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Modern Family Progressivism

In a recent New York Times’ column, Thomas Edsall defends progressives against Attorney General William Barr and other social conservatives who charge them with wanton destruction of the family. Edsall is right to call out Barr and others for “marketing apocalyptic hogwash” to get Trump reelected, but his argument concedes too much to social conservatives.

According to Edsall, “liberals are as deeply disturbed by familial dysfunction as conservatives…” This isn’t saying much because liberals and conservatives don’t agree on what is and isn’t dysfunctional when it comes to families. Social conservatives are particularly disturbed by cohabitation, divorce, same-sex relationships, children being raised by unmarried parents, and women who have children without a male spouse or partner. In other words, they are mostly concerned about the structure of family living arrangements and their legal status (who lives with who, what genitals they have, and whether or not they’re married).

Liberals are much more concerned about the quality of family relationships. The familial dysfunctions they are most deeply disturbed by include violence, ill-treatment, and various forms of inequality within the family, as well as unfair public and private discrimination against certain types of families based on their structure. Unlike conservatives, relatively few liberals today view cohabitation, divorce, same-sex relationships, or unmarried women who have children as immoral or dysfunctional.

These differences have grown over time and are well-documented in national surveys. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center asked adults whether “couples who are living together but not married can raise children just as well as married couples.” Among those who identified as Democrats or leaning Democrat, 73 percent agreed, compared to 41 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners. Similarly, in a Gallup Poll conducted earlier this year, 79 percent of self-identified liberals said having a baby outside of marriage was morally acceptable compared to 49 percent of self-identified conservatives.

Moreover, during at least the last two decades, the movement in public opinion on this and related family issues has been substantial and all in the liberal direction, with young adults and Hispanics, including Hispanic Catholics, being among the most accepting.

Social conservatives believe that children living with divorced parents would have been much better off if their parents stayed married and living under the same roof. Conservatives also believe that children living with unmarried parents (whether single or partnered) would have been much better off if their parent(s) had married and remained under the same roof. Edsall implies that these beliefs about family structure and child well-being are increasingly accepted by liberal social scientists.

Yet, according to a comprehensive literature review and meta-analysis published by the OECD in 2009, “the maximum size of the effect on child outcomes of growing up in a single-parent family is small” and “whether a causal effect of single parenthood on child well-being exists remains unproven.” We have more research today, but nothing that should lead the OECD to change its conclusion, and nothing that would shift most liberal academics to favor the conservative perspective. (For more on this body of research, see the Appendix of Family Story’s recent report, which I helped research and write.)

Finally, Edsall says, “[while] many on the left denounced the 1965 Moynihan Report…there has been a striking reversal in favor of the report in the academic and liberal policymaking community.” I strongly doubt this is the case, and if it is, it could only be based on a lack of familiarity with the substance of the report, which has not aged well.

At the core of the 1965 report was Moynihan’s claim that family structure was “the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that…perpetuate[s] the cycle of poverty and deprivation” among Black Americans. [Italics added.] This was a radical claim with little empirical support in 1965. There has been no striking reversal in favor of it since then among the academic and liberal policy making communities.

Antiquated and stereotypical notions about gender were also central to Moynihan’s argument, including that:

+ “…the very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four star general, is to strut.”

+ “Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.”

+ “A fundamental fact of Negro American family life is the often reversed roles of husband and wife.”

Needless to say, there has been no striking reversal in favor of claims like these since 1965.

Of course, Moynihan was well-intentioned and thought his report would advance his preferred policy solutions and what historian Robert Self has termed “breadwinner liberalism.” But that doesn’t mean we should overlook how deeply wrong he was about so many important things. (For additional recent assessments of the Moynihan report, I’d recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ sharply critical essay in The Atlantic, historian Daniel Geary’s definitive recent history of the Moynihan Report and its legacy, and chapter 4 in this report by Family Story.)

Progressives rightly embrace family diversity and egalitarian, solidaristic relationships. They shouldn’t feel like they need to echo social conservatives to be viewed as taking family seriously. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be overlapping consensus among liberals and conservatives on a long list of specific family policies, like paid family leave, child allowances, a higher minimum wage, promoting men’s involvement in paid and unpaid care work, reducing excessive work hours, and dialing back immigration and criminal justice policies that forcibly separate family members who want to be together. These policies may or may not increase marriage, but they’re worth doing because they’re good for working-class adults, children, and all of our families.

This first appeared on the CEPR blog.

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