Family Matters

In the waning days of the 2006 election campaign, it appeared that being pro-family was the most important aspect of our democratic process: Grand statements were made “in defense of marriage,” or at least in defense of a concept of marriage. Pro-family candidates—and what candidate isn’t pro-family?—from both parties displayed their nuclear families (who, fittingly, almost always wore smiles that were nearly radioactive) in TV ads that were short on policy content but assured voters that candidates do not apparently eat their young. Soon, we were assured, taxes would be cut, services increased, and schools improved—all to support families, of course. And with the elections over, the vulnerable youth of our country will be safe from culture-coarsening campaign ads for perhaps a year. If we’re lucky.

James Dobson is pro-family; my neighbor with the Pro-Child, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice bumper sticker is pro-family. Under some definitions, Tony Soprano is pro-family. A cynic might assume that someone is lying about their support for families, or that people are pulling the phrase from different dictionaries, possibly from different planets. Of course, deep-seated differences of understanding about who constitutes a family and the proper roles within it do drive the most divisive “pro-family” rhetoric. Political maneuvering and pandering then exploits those philosophical differences, often using “support for families” as a bait and switch to promote policies that arguably have little or nothing to do with the real daily struggles and joys of real families.

But pull back the rhetorical brambles and sidestep the political landmines and there is, at least, agreement among broad segments of the political spectrum that families, broadly defined, are important. A family ideally exists for the mutual emotional and material support of its members; protection, nurture, and education of children; and care for those within it who are ill, disabled, or elderly. It is the key structure for communicating values and beliefs to the young. Commentators and organizations from vastly different ideological places affirm the family’s power: Riane Eisler and Frances Kissling write on the Center for American Progress Web site that “the construction of family and other intimate relations directly influences what people consider normal and moral in all relations—public as well as private.” In “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” the National Association of Evangelicals asserts that “Whether we are married or single, it is in the family that we learn mutual responsibility.”

What are some concrete policies that would support the family in its primary missions and that people from many different points on the political and religious spectrums might come to agree on?

What will help parents keep their children fed, sheltered, and safe? What would provide resources for dealing with illness and prevent or mitigate health-care-related debt?

Parents and guardians bear the primary responsibility for guiding their children’s moral development and buffering them from the violence, materialism, and crudity that often dominates mass culture. But how could we as a society support them in this vital task? How could we as the church do so?

O NE OF THE BIGGEST challenges for many families, of course, is economic survival. Single parents struggle to produce income while also rearing children. Two-parent families often find that it takes two incomes to make ends meet. Economic conditions force many families, from low-income to middle-class, to have all wage-earners at full-time, full-throttle work outside the home, even when they would prefer to have one parent home part- or full-time to care for their small children.

Two measures that would begin to ease some of the burden on families would potentially offer help to a broad swath of Americans, not just those who are parents of minor children: Raising the minimum wage and establishing national health insurance.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, in most cases it takes a total annual household income of $40,000 for a family of four to provide the basic necessities—housing, food, and health care—for their children. While the U.S. Census Bureau poverty threshold for a family of four is $19,000, the formula used to estimate the threshold has not been changed since it was created in the early 1960s. While the poverty threshold is updated annually according to the Consumer Price Index, many analysts argue that it does not accurately factor in the current relative cost of necessities such as housing, transportation, and health care. A single full-time salary at the current federal minimum wage brings in about $10,712 a year; even doubled for two wage-earners, this means that the minimum wage only brings in slightly over half what a family of four would require for basic self-sufficiency.

Raising the minimum wage alone will not eliminate the struggle of low-income families, but it is one factor (that could be combined with others, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit) that will improve the immediate circumstances of minimum wage earners. The Economic Policy Institute notes that several studies point to a “spillover effect” that lifts wages at the levels immediately above the minimum wage when the minimum wage is increased.

Affordable health care is directly key to the well-being of families, of course, but is also an increasingly important factor in whether a family can maintain economic stability. The cost of a major health crisis for uninsured or underinsured families is a common factor in ballooning credit card debt and many bankruptcies. Such costly debt then further destabilizes a family’s long-term economic situation, making it more likely that in the future even minor financial crises will become major. But because even preventive and routine health care can be unaffordable for low- and moderate-income families without insurance, it doesn’t take a catastrophe to make health care a concern. In two-parent families, the cost of health care will sometimes be the sole factor that forces both parents into the workforce.

