The White House Conference on Families, straining to make itself all things to all Americans, stands a good chance of becoming nothing to anybody.
It's easy enough to see why. Just ask yourself which aspect of our national life, public and private, have an impact on the family. The answer: all of them. So what the WHCF seems on its way to becoming is a multi-city conference of everything, which is a lot like a series of sessions on nothing.
Recent news stories have pointed out that some of the pre-conference hearings have become battlegrounds over such emotion-laden issues as abortion. The implication of the stories was that people with specific political axes to grind were taking unfair advantage of the planning conference to push their own views. (And whose views were they expected to push?)
The problem is not parochial ax-grinding but over-inclusiveness built into President Carter's initial charge to "examine the strengths of American families and the ways in which family life is affected by public policies." If there is any doubt that every public policy affects family life in one way or another, listen to Michael Grant, a spokesman for the WHCF.
He begins by expressing his dismay over the attempts of anti-abortion people and political conservatives to take over the conference, then moves quickly to his own special concern: the slowness of black Americans to get involved in the pre-conference planning.
"As far as black people are concerned," says Grant, who is a black male, "if we don't deal with some of the obstacles the black male has to overcome, we're not serious about helping the black family."
And what are some of those obstacles? The 28-year-old Grant is glad you asked.
"The black male is the only disadvantaged category whose lot is worse since the inception of affirmative-action programs.Women, white and black, have improved their lot, and so have other minorities. But the black male is worse off in both the public and private sectors. How can we talk about strong families if we constantly denigrate the black male, the ostensible head of the family?
"Whites in management don't do as well because they have few skills, or are too arrogant, or don't stick to their jobs, and so forth. Black participants should insist on attacking these stereotypes."
Affirmative action isn't Grant's only concern, of course. Isn't it obvious, he says, that disproportionate unemployment among young blacks has a deleterious effect on their potential to become adequate heads of their families?
Isn't it also obvious that joblessness leads to crime and incarceration?How can we build strong black families if thousands of black fathers are behind bars?
"Even when we deal with teen-age pregnancy, which obviously has a negative effect on families, we tend to leave out the boy. In almost everything we do, the black male is either a nonentity or a negative entity."
You don't have to disagree with Grant's analysis to understand the absurdity of expecting a conference on families to deal with every aspect of racial injustice as well as with the whole gamut of social and economic problems. It may be true, as Grant contends, that "the grass-roots people are saying that if we had more income, our wives wouldn't have to work, and that would be good for the family." But can the conference be expected to deal with the size of husbands' paychecks?
If President Carter had anything specific in mind when he first proposed the conference, I suspect it was such things as the so-called "marriage tax? that makes it cheaper for couples to live together than to get married; or the man-in-the-house welfare rule that encourages jobless fathers to abandon their families; or foster-care policies that, by focusing on individual children rather than on families, serve to break up family units; or military relocation policies that prevent families from developing community roots.
And it may well be that some of these issues will be addressed at the conference to be held in June and July in Baltimore, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. There might even be some useful proposals regarding these issues. But the early indications are that the sessions will be wide-open affairs leading to a truckload of proposals that will gather dust while Carter pursues his reelection bid.
All in all, it's a pretty discouraging prospect for those of us who consider ourselves friends of the family.