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News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Support policies to boost families

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:02am

It is interesting; we’ll give it that.

This week, Kelli María Korducki had an article published by BusinessInsider.com under the headline, “Farewell — and good riddance — to the ‘typical American family.’ ” The gist is that the traditional nuclear family — a mother and father living together with 2.5 children — was largely a fluke of post-war America. That the United States of the 1950s and early 1960s was a unique place and time that continues to be mythologized but is outdated.

Certainly, there are plenty of Americans who long for the stability and prosperity depicted by the likes of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver.” And many a politician has made a career out of defending what they perceive to be “American values” or “family values” or the “values” of whichever town or state they desire to represent.

There is nothing wrong with that; strong family units contribute to a stable and prosperous society. Evidence shows the United States has the highest percentage of single-parent households, and that children reared in two-parent households tend to fare better in their lives. Combine those facts and you can see the importance of the issue.

That being said, we are much better off as a nation for expanding our definition of what constitutes a “family.” There is more than one way to raise a successful, self-possessed child, despite what our heteronormative, Anglo ideation of the 1950s tells us.

But in pondering all of this, it is striking how public policy and political rhetoric and populist hypocrisy affect the basic American family unit. In other words, a lot of factors contribute to what some see as the breakdown of the family.

Pew Research says that in 1970, more than two-thirds of Americans aged 25-49 lived with a spouse and at least one child; now, the number is 37 percent. But it seems that rather than blaming declining morals or a permissive society or different ethnic backgrounds, it would make sense to examine the causes. And the primary cause of this change is a decline of the middle class.

Once upon a time, in what is now viewed as an idyllic era, an American family could own a home and raise children on one household income. Or, at least, middle class white families could do so.

Until around the early 1970s, women typically had little economic independence. Many chose to work in the home, but those who wanted to work outside the home had limited opportunities. Meanwhile, Black Americans — and those of other minority groups — often were not considered for the types of middle-class jobs that allowed for the accumulation of wealth. Artificially limiting the labor supply led to salaries that were higher than today, relatively speaking, allowing for privileged families to subsist on single incomes.

This followed a generation of benefits from the G.I. Bill, which was specifically written to exclude most Black veterans while the white middle class prospered. We can argue that such discrimination is a thing of the past; but that is like giving somebody a head start in a 100-meter dash and then saying the second-place finisher just wasn’t fast enough.

At the same time, private labor unions were prominent, increasing salaries and improving conditions for the working class. It is interesting these days to see blue-collar workers mostly support the Republican Party, which has spent 40 years actively undermining worker rights and diminishing the impact of labor unions.

The 1956 Republican Party platform stresses, “We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs.” It then mentions Social Security, unemployment insurance, improved housing and health coverage. Today, such a declaration would be decried as “woke.”

All of this might seem disconnected from the state of American families. In truth, it is inseparable. Because if we want to strengthen American families and our notion of the family unit, it seems that we should support policies to do exactly that.