The New “Family Values” Debate

The cover article in the March/April/May issue of the Washington Monthly was produced by a collaboration of four distinguished writers and scholars noting two developments that could transform the “family values” debate in this country: marriage equality, which makes that institution no longer exclusivist and traditionalist; and a new polarization on marriage along economic rather than cultural grounds.

David Blankenhorn and Barbara Defoe Whitehead of the Institute for American Values, and William Galston and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, collaborated on this piece, with input from many other contributors. It argues not only that marriage equality has turned the “old culture war assumptions upside-down,” but has also created an opportunity for bipartisan and trans-ideological cooperation in improving family stability among the low-to-moderate income Americans of every race and ethnicity who are increasingly living without the wealth-and-opportunity-boosting assets unquestionably associated with two-parent families.

[T]he facts on the ground are creating a natural confluence of interest between progressives who care about equality and conservatives who care about family. Today’s class-based marriage divide is an important contributor to inequality, and it is a gap that no politically plausible amount of government transfers can fill. Progressives thus are coming to realize that they need to be concerned about family structure if they care about social justice.

By the same token, as it becomes increasingly clear that aspirations to family formation are being stymied by wage stagnation and disappointing job prospects among working-class and less-educated men, conservatives are coming to realize that they need to be concerned about economic and labor market bottlenecks that reduce men’s employability, damage their marriageability, and help drive the cycle of family decline.

The article suggests a major goal should be to systematically address the economic gap between “two-two-two-one households”–those with “two parents, two college degrees, two incomes, and one stable marriage”–and more typical arrangements that prevail among many less affluent Americans. This will require that conservatives stop minimizing economic barriers to family stability. And it will also require that some progressives stop pretending that family stability doesn’t affect economic opportunity.

Many advocates of strengthening the family, for many years, have praised the two-parent married family as a touchstone of America’s economic and moral vitality. So it is, but where marriage advocates may often have gone wrong in the past was to imply that those who could not or did not conform to the standard template—gays, single mothers, and others—were opponents rather than potential recruits. In fact, what the same-sex marriage movement shows is that gay and lesbian Americans did not want to undermine marriage: they wanted to join it.

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the same is true of many single mothers and fathers: they are not rejecting family values so much as feeling rejected by them, or at least unable to sustain them. No doubt, there are people out there who purposefully reject social norms like marriage and parental responsibility. But they are not the typical case or the case to which public policy should primarily address itself. The constructive focus is on the many more who would like to practice family values, if only they had the social, cultural, and economic capital to do so.

It’s a provocative hypothesis that some readers may not entirely buy, but definitely worth the read–not just the premise of a potential convergence on the health of families as a bipartisan issue, but the agenda the authors lay out for building on that convergence. I’ll probably have more to say about it later, but for now, check it out.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.