Archive   |   Biography   |   RSS Feed   |   Opinions Home

'Family Values' Chutzpah

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

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.

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.

Now, I'm not a scholar of the sitcom, but I did watch "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" as a child, marveling that anything labeled "Adventures" could be so dull. And I don't recall a single episode in which the family had to do without because Ozzie had lost his job or missed taking David or Ricky to the doctor for fear he couldn't pay for it.

Which may explain why the Ozzie and Harriet family -- modified by feminism, since Harriet now holds down a job, too -- still rolls along within the upper-middle class but has become much harder to find in working-class America, where cohabitation without marriage has increasingly become the norm. Taking into account all households, married couples with children are twice as likely to be in the top 20 percent of incomes, Harden reported. Their incomes have increased 59 percent over the past 30 years, while households overall have experienced just a 44 percent increase.

To be sure, the '60s, with its assaults on traditional authority, played some role in weakening the traditional family.

But its message was sounded loudest and clearest on elite college campuses, whose graduates were nonetheless the group most likely to have stable marriages. Then again, they were also the group most likely to have stable careers.

They enjoyed financial stability; they could plan for the future.

Such was not the case for working-class Americans. 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.

Which is how American conservatism became the primary author of the very social disorder that it routinely rails against, and that Republicans have the gall to run against.

The party of family values? Please. If that's the banner that Republicans continue to wave, then they should certainly make Rudy Giuliani, who couldn't bestir himself to attend his son's high school graduation or his daughter's high school plays, their presidential nominee. No candidate could better personify the sham that is Republicans' and conservatives' concern for the American family.

meyersonh@washpost.com


More Washington Post Opinions

PostPartisan

Post Partisan

Quick takes from The Post's opinion writers.

Washington Sketch

Washington Sketch

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the capital.

Tom Toles

Tom Toles

See his latest editorial cartoon.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity