01 November 2004

Marriage, family and poverty

Not quite two weeks ago, in the course of recounting the various approaches to voting taken by a number of American Christians, I mentioned Sojourners' Jim Wallis, to whom I fear I was not entirely fair at the time. Here is Wallis again on the connection between marriage and family on the one hand and poverty on the other:

Over the past decade, this "family values" question has become very difficult, and polarized by both the Religious Right and the cultural Left. To move forward, we must simply refuse the false choices being offered by both sides. The Left has misdiagnosed the roots of our present social crisis, mostly leaving out the critical dimension of family breakdown as a fundamental component of problems like poverty and violence. These issues are not just important to the Religious Right, or simply bourgeois concerns. We do need to rebuild strong and healthy two-parent family systems. We desperately need more families with moms and dads and kids, strong male and female role models in both "nuclear" and extended family systems. It's not a matter of whether that should be "the norm"; it simply is the norm in this society and every other one. The question, rather, is how that family norm can be a healthy one.

Exactly right. Nevertheless, I do wonder whether Wallis is exhibiting a certain naïveté in assuming it possible to strengthen marriage and family while bypassing efforts to secure a legal definition of the same -- and indeed calling the latter a "mean-spirited crusade."

In this respect Mary Ann Glendon, of Harvard University Law School, is more clear-seeing in drawing a connection between the social experimentation of the last half century and the ability of families to function as support networks for individuals threatened by poverty:

With widespread acceptance of the notion that behavior in the highly personal areas of sex and marriage is of no concern to anyone other than the "consenting adults" involved, it has been easy to overlook what should have been obvious from the beginning: individual actions in the aggregate exert a profound influence on what kind of society we are bringing into being. Eventually, when large numbers of individuals act primarily with regard to self-fulfillment, the entire culture is transformed. The evidence is now overwhelming that affluent Western nations have been engaged in a massive social experiment — an experiment that brought new opportunities and liberties to adults but has put children and other dependents at considerable risk.

Disarray in one sustaining cultural institution weakens others. The spread of family breakdown has been accompanied by disturbances in schools, neighborhoods, churches, local governments, and workplace associations — all of the structures that have traditionally depended on families for their support and that in turn have served as important resources for families in times of stress. The law, too, has changed rapidly, becoming a testing ground for various ways of reimagining family relations and an arena for struggles among competing ideas about individual liberty, equality between men and women, human sexuality, marriage, and family life. . . .

What makes the dependency-welfare crisis so confounding is that all of society’s sources of support and security are implicated. Families, still the central pillar of our caregiving system, are losing much of their capacity to care for their own dependent members, just when government is becoming less capable of fulfilling the roles it once took over from families. It seems that the ambition of welfare states to free individuals from much of their dependence on families, and to relieve families of some of their most burdensome responsibilities, may have succeeded just well enough to put dependents at heightened risk now that welfare states are faltering.

Pierre Trudeau's famous statement of 35 years ago that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation is at very best a half truth. A government that professes a benign indifference to the choices made by individuals relative to sexual and familial matters can do so only by pretending that there are no public consequences to these choices. As part of its divine mandate to do public justice, governments are obligated to protect the communities that form the fabric of human life in all its rich diversity, ranging from marriage and family to schools, churches, labour unions, businesses, farmers' co-operatives, professional associations and many, many more. Taken as a whole, these communities have come to be known, somewhat inadequately, as civil society, the affirmation of which is key to any strategy aiming at the alleviation of poverty. Quite simply, and most basically, there is no substitute for marriage and family, the erosion of which inevitably threatens the success of such strategies.

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