liberals). In addition, a feminists grapple with the problem of women’s traditionally subordinate status and how to improve it through both a “relational” and an “individualist” strategy while also sustaining family life and the healthy rearing of children.
Feminists are skeptical of both conservative and liberal solutions. Traditionalists have so often relied on women as the exploited and underpaid caregivers in the family to enable men’s activities in the public realm. Liberals are sometimes guilty of a “male” bias in focusing on the independent individual actor in the marketplace who does not realize that his so-called “independence” is possible only because he is actually dependent on all kinds of relationships that made possible his education and life in a stable social order.
By articulating the value of caregiving along with the ideal of women’s autonomy, feminists are in a position to examine modern capitalism critically for its effects on families and to offer alternative policies that place greater value on the quality of life and human relationships. They judge family strength not by their form (whether they have two-parents) but by their functioning (whether they promote human satisfaction and development) and whether both women and men are able to be family caregivers as well as productive workers. They attribute difficulties of children less to the absence of the two-parent family than to low-wage work of single mothers, inadequate child care, and inhospitable housing and neighborhoods.

Feminist Model

Lack of cooperation among community, family, and work


Families where adults are stressed and overburdened

Children lack sufficient care and attention from parent

Feminists would work for reforms that build and maintain the social capital of volunteer groups, neighborhoods, and communities because a healthy civil society promotes the well-being of families and individuals as well as economic prosperity and a democratic state. They would also recognize greater role flexibility across the life cycle so that both men and women could engage in caregiving, and they would encourage education and employment among women as well as among men.
Family values have become an issue because individualism has driven out the sense of collective responsibility in our national culture. American institutions and social policies have not properly implemented a concern for all citizens. Research on family structure, teenage pregnancy, poverty, and child outcomes in other countries demonstrates that where support is generous to help all families and children, there are higher levels of health and general education and lower levels of violence and child deviance than in the U.S.
Liberal thinking and the focus on the free market have made it seem that citizens make their greatest contribution when they are self-sufficient and keeping off the public dole.
Iris Young argues that many of the activities that are basic to a healthy democratic society (such as cultural production, caretaking, political organizing, and charitable activities) will never be profitable in a private market. Yet many of the recipients of welfare and Social Security such as homemakers, single mothers, and retirees are doing important volunteer work caring for children and helping others in their communities. Thus the social worth of a person’s contribution is not just in earning a paycheck that shows economic independence but also in making a social contribution. Such caretaking of other dependent citizens and of the body politic should he regarded as honorable, not inferior, and worthy of society’s support and subsidy.
These voluntary and unpaid services are thought by many to be the very basis necessary democracy. It too is under siege. To reverse this trend, social observers suggest that it will be necessary to guard time for families and leisure that is currently being sucked into the maw of paid employment. What is needed is a reorientation of priorities to give greater value to unpaid family and community work by both men and women. National policies should also he reoriented to give universal support to children at every economic level of society, but especially to poor children.
In a comparison of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks at the top in average male wages but near the bottom in its provision for disposable income for children. In comparison with the $700 per month available to children in Norway, France, or the Netherlands in 1992, U.S. children of a single nonemployed mother received only slightly under $200.
The discrepancy is explained by very unequal distribution of U.S. income, with the top quintile, the “fortunate fifth,” gaining 47% of the national income while the bottom fifth receives only 3.6%. This sharp inequality is, in turn, explained by an ideology of individualism that justifies the disproportionate gains of the few for their innovation and productivity and the meager income of the poor for their low initiative or competence. Lack of access to jobs and low pay accruing to many contingent service occupations simply worsen the picture.
Those who are concerned for strengthening the civil society immediately turn to the changing nature of the family as being a key building block.
Feminists worry that seemingly sensible efforts to reverse the trend of rising divorce and single parenthood will privilege the two-parent family to the detriment of women; they propose instead that family values be understood in a broader sense as valuing the family’s unique capacity for giving emotional and material support rather than implying simply a two-parent form.
Some regard the requirement that that all women stay in a marriage as an invitation to coercion and subordination and an assault on the principles of freedom and self-determination that are at the foundation of democracy.
The current welfare reform rhetoric that no couple should have a child unless they can support it, does not take into account the uncertainty of life in which people who start out married or with adequate income may not always remain so. In the face of the world-wide dethronement of the two-parent family (approximately one-quarter to one-third of all families around the globe are headed by women), marriage should not be seen as the cure for child poverty.
Mothers should not be seen as less than full citizens if they are not married or not employed.
National family policy should begin with a value on women’s autonomy and self-determination that includes the right to bear children. Mother-citizens are helping to produce the next generation for the whole society, and in that responsibility they deserve at least partial support.

The goal of the family is not only to bring up a healthy and productive new generation; families also provide the intimate and supportive group of kin or fictive kin that foster the health and well-being of every person — young or old, male or female, heterosexual, homosexual, or celibate. Recognition as “family” should therefore not be confined to the traditional two-parent unit connected by blood, marriage, or adoption, but should be extended to include kin of a divorced spouse, same-sex partnerships, congregate households of retired persons, group living arrangements, and so on.

