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The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution makes no public commitment to the protection of family life, but rather defines rights and privileges solely in individualist terms. This emphasis on individualism seems as powerful today as when it was incorporated into the Constitution by the founding fathers. Few would argue that many symbols are more powerful in America society than that of the family. Commentators of all ideological persuasions have long claimed that strong family units provide a necessary foundation for a free society.

Political stability is strongly identified not only with individual interests, but also the collective interest of families. Although the United States had the least articulated family policy of any industrial society, public policy has most certainly had a profound effect on families. The political system has long been active in creating a legal infrastructure to support families, as well as regulating the form they take. Specific infrastructure functions such as family policy even in these limited areas.

Differing state laws and judicial decisions have created a complex network of family policies. The variations that can exist across such regulations can be striking. Often such variations extend to requirements and benefits of joint federal and state programs that continue to grant state a significant degree of administrative flexibility. Prior to the economic crisis of the 1930’s the role of the federal government in family policy was quite limited. Most social welfare programs were centered in the private sector.

Those public programs that did exist were very limited and were usually administered by state and local authorities. The depression overwhelmed this traditional system and created a strong political demand for action at the federal level. The passage of the 1935 Social Security Act laid the groundwork for the contemporary American social welfare system and what many see as the federal family policy. The Act created not only the social security pension system but also Aid for Dependent Children, Unemployment Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.

Two important aspects of these programs should be noted. First is the significant exception of the pension system, states retained a key administrative role in the programs. This is so the tradition of no single national social welfare policy was maintained. The second is that there is little evidence that these programs were established within an explicitly family framework. This defines a national family policy only in the sense that they have a direct impact on families, and that they were implemented using families as recipients (Duncan, 1984).

Since the 1930’s a number of social theorists and policymakers have argued that the United States ought to formulate a more explicit family policy. They claim that numerous social problems ranging from crime and delinquency to poverty and unemployment are the result of pathologies within the institution of the family. Family and family life ought to be more directly taken into account in the development of domestic social welfare policy. While this view has never been explicitly embraced by the federal government, such logic is evident in a number of important pieces of more recent social legislation.

For example, compensatory educational and employment training programs are described as efforts to supplement cultural and educational deficiencies within the home. Income maintenance programs are justified on the basis of an inability of the family to provide for its members. Often such programs seek to create a work ethic thought to be absent in poverty families, and will reduce future welfare expenditures (Lewis, 1963). During the mid-1970’s interest in family policy was spurred by demographics alerting the American public to the fact that family life was changing.

Particularly dramatic was the sharp rise in female headed households. Often these changes were perceived as indicators of deterioration and viewed with great alarm. Increased efforts were made to develop policies accommodating family problems such as higher divorce rates, family violence, substance abuse, and teenage suicide. Discussions are heard over such changing family trends as women’s presence in the workplace, the need for childcare services, and the growing numbers of elderly dependents.

The 1980 White House Conference on Families explicitly debated the issue of the appropriate link between government and family life. Although the White House Conference increased the visibility of family policy as a political issue, it also revealed a lack of consensus as to the future direction such policy should take (Harland, 2007). Throughout the 1980’s the Regan administration has sought to reduce reliance on the public social welfare system and rely instead on market forces to solve social problems.

Yet even as it attempted to cut welfare spending the Reagan administration dramatically increased the explicitly salience of families as a political issue by saying and also implementing a conservative pro-family policy. This apparent contradiction is explained by efforts of the administration to de-emphasize the traditional linkage between social welfare policy and family policy. For the administration the targets of family policy are sound, traditional households, not the pathological families so often associated with social welfare.

Such policy was based on the premise that intact traditional families are the answer to many of our political, cultural, and economic woes. Families should not be ignored but supported by federal policy. But critics argue that many of the administrations proposals are misguided and there appears to be a growing consensus that it is appropriate for government to take a proactive view toward public policy and families in American society (Duncan, 1984).

The popular belief that the family is the fundamental unit of society and as result efforts to enhance the quality of family life are viewed as efforts to strengthen the society itself, to some this action might undermine the family are seen as having the potential of undermining social order. The logic of this view rests in part on the obvious importance of families in the maintenance of social organization. The family retains a pre-eminent role in the socialization of children, as well as a fundamental economic role.

This latter role is clearly important even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the family has a declining stake in direction economic production. The family is an important source of income redistribution, particularly that which occurs across generations (Duncan, 1984). The key to understanding the power of the family as a positive political symbol is to recognize that the various social roles of family are not seen as functional, but are perceived as ethically and nominative correct. Social and economic roles traditionally associated with the family are thought best fulfilled there.

Other institutions, in particular political institutions are seen as relatively poor providers of a wide range of family services. As an example you can look to the widespread support for the abstract notion that the most appropriate source of care for the elderly in some form of multigenerational living arrangements within an extended family. This has been seen or portrayed that such arrangements are seldom the preferences of real family does little to diminish the symbolic attachment of multigenerational family living (Ozawa & Yeong-Tsyr, 1994).

This ideal view of family is associated with a particular vision of the family that assumes a stable two parent household with a working father and stay at home mother. This vision of the ideal family plays a powerful role across a wide range of ideological predispositions and is surely not as is sometimes suggested the sole providence of the conservative right. Closely associated with the view that families are the fundamental unit maintaining social organization is the view that a wide range of social pathologies are best understood in terms of failing within the family.

Alleged breakdowns in the American family have been blamed for a whole range of social ills, ranging from drug abuse, to teenage pregnancy, to poverty. Often such pathologies are seen as a failure of individuals to internalize appropriate social norms. Since most seen the primary role of the family as the socialization of the young, the argument that socialization was incomplete or maybe faulty would seem to target criticism directly to family units (Harland, 2007). This view of the family as a problem is perhaps most developed in the literature that claims to identify a culture of poverty.

Although numerous scholars have proposed specific descriptions of a culture of poverty, most are consistent with the classic description formulation presented by Oscar Lewis (1963). Lewis’s view of poverty centered about two central assumptions. The first saw poverty as a long term phenomena that often extended through generations within families. His second assumption linked the stability of poverty with a set of attitudes and beliefs that severely reduced the individual’s prospect of escaping poverty.

These attitudes centered on the individual’s attitude toward work and self-improvement as well as their relationship to the broader society. It is the family of course, which is seen as a conduit for such attitudes.

Reference: Duncan, G. J. (1984). Years of poverty, years of plenty. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Harland, Maddy. (2007). The ethical heart of permculture. New Internationalist, 402, p. 6-6 Lewis, O. (1963, November). The culture of poverty. Trans-Action, p. 17-19. Ozawa, M. N. & Yeong-Tsyr Wang. (1994). Distributive effects of benefits and taxes. Social Work Research, 18(3), p. 149-162.

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