“As a country, we could be on the verge of a really good discussion of this, where we acknowledge that parental responsibility matters, that how kids are raised matters, but also that there are economic causes of this. Those of us who are on the more progressive side should be willing to engage in the conversation about family, personal responsibility, and all that.” — E.J. Dionne
“It’s like stable marriage and community are the secret sauce of economic well-being that nobody on the left wants to admit to using.”
Why aren’t we willing? Why won’t we admit it?
The author of the Atlantic article, Emma Green, touches on some reasons. For one, religion, a widely accepted driver of “family values,” apparently isn’t palatable in policy conversations among liberals, due to the conflicting values of pluralism and tolerance. Second, liberals would feel pretty sheepish if, after fighting oppression and standing up to traditions that have kept women in their place, they had to then admit “Um, by the way, it seems it does help to have two people raise children. Let’s encourage that!” Third, there’s not just a little bit of trepidation: would you want to be on the left and tell a single mother that her choices make pretty much everything harder for herself, her children and her community immediately and in the long-run (as if she did not know that already?)? Now add race into the mix of that conversation. [Crickets chirp.]
So yeah. It’s difficult to have policy discussions about families and the values and actions that strengthen them. I agree with E.J. Dionne, who says that “if you care about social justice, you’ve got to care about families. But if you care about families, you’ve got to care about social justice.” (So does Jim Wallis.)
Now, I’m on the left. Not far left, but left of center. But you know that “secret sauce” Ms. Green mentions? The reason I am a poster-child for “traditional family values,” home as I am, raising the children, while my husband is out, earning the money?
We are lucky, we are educated, and we can afford it. It’s not a secret sauce. It’s a scarce sauce.
Everybody has the same values. Everybody wants to live a good life. Everybody. But not everybody has an education that earns them not only money, but trains them to manage life and be responsible. Sometimes that’s by choice. But for the most part, it’s due to circumstance.
Three days ago, I read an excerpt from Jennifer Silva’s upcoming book, Coming Up Short. (The Salon.com headline for the excerpt, “The 1 percent ruined love: Marriage is for the rich” was sensational, but it worked. I read the excerpt.) I wonder if Jennifer Silva attended the recent Atlantic working summit on economic security. From her book:
“Today’s young men and women are waiting longer to get married…They are also less likely than their Baby Boomer counterparts to stay married… or to have children all together. While these [facts] may be read as a commentary on the declining value of marriage and family, a closer look reveals that they are more accurately a story of inequality… national data reveal a growing “divorce divide” in the United States: since the 1970s, marital dissolution rates have fallen dramatically among highly educated men and women but remained steady among those with lower education… the material and symbolic benefits of marriage… accrue to those already born in the top of the income distribution.”
It’s easier to stay married–to work through conflict and give time to your relationship, to manage a home, to raise children–if you’re not worried about money. Even easier if you’ve never really had to worry about it. I posted this pretty (and stark) picture last year.
We can have all sorts of honest conversations about the importance of a stable family structure on the socioeconomic well being of our children and our communities. But I keep trying to figure out where those conversations go. I can’t help but think that these conversations would all end up with one party saying, “Easy for you to say. You’re kind’a lucky and relatively rich.”
It’s not a liberal-versus-conservative conversation. It’s not a left-versus-right, or even religious-versus-non-religious conversation. It’s a conversation about economic class.
Until our nation does something serious and substantive to close the income gap, (and the wealth gap, too, for that matter), families and their structures are going to continue to reflect problems, not cause them. In his interview with The New York Times:
[President Obama] noted at one point that he has in the Oval Office a framed copy of the original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He uses it, he said, to remind people “that was a march for jobs and justice; that there was a massive economic component to that. When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality. It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot.”
A fair shot. A fair shot at the damn sauce.