To Fix Education, Fix Families First
Julia Steiny wrote in the ProJo on Sunday:
Over the course of this summer, I studied a whole range of troubled kids. Instead of seeing them from the outside as the upsetting little pains-in-the-tush they are, I tried to get a glimpse of their lives. I met kids recovering from sexual abuse, neglect, violence, drug involvement, or their parents’ drug involvement. I talked to the community workers who deal with kids whose lives have been torn apart by a parent going to prison or because the state removed them from their families. Distressed kids sit in our own kids’ classrooms all over the state. We can’t just put them all out — or ignore them.
Focus instead on the family.
Because when we put these kids out of our communities into alternative schools and residential placements, we encourage the root problem to fester and get worse. Alternatives — shelters, group homes, the Training School — provide very expensive, rarified worlds that have nothing to do with a kid’s real life.
Yes, of course, psychiatric hospitals, foster care, and group homes will always be necessary. But we overuse them unconscionably. We have to stop waiting until kids are in a crisis.
Schools have plenty of problems of their own. But when it comes to troubled behavior, the solutions often lie in the homes. If we fix the family’s dysfunction, we fix the context that is producing a kid’s wiggy behavior. And if the family can’t be fixed — addiction is often the reason — terminate parental rights, and search among the child’s relatives for a healthier permanent family.
Only by helping the families can we stem the social chaos streaming through the schoolhouse doors.
And this compassion will be far cheaper than what we’re doing now.
Along this same vein is a book review by Bradford Wilcox in the August 27 issue of National Review. The book–The Natural Family: A Manifesto, by Allan C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero–contains some interesting theories and prescriptions.
…Allan Carlson and Paul Mero’s The Natural Family: A Manifesto…give[s] us an engaging and accessible primer on the importance of the “natural family” for the American experiment in ordered liberty. They define the “natural family” as “the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage for the purposes of satisfying the longings of the human heart to give and receive love, welcoming and ensuring the full physical and emotional development of children” — and sharing a home based on a common social and spiritual life. By turns philosophical, political, sociological, and economic in its subject matter, The Natural Family makes three particularly important arguments.
First, as against the libertarian vision of [the CATO Institute’s Bruce] Lindsey et al., Carlson and Mero correctly argue that the natural family, not the individual, is the “source of ordered liberty, the fountain of real democracy, the seedbed of virtue” for the nation. They point to a large body of social-scientific research that shows that children who grow up with their married parents make markedly better citizens than their peers who are not so fortunate. For instance, one study of 20,000 American adolescents funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that teen criminality was lowest among children from intact married families and that parental involvement, supervision, and closeness were highest in these families. They also point out that family breakdown leads inevitably to what should be a libertarian nightmare — the rise of Leviathan, as the state steps in to establish order and supply social services when the family breaks down.
This argument is borne out by, among other things, our nation’s recent history with crime and policing. As George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize–winning economist at Berkeley, has observed, it was no accident that a tidal wave of violent crime, police hiring, and prison building swept the country in the late 1970s and 1980s, following closely in the wake of the nation’s retreat from marriage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Starting in the late 1960s, because of this retreat, growing numbers of poor and working-class teenage boys and young men ceased to be socialized by fathers and wives; consequently, they were much more likely to get into trouble and stay in trouble than their peers of an earlier era. This led, in turn, to the effort of Republicans such as Rudy Giuliani to reach for “Big Government” law-and-order solutions to reassert order in communities hit hardest by the breakdown of the natural family.
Second, Carlson and Mero rightly argue that strong families depend upon much more than sentiment or even the right “family values.” In our day, affluence, state programs, and the organization of work and leisure have all conspired to strip the family of its traditional functions — economic production, leisure, moral education, and religious education — and to minimize the practical and economic dependencies linking spouses, children, and parents to one another. Accordingly, in many families, sentiment is the only real tie that binds, even though — for many families — sentiment is much too fragile to serve as the basis for an enduring common life together. Thus, Carlson and Mero argue that we must re-functionalize the home — by encouraging measures such as home-based work and businesses, a “family wage” for parents who have to work outside the home, home schooling, and home-based care for elderly parents. In sum, the natural family will be renewed only when our economic and practical lives bind us more tightly to our spouses, children, and parents.
Third, an implicit if not always explicit message communicated by The Natural Family is that the Republican party and the larger pro-family movement have not accomplished much in their three-decade effort to promote pro-life and pro-family policies. Carlson and Mero argue that the larger pro-family movement has been beset by squabbling, and a desire to go negative — that is, focus on the latest assault on family life — to keep the coffers full. Although they do not say much about the Republican party explicitly, they do point out that the average four-person family is now paying a lot more in taxes than it did in the 1950s — despite the fact that the Republicans have had numerous opportunities over the last 30 years to take a serious stab at remedying the tax burdens of families with children in the home. More fundamentally, they point out that most family-related social trends — from illegitimacy to pornography to the marriage rate — have worsened since the Republican party’s ascendancy started in 1980.
So what might be done to turn around the nation’s four-decade retreat from marriage? While acknowledging the importance of cultural renewal, Carlson and Mero present a number of creative public-policy ideas that would help renew the natural family.
On the legal front, they propose that state governments reintroduce “fault” into laws governing divorce — to give greater legal force to the marriage vow, to increase spouses’ confidence in their marriages, and to ensure that innocent spouses are not hit with the loss of property and child custody just because their spouse wants out of the marriage. On the tax front, the authors contend that the personal-income-tax exemption for children should be increased to $5,000, that the current $1,000 child tax credit should be indexed to inflation, and that families should be given generous tax credits for their Medicare and Social Security taxes when they are caring for children and elderly parents (20 percent for each child 13 and under, and 25 percent for each parent or grandparent in the home).
Policies such as these would lend legal and financial power to the natural family, and deepen the dependencies that sustain it. In turn, by shoring up the nation’s best department of health, human services, and justice — i.e., the natural family — these policies would reduce the need for the expansion of local, state, and federal government. Now there is a cause around which conservatives can unite.