Among all U.S. households in 1976, no one of the six major types constituted more than 15 to 20%:
19.1% were couples with children under 18 with the wife not in the labor force

17.1% were couples without children under 18 with the wife not in the labor force

15.4% were couples with children under 18 with the wife in the labor force

13.3% were couples without children under 18 with the wife in the labor force

14.4% were female- or male-headed households

20.6% were single persons living alone

Such diversity both describes and informs contemporary “family values” in the U.S. Each family type is numerous enough to have a legitimacy of its own, yet no single form is the dominant one. The larger value system has evolved to encompass beliefs and rules that legitimate each type on the spectrum. The regressive alternative is “fundamentalism” that treats the two-parent family with children as the only legitimate form, single-parent families as unworthy of support, and the nontraditional forms as illegitimate.
Amidst gradual acceptance of greater diversity in family form, the gender-role revolution is also loosening the sex-role expectations traditionally associated with breadwinning and homemaking. Feminists believe men and women can each do both. Women in advanced industrial nations have by and large converged upon a new life pattern of multiple roles by which they combine work and family life. The negative outcome is an almost universal “double burden” for working women.…The positive consequence appears to be improved physical and mental health for those women who, though stressed, combine home and family roles.
Feminists believe the problem of ill health, antisocial behavior, and poverty among children is due to the lack of institutional supports for the new type of dual-earner and single-parent families that are more prevalent today.
Rather than attempt to force families back into the traditional mold, feminists note that divorce, lone-mother families, and women’s employment are on the rise in every industrialized nation. But other countries have not seen the same devastating decline in child well-being, teen pregnancy, suicides and violent death, school failure, and a rising population of children in poverty.
These other countries have four key elements of social and family policy which protect all children and their mother’s: (1) work guarantees and other economic supports; (2) child care; (3) health care; and (4) housing subsidies. In the U.S. these benefits are scattered and uneven…
A first line of defense is to raise women’s wages through raising the minimum wage, then provide them greater access to male-dominated occupations with higher wages. …Training to improve their human capital, provision of child care, and broadening of benefits would help raise women’s capacity to support a family…
A second major benefit which is not assured to working mothers is child care.…If a child is sick, some mothers risk losing a job if they stay home.…Lack of good quality care for her children not only distracts a mother, adds to her absences from work, and makes her less productive, it also exposes the child to a lack of attention and care that leads to violent and antisocial behavior and poor performance in school.
Lack of medical benefits is a third gaping hole for poor children and lone-parent families.
Some housing subsidies or low-income housing are available to low-income families. But the neighborhoods and schools are frequently of poor quality and plagued by violence. To bring up children in a setting where they cannot safely play with others introduces important risk factors that cannot simply be attributed to divorce and single parenthood. Rather than being protected and being allowed to be innocent, children must learn to be competent at a very early age. The family, rather than being child-centered, must be adult-centered, not because parents are selfish or self-centered but because the institutions of the society have changed the context of family life. These demands may be too much for children, and depression, violence, teen suicide, teen pregnancy, and school failure may result. It would be myopic to think that simply restoring the two-parent family would be enough to solve all these problems.
Feminists focus on the need to revise and construct institutions to accommodate the new realities of work and family life. This requires a broader interpretation of family values, a recognition that families benefit not only their members but the public interest, and fresh thinking about how to schedule work and family demands of everyday life as well as the entire life cycle of men and women.
The understanding of family values has to be extended in two ways. First, American values should be stretched to embrace all citizens, their children and families, whether they are poor, white or people of color, or living in a one-parent family. Today many Americans still speak and act politically in ways suggesting that they disown other people’s children as the next generation who will inherit the land and support the economy. Yet in the view of most feminists and other progressive reformers, all these children should be embraced for the long-term good of the nation.
By a commitment to “family values” feminists secondly intend to valorize the family as a distinctive intimate group of many forms that is needed by persons of all ages but especially children. To serve the needs of children and other dependent persons, the family must be given support and encouragement by the state to carry out its unique functions. Iris Young contends that marriage should not be used to reduce the ultimate need for the state to serve as a means to distribute needed supports to the families of those less fortunate.
At the community level families should be embraced by all institutions of a civil society — schools, hospitals, churches, and employers — as the hidden but necessary complement to the bureaucratic and impersonal workings of these formal organizations. Schools rely on parents for the child’s “school readiness.” Hospitals send home patients who need considerable home care before becoming completely well. The work of the church is carried out and reinforced in the family; and when families fail, it is the unconditional love and intimacy of family that the church tries to replicate. Employers depend on families to give the rest, shelter, emotional support, and other maintenance of human capital that will motivate workers and make them productive.
Feminists would especially like to see the reintegration of work and family life that was torn apart at the time of the industrial revolution when productive work moved out of the home and into the factory. Several proposals appear repeatedly: paid parental leave; flexible hours and part-time work shared by working parents but without loss of benefits and promotion opportunities; home-based work; child care for sick children and after-school supervision. Although some progress has been made, acceptance of these reforms has been very slow.
Ultimately these trends may alter the shape of women’s and men’s life cycles. Increasingly, a new ideal for the life course is being held up as the model that society should work toward. Both women and men feel they must work so intensely to establish their careers that they have too little time for their children. For the poor and untrained, the problem is the opposite: childbearing and childrearing are far more satisfying and validating than a low-paying, dead-end job. The question is how to reorient educators or employers to factor in time with family as an important obligation to society (much as one would factor in military service, for example). Such institutional reorganization is necessary to give families and childrearing their proper place in the modern postindustrial society.
The most promising social policies for families and children take their direction from inclusive values that confirm the good life and the well-being of every individual as the ultimate goal of the nation. The policy challenge is to adjust the partnership between the family and its surrounding institutions so that together they combine the best of private initiative with public concern.

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