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Some Revisionist Thinking in the Family-Values Season

Platitudes of the stump should yield to solid social strategies

August 11, 1996

With Republicans and Democrats heading for their national conventions in San Diego and Chicago, the 1996 presidential campaign is about to begin in earnest and with it the quadrennial deluge of platitudes and pandering for votes. This year, "family values" rank high on each party's list of topics. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole probably each will insist that he would be more protective of families and traditional values than the other guy. Is there a politician alive who stands against family values?

The political mileage generated by this issue isn't likely to disappear soon. Americans are awash in worry about the stresses that contemporary life is putting on families and particularly on children. The U.S. divorce rate is the world's highest; nearly half of all new marriages end in divorce. Many social scientists believe that divorce--or the permanent absence of a parent--sets children up for failure in school and involvement in drug abuse and crime. Others say a popular culture that embraces violence, sex and anomie undermines traditional values of personal responsibility, love and honor.

With polls showing that Americans overwhelmingly want government to strengthen families, there exists an unparalleled opportunity for both talk and action. Indeed, victory in November may go to the candidate and party that best capitalize on this deep yearning for better family life.

An emerging consensus among social researchers yields suggestions for policymakers that are more constructive than some of the quick-fix proposals like restricting no-fault divorce and putting "values education" and prayer into the public schools.

That consensus hints at a continuing ambivalence among Americans about the profound societal changes of recent decades. For instance, there are strong concerns about how children are being affected by a work culture that often demands that both parents work long hours outside the home. Today, more than two out of three children have mothers who work outside the home, up from just under half in 1972. In 1990, slightly more than half of American women with babies younger than one year worked outside the home, up from 38% a decade earlier. Among women with older preschool children, the figure rose to 67%. These changes promise to be permanent rather than generational.

A 1995 Harris Poll found that 48% of married women earned half or more of their families' total income. Study after study has found that many women work out of desire rather than simple necessity. Regardless of the motivation, researchers say, work often enhances a woman's sense of worth and satisfaction--and can improve her success as a parent and her children's chances of success as adults.

Children are affected not just by the fact that the mother works but by the type of job held. Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Ohio State University, among others, find that the greater the mother's degree of authority, freedom and control over decision making on the job, the fewer behavior problems in the children. These studies found that the amount of time that parents spend with their children isn't linked to the youngsters' behavior. Instead, behavior is influenced by the extent to which the parents' work tensions invade home life.

Moreover, a growing body of research indicates that the children of happily working mothers tend to do quite well, demonstrating adaptability, self-confidence and high aspirations.

What does this mean for politicians on the stump? It means that the government can continue to make a real difference by encouraging employers to expand family-friendly policies in the areas of parental leave, sick leave, pay and flexible work time.

It also means higher productivity and employee satisfaction for companies that encourage a team approach and an open dialogue on family issues. Many employers have moved far in this direction, but there is a long way to go in helping beleaguered American families. The government can make a real difference by encouraging employers to expand family-friendly policies in the areas of parental leave, sick leave, pay and flexible work time. It also means higher productivity and employee satisfaction for companies that encourage a team approach and an open dialogue on family issues. Many employers have moved far in this direction, but there is a long way to go in helping beleaguered American families.

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