JOINED AT THE HEART

The Transformation

Of the American Family

By Al and Tipper Gore

Henry Holt. 417 pp. $26

Joined at the Heart is a moving tribute to the courage, resilience and diversity of contemporary American families. Passionate and deeply felt without veering into sentimentality, this book is likely to resonate with the many Americans who have been reflecting of late on the value of family and community -- precisely what Al and Tipper Gore do so well in this book. If their effort falls short as a prescriptive for the multiple ills that assail today's family units, they nonetheless convince us of their genuine concern for struggling households across the nation.

The Gores' book offers four distinct lenses through which to view "family." The authors tell stories from the lives of real families to illustrate the subject matter of a chapter; they then incorporate the insights of experts in the relevant field, highlight the latest research, and add to this mix vignettes from their own lives. These vignettes are particularly effective in demonstrating how much the Gores care about families -- their own and others'.

The stories that thread through Joined at the Heart are powerful. For example, Chapter Seven -- which focuses on resilience -- begins with the story of Tony Wallace, who at age 3 saw his father bleed to death because the ambulance service in 1950s Mississippi gave low priority to poor black people and took two hours to respond to an emergency call. Despite difficult early circumstances, Wallace grew up to be a successful businessman and community leader in Indianapolis. What was the source of his resilience? A wife who had enormous strength of character and a bevy of relatives who leaned over backward to help the young couple.

Chapter Seven winds down with stories from the frontlines of the Gore family. The authors tell of their struggle to regroup and rebuild after their son, Albert, was seriously injured in a car accident. They describe how they dug deep and discovered new sources of strength in their church, their school and the wider community. They also tell of the knockout effects of this crisis. With impressive candor, they describe how Tipper plunged into a deep clinical depression, which they initially covered up. Eventually, they learned to be open about her condition and were able to seek the right kind of help.

Joined at the Heart is particularly persuasive when the authors focus on how individuals and small-scale community groups can help meet the needs and aspirations of families. In Chapter Five, the Gores describe how a Florida community nurtures both the young and the elderly by regularly uniting children from a daycare center with residents of a nearby nursing home. "When the children come streaming out of their bus and into the common room of the nursing home, they immediately seek out their favorite grandparents and play games, read books or listen to stories," the Gores write, and the reader is ready to sign on and see this program replicated around the nation.

Despite its enormous strengths on the storytelling front, however, Joined at the Heart has significant shortcomings. Al Gore is likely to be a contender in the 2004 presidential race, and we are more than usually interested in his views. But this book fails to produce the hard-hitting analysis that might lead to the breakthroughs in public policy American families so desperately need.

The Gores identify numerous distressing problems facing contemporary families. In Chapter Four, "For Richer and For Poorer," the authors do a particularly fine job of detailing the problems facing low-echelon working parents like Dawn Hancock. Nineteen-year-old Hancock was abandoned by her husband -- he just dropped her off at her grandmother's house with their 8-month-old son, a box of clothes, a bag of diapers and a $10 bill. Hancock scrambled -- and before long she was holding down two minimum-wage jobs and sharing a trailer with her younger sister.

Stories like this leave the reader with a vivid sense of the challenges facing American families but very little sense of what the solutions might be. Joined at the Heart lacks any in-depth analysis of Hancock's problems, or any serious effort to link these to the ideologically charged arguments that impede progress in this field. Yes, the authors refer to cutting-edge research and key policymakers, but rather than tackling the roadblocks that stand in the way of action, they merely showcase various "voices" and then quickly move to a laundry list of recommendations that lack conviction because they are not grounded in rigorous analysis.

This lack of rigor is conspicuous when the Gores gloss over some of the more difficult choices that bedevil family policy. Joined at the Heart both celebrates the wonderful diversity of American family life and allows the reader to imagine that we can somehow fix the serious problems these families face -- absentee fathers, high rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy, low-wage jobs -- simply by expanding the web of supports. This is seriously misleading. Policy initiatives suggested by the Gores, such as expanding paid parenting leave and improving access to health care and flextime, would help. In fact, these measures would help a lot. But we also need more radical initiatives. Legislation to raise the minimum wage by a serious amount is absolutely critical. We also need to bolster two-parent families. As various experts have pointed out, we cannot deal with the distress visited on children by high rates of father absence, or the neglect of children of overburdened single mothers, by simply improving social services. Scholars across the ideological divide -- from Sara McLanahan on the left to David Blankenhorn on the right -- are now agreed: Some family types are better than others when it comes to the care and nurture of children. When Al and Tipper Gore bend over backward in their book not to rank family types, they do no one a favor -- least of all the children they care so much about.

The Gores also fail to deal with another difficult challenge. If families are so very loving, supportive and rewarding, how come so many Americans adults are opting out of family life?

The figures are eye-catching. In the year 2000, only 33 percent of Americans were living in households with dependent children, compared with 45 percent in 1970. Indeed, as I discovered in a nationwide survey I conducted in early 2001, fully a third of American women earning more than $55,000 a year are childless at age 40 and are likely to live out their lives without the conventional trappings of family.

These figures reflect a challenge that is truly formidable. Somehow, we have constructed a society and an economy that are so inhospitable to family life -- and so hostile to children -- that large numbers of people either elect not to have a family, or find, to their dismay, that they are shut out of the possibility of having one.

These are just two of the serious problems at the cutting edge of family policy. Joined at the Heart glosses over one while totally ignoring the other. At bottom, the Gores are unwilling to acknowledge the depth or scope of the problems facing American families -- they prefer to slide over the more uncomfortable realities. This is the fundamental reason why the policies featured in this book seem so pale and inadequate. Problems of this scale are not susceptible to bland, feel-good remedies. *

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the author, most recently, of "Creating A Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children."

From "The Spirit of Family," a collection of photographs, by Al and Tipper Gore (Henry Holt, $35)