A national health insurance plan, such as the single-payer, Medicare-for-all plan proposed by Dennis Kucinich, would be the most comprehensive answer. While this solution has an admittedly uphill battle to become policy, the understanding that some form of universally affordable health care is crucial for the future economic stability of the country is becoming broadly accepted. The Massachusetts health-care reform law due to take effect in July—which requires every resident to have health insurance and creates a state agency to oversee private plans that will be inexpensive for low-income residents—was supported by groups ranging from interfaith community organizations to business associations. It offers a glimmer of hope that a comprehensive national health plan might be created and accepted.

As Cornel West and Sylvia Hewlett describe in The War Against Parents, market-driven policies have actually created incentives to have other people raise children for working parents, even when parents would prefer to do it themselves. The federal tax system offers relatively generous credit for childcare expenses (including daycare and nannies). The addition of a tax credit for at-home parents would acknowledge the financial and career sacrifice made by people who commit a few years to being home with their small children.

The state of Utah offers a nonrefundable tax credit to an at-home parent who is providing full-time care to an infant 12 months old or younger. In 2003, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a bill in the Senate to provide a minimum credit of $200 a month to stay-at-home parents of children 6 years old or younger. The Parents Tax Relief Act of 2005, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and in the House by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., raises this proposed credit to $250. This act would also offer Social Security employment credit toward future benefits to at-home parents, recognizing full-time care of small children as real work.

ADVOCATING FOR CHANGES in governmental policies such as these are a few ways that we as citizens can work to strengthen the economic well-being of families. But people of faith, through their churches, can do much to support families in dealing with the daily emotional and cultural challenges of raising kids and maintaining healthy, committed adult relationships.

Many churches—primarily large white evangelical and some black churches—have long offered programs that support families of different shapes and forms, including single parents and stepfamilies, while affirming their ideal of a two-parent household. “Some run day-care programs, after-school programs, parental training groups, and sometimes even home visitation programs which assist families with their daily interactions,” wrote Don Browning and Ian Evison in the early 1990s. But, they add, “many otherwise excellent programs in conservative and fundamentalist churches are marred by rigid gender distinctions and oppressive male authority.”

Such gender definitions are by no means requisite parts of faith-based family support programs, and do not diminish the potential of the broader concept. Yet, many liberal churches have tended to opt out of specific conversation about and programs for strengthening families—broadly accepting pluralistic forms of families, but not offering them much in the way of concrete support resources. Such churches would serve themselves and the greater community by implementing theologically rooted family resources and supports that also incorporate the values of gender equality and mutuality. All churches, in fact, should be doing what they can to build up families which, whatever their make-up, are a primary context for caring for the least of these and expressing the faith, hope, and love that Christ calls us to.

Counseling and in some cases classes before marriage and other commitment ceremonies are common in many churches. These can be expanded and supplemented with enrichment courses on building healthy partnerships. Small groups for single parents (with outside childcare provided, of course) might be a ministry. Parenting classes, coaching, and mentoring are other possibilities. Smaller churches might pool resources to provide marriage preparation courses for their communities or neighborhoods, or trained baby-sitter pools to give parents of young children a break. All churches can promote awareness of domestic violence and child abuse and prominently display information on hotlines and other resources for those in trouble.

Economic hardship is almost always a direct strain on relationships within families. Congregations that already do outreach such as food pantries, temporary shelters, or job training might consider whether family pastoral care services could be incorporated into those programs.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) promotes a Congregation Care Team model. These organized committees of lay people don’t replace trained pastoral care, but rather focus on supporting the practical, emotional, and spiritual day-to-day needs of individuals and families in long-term duress due to disability, illness, injury, or other crisis. They provide everything from yard work to respite care. While care teams are often used to support the elderly, the PCUSA also promotes care teams as a way for congregations to provide support to families that have members deployed in the military. Such a model suggests a way to sustain for the long haul the natural outreach and compassion that congregations spontaneously pour out on members in short-term crises.

It’s not glamorous, this support we might give through our churches to families we know. Neither is advocacy for policies that would help lift the weight of poverty and economic struggle from families we may not know. Neither type of effort is likely to provide the adrenaline rush or sense of righteous indignation that seems to come from the highly polarized ideological tussle over the concept of “family.” But sometimes the best way to defend something you feel is vitally important is to stop fighting—and start taking care of it.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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