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Twisting and Turning in the Search for Values : Political leaders should help curb, not add to, ambivalence

June 02, 1996

When President Clinton celebrated his 1992 election victory as Fleetwood Mac boomed in the background, commentators said the mantle of American political leadership had passed from politicians like George Bush, who entered government during a golden age of the traditional family, to the baby boomers who embraced more liberal values. But as a Times poll shows, the American electorate has in fact grown more socially conservative in recent years.

And so too has Clinton. With 92% of Americans now saying they would like government to strengthen families and family values, the president is emphasizing, as he did recently at the University of Texas, that the nation's "No. 1 social problem is children growing up without fathers." A measure of the times is that then-Vice President Dan Quayle was jeered in 1992 when he made a similar observation about the TV character Murphy Brown but only cheers greet President Clinton.

Americans are not mistaken in believing that the social fabric is fraying. The U.S. divorce rate is now the world's highest. In 1994, nearly 1.2 million American marriages dissolved, triple the 1960 figure, and nearly half of new marriages now end in divorce.

The human costs of this trend were tallied as early as 1988 by the National Center for Health Statistics, which found that children in single-parent families are more likely to drop out of high school, become pregnant as teenagers, abuse drugs and get into trouble with the law than those living with both parents. It was a flawed study, failing to consider that the problem might lie not with single parenthood per se but with the economic precariousness of many single-parent households. Still, the loss of one parent undoubtedly takes its toll: Social scientist Nicholas Zill says children of divorced parents are, regardless of their circumstances, twice as likely as others to have poor relationships with their parents, drop out of high school and undergo psychological treatment.

The recent bipartisan support for family values has helped spur a host of reforms on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures. Predictably, politicians have been quickest to embrace the most unassailable solutions. Last month, for example, the U.S. House passed a measure to provide tax credits to encourage adoptions by middle-class Americans and President Clinton lectured dozens of top executives about such "corporate responsibilities" as offering flextime to parents with children. Another reform--adopting aggressive programs to track down so-called deadbeat spouses--seems easy to support politically, particularly in Los Angeles County, which in a new study ranked almost dead last, 57th out of 58 California counties, in effectiveness of child support collections. Even once-controversial reforms such as "character education" in public schools have gained support from conservatives, liberals (the National Education Assn.) and the American public generally, 90% of which, in a 1994 Gallup Poll, said public schools should teach virtues like respect for others, fairness, persistence, compassion and civility. Character education has worried some liberals, who are concerned that it could promote values that make minority children feel marginalized, and some conservatives, who are concerned that core American values will not so much be inculcated as debated. But plenty of programs have managed to steer clear of both dangers.

The most controversial reform under study is repeal of the liberal no-fault divorce laws adopted by some states in the late 1960s and the 1970s. A pioneering bill introduced in the Michigan Legislature last year contains its share of troubling requirements; for instance, that a no-fault divorce be permitted only when both parties seek the split, a stipulation that the National Organization for Women rightly argues might trap battered women in abusive relationships. Other bills, however, have introduced promising ideas for reforming no-fault, such as longer waiting periods and requirements for premarital and pre-divorce counseling.

Americans still remain torn about how much of a role government should have in promoting values. On the one hand, 57% of a sample group told Times pollsters that "too many people have lifestyles and beliefs which are harmful to themselves and society." But 52% objected to government intrusion into citizens' lives.

To date, our politicians have done little to help us work through our ambivalence. In her 1996 book "It Takes a Village," for instance, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton asked her readers to let go of some imagined "golden age" populated by happy nuclear families but also lashed out against liberal no-fault divorce laws. This kind of political hedging is unlikely to provide the leadership needed to continue what all political camps have come to call an urgent search for common values.

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