This article is part of a six-part series from the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative outlining values-based policies that benefit all American families. For more information on our Real Family Values series, visit our series page.
Last weekend, conservative activists, pundits, and elected officials gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Values Voter Summit, a political conference for American social conservatives convened by the Family Research Council. Held every year since 2006, the summit has become a barometer of conservative political thought, where attendees from across the country hear speakers outline their conservative visions for America. But while the summit is promoted as a gathering that values “faith, family, and opportunity for all,” it more often makes headlines for those whom it excludes. Last year, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins compared homosexuality to drug abuse, and other speakers distributed pamphlets that urged women who dressed “immodestly” in church to “go home and put some clothes on!” Beyond that, Rick Santorum declared that “smart people,” “universities,” and “the media” will never be on the side of conservatives because “they believe they should be able to tell you what to do,” and that there is no future for America without a conservative social-issues agenda.
At the heart of these troubling remarks is a set of principles and policy stances that supposedly uphold a “family values” agenda. For almost half a century, conservative politicians, pundits, and religious leaders have championed the preservation of the “traditional” nuclear family, expending vast amounts of political and financial capital to convince Americans that family values means fierce opposition to a narrow list of social and economic policies—namely, marriage equality, legal and safe abortion, comprehensive sex education, gender equality, and government programs that help those in need.
Yet history and data-driven analysis have shown that opposing these progressive positions does not create stronger or healthier families. On the contrary, crusades for abstinence-only sex education have proven to be ineffective, and states without comprehensive sex education actually have higher rates of teen pregnancy. In addition, well-funded campaigns idealizing “traditional” gender roles—a male breadwinner and female homemaker—ignore the fact that dual-income family arrangements are an economic necessity for millions of American households.
Worse still, efforts to stigmatize contraception by citing pseudoscience have denied millions of women access to life-saving preventive health care, and relentless, vitriolic condemnations of homosexuality have spurred thousands of young LGBT teens to run away from home or even commit suicide after they are condemned for being who they are.
Beyond waging culture wars, those who support these harmful social ideas have also devoted themselves to a slew of failed economic principles and policies such as lowering taxes for the wealthy, gutting safety net public programs that assist struggling families, and perpetuating harmful tropes about economic individualism. These actions are starkly out of line with the will of the public, as more than half of Americans believe that social safety net programs are critical to helping families get back on their feet during hard times. Indeed, one of the oldest values and understandings of our shared political philosophy is that the benefits of government and community don’t threaten our liberty—they strengthen it.
Conservative economic policies weaken families by treating workers as disposable commodities and their families’ needs as a drag on efficiency and productivity. Without the tempering force of common-sense regulations, their ideology ignores reality and belittles human dignity by creating deeply problematic contradictions. For example, many of today’s right-wing politicians deny workers a living wage while simultaneously accusing them of lacking the work ethic to feed and care for a family. Others tout themselves as pro-life protectors of children while callously attempting to cut funding to life-saving early childhood programs such as Head Start or food stamps.
Far from bolstering the family unit and the values we hold dear, these narrow-minded definitions of family values and inhumane economic policies have placed an added burden on American families while doing little to address the serious issues they face. While conservatives continue to wage culture wars about sexual regulation and failed economic policies, millions of lower- and middle-income parents are forced to choose between making enough to get by and caring for their families, and millions more struggle to provide their children with quality child care—or any child care—and early childhood education. Meanwhile, parents are increasingly unable to afford to send a kid to college, and still others wrestle with how to care for aging loved ones when they become infirm or ill.
Confronted with these challenges and hardships, right-wing rhetoric is cold comfort to millions of hardworking, patriotic American families.
At the heart of the conservative failure is a profound misunderstanding of the economic policies that actually strengthen modern American families, as well as a rigid refusal to acknowledge the diversity, benefits, strengths, and realities of today’s family structures. Conservative visions of the ideal family fail to account for the dramatic cultural and economic shifts of the past decades: In 1975, more than half of American families with children—52.6 percent—had only one parent, often a male breadwinner, in the workforce. But in 2011, only 28.7 percent of families had a stay-at-home parent. Single parents now head up nearly one in three households—26.1 percent—and 44.8 percent of families have two working parents. The gender dynamics of American families are also changing; today, women are breadwinners or co-breadwinners in 63.9 percent of families with children. Furthermore, recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that a record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 now include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.
The shape and makeup of families are increasingly diverse, as well: The number of multigenerational families—whether they include grandparents or grown children—living under the same roof is on the rise. Furthermore, 13 states, the District of Columbia, several counties in New Mexico, and six Native American tribal jurisdictions have formally embraced marriage equality for their citizens, an encouraging development that has led to a dramatic increase in same-sex households. In spite of this clear victory for marriage equality, LGBT families continue to face serious daily challenges: According to a 2012 report by the Movement Advancement Project, roughly 2 million children are being raised by LGBT couples who are unable to establish a legal relationship with both of their parents. Without the legal protection, economic security, and emotional support that marriage provides, LGBT couples and their children face additional obstacles in keeping their families strong. Acknowledging the diverse forms families take allows us to live out American ideals such as justice and equality—values that strengthen all families, not just the few.
These changes in family configuration are substantial, but the cultural and economic shifts that birthed them should not be falsely recast as omens of moral decline or as evidence of decaying family systems. Most Americans know this: 62 percent of Americans see poverty and inequality as systemic problems, not merely individual flaws, according to a 2012 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. The truth is that Americans have and always will hold up strong families as the building blocks of healthy communities. These statistics reflect the lived reality of millions of hardworking people who—guided by firm moral convictions—simply want to achieve the American Dream of economic opportunity and security for their children and families. We need a vision that works for these households; elected officials who understand deeply held American values such as hard work, quality care, responsibility, and equality; and policies that rise to meet the new challenges facing today’s families.
American religious movements have long connected family values to economic policies. Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, and Sister Simone Campbell’s Nuns on the Bus tour all called attention to the vital relationship between federal policy and family life, as have the multitude of religious organizations that rely on government funding to provide public services including child care and food assistance.
Moreover, progressives have a long history of supporting policies that strengthen families. Child labor laws, public education, a 40-hour workweek, Social Security, Medicare, health care reform, and more have come into being because of the dedicated persistence of justice-minded people who saw the connection between progressive policies, strong families, and human flourishing and dignity.
With this proud tradition in mind, the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative will release a series of articles and policy recommendations on a range of family related issues. These include paid family leave, flexible work hours, expanded access to child care and early childhood education, affordable college, quality and affordable elder care, and a livable minimum wage. Individually and together, these policies will reflect real family values: making families safer, more economically stable, healthier, and more whole. Drawing upon widely shared American ideals of personal responsibility, respecting the act of caregiving, providing equal access to education, and pursuing equality, our series seeks to demonstrate how these values and policies can achieve the long-sought goal of creating stronger families, and, in turn, a stronger America.
Jack Jenkins is a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Emily Baxter is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.