Surely you can understand the poor guy’s feelings. After a hard day’s work, he sits down to read the paper, dog at his feet, wife at his side. The first thing he sees is a feature article about three lesbian unwed mothers raising their mulatto children in a geodesic dome. “Cupcake,” the guy says, “it isn’t inflation or Iran that’s ruining this country. It’s the crisis of the family.”

The crisis of the family may not strike you as the central issue of our times, but you’ll start hearing that argument any day. This month, the White House Conference on Families will stage $3-million worth of crisis pronouncements in hearing-like assemblies around the country.

Holding the conference was a Carter campaign promise. Carter said there “was no more urgent priority” than to “adopt a family policy.” This politically harmless contention helped him frame issues in appealing terms. (Why say, “This tax is regressive,” when you can say, “This tax hurts the average family”?) Current reelection ads show the President helping Amy with her homework. Carter image strategists, informed sources say, decided to keep the family issue prominent when the chief renomination opponent turned out to be a man whose wife lives 400 miles away from him.

The likely level of debate was indicated early on, when the first conference director was named. She was Patsy Fleming, a divorced black mother. Then-HEW secretary Joe Califano insisted that a white Catholic man with an ideal family be named co-director to balance the shocking notions Fleming represented. Fleming quit. Luckily, there is still a white Catholic man with an intact family in America. His name is John Carr, and he was appointed to replace Fleming. Meanwhile the conference’s political clout went to its chairman, former Arkansas Congressman Jim Guy Tucker, who was an early Carter supporter and itching to stage a comeback after losing his state’s Democratic senatorial nomination to David Pryor.

If the Fleming debate sounds superficial (no one accused her of being incapable, just black and divorced), it was Socratic inquiry compared to the next argument over how one defines a “family.” During initial rounds of hearings held last year in various states, where 2,000 people “testified” and delegates to the final hearings were elected, various rightish “pro-family” groups with names like Moral Majority and Eagle Forum tried to take Over the conference. After their favored points of contention-abortion and ERA—were ruled out of order, they concentrated on trying to impose a strict definition of the family on all conference discussions. Their definition limited family members to those related by blood, adoption, or marriage.

In an attempt to placate the millions of Americans who have made other arrangements, Tucker trotted in liberals who maintained that homosexuals, communal partners, and others with “minority lifestyles” could be families too. A number of “experts” who call themselves “professional family facilitators” told hearings that a single person, living alone, could constitute a “family.” (“Have you hugged yourself today?”)

Tucker’s fighting to keep the definition quagmire off the final agenda. He’ll probably lose. But he shouldn’t feel bad. He’ll soon discover what conference veterans already know, that endless debate over definitions has a most welcome side effect: it limits the time available to discuss anything specific, like whether new laws should be passed, or old ones repealed.

Conferences are allegedly called for the purpose of generating innovative ideas on legislation and policy (after all, the legislature is already assembled to handle the details), but if they never quite get around to that, the White House usually considers it a mark of success, not failure. Barry Jagoda, a former Carter media advisor and organizer of other conferences, explained: “What’s the best thing for a consensus politician like Carter to do with any question? Refer it to committee for ‘discussion.’ “

Most important, debating the definition will prevent a confrontation with the conference’s seminal flaw: if public policymakers can’t even decide whether any particular form of cohabitation is desirable or undesirable, how can they possibly determine what things government action should encourage or discourage? At least economic policy is guided by the commonly shared notion that inflation is bad; the most dynamic consensus in “family policy” is that people should be happy.

Top Floor for Rent

The vagueness of family policy is indicated in the sorts of “programs” proposed during the initial conference hearings. Several “facilitators” suggested that “family impact statements” be required of all legislative bills and regulations. Presumably, this would—in addition to enriching the facilitators with study grants—alert families to impacts they might otherwise overlook. A new military draft, for example, would free up a room for rent. Teams of consultants could fan out across America, quantifying the square footage impacted.

The conference press office points with pride to a slate of “key family issues,” drafted by the South Dakota delegation, as the sort of vital business to be discussed. Among the “key issues” are “encouraging families to spend more quality time together.” This would lead, no doubt, to the Weekly After-Dinner Monopoly Game Encouragement Act of 1980.

One of the few specific issues likely to be addressed is the “marriage tax,” which forces married couples to pay more taxes than unmarried ones in identical situations. This inequity should be changed of course, but not because of its impact on the family-rather, because it is unfair. Another distinct family issue to be discussed is care for the aged. Medicare provides subsidies to lock up your grandmother in an institution, but not to care for her at home. This policy is transparently foolish. It offers an incentive to shunt Granny off to loneliness and mistreatment, while penalizing those who have the decency and love to keep her home.

Conference officials hope for some kind of resolution condemning this policy, but if they get it, it’s likely to be watered down. Why? No one will say this with the cameras rolling, but there is a large constituency of people who want to dump Granny. Medicare’s structure not only provides them with the means to do so, but a ready excuse. (“It’s not the way we want it, dearie, but what else can we do?’) Ending the subsidy for nursing homes, in many people’s minds, would make the quality of family life decline.

“Professional family facilitators” told hearings that a single person, living alone, could constitute a “family.” Have you hugged yourself today?

It’s no surprise that much of the conference agenda planning is based on a 1976 Califano memo that says,”The most severe threat to family life stems from unemployment and lack of adequate income.” If by that Califano meant that being out of work or poor makes people living with other people miserable, he’s right. Of course, it makes people living in caves miserable too. Here you see the amorphous nature of trying to frame government initiatives in “family” terms. Are we to take the next step and assume that economic prosperity, which helps every individual, is “good” for “families”? Facilitators at the initial hearings repeatedly proclaimed that the traditional family began breaking up in the 1960s. The early 1960s were one of the greatest periods of prosperity in our history.

Facile Facilitators

Even members of the conference’s own advisory board make no pretense of expecting any accomplishment. Eleanor Smeal, director of the National Organization for Women—one of the liberals who triumphed by getting substantive issues like abortion and ERA ruled out of order—says the final recommendations will be just “another study to gather dust.”

About the only segment of the population sure to be served by the conference is the facilitators, who want more government money poured into their ambiguous occupations. Harvard sociologist Joseph Featherstone points out that ten years ago, when the baby boomers were still in their teens, social service professionals focused on children’s affairs. Now that the babies are having babies, universities and think tanks increasingly see “the family” as their entree to federal grants. They’ve even gotten to The Wall Street Journal. Recently the Journal noted in an editorial that Carter had created an “Office for Families” in the new Department of Health and Human Resources. “Yet six months later,” the Journal said sternly, “that office has no director, only one professional, and no funds for action.”

The Journal didn’t get bogged down in specifics about what “action” the Office for Families might engage in. Provide a meeting room for families visiting Washington (” … at 4 o’clock we’ll all meet back at our office”)? Finance training films for individuals trying to become families? The Journal‘s editorial simply helped boost the synthetic sense of crisis—a sense that paralyzes Washington by simultaneously exaggerating every issue’s importance and creating the impression that it cannot be addressed without establishing yet another new government entity. That’s the story of the White House Conference on Families this year. No doubt it will be the story next year, too, during the long-awaited White House Conference on Feelings.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.