It's not easy being a historian of the family. The media has an instinctive prejudice against the understanding of any ideas which are complex and subtle. Given the right and center right bias of much American political discourse it is hard for a liberal or socialist to get a word in edgewise. Much of the research occurs in scholarly articles that most people never hear of and which will only be noticed if they can be dramatic or alarming.
So hats off to Pr. Coontz's wonderful work, which cuts through the cant of "family values." Coontz starts off by noticing the media's tendency to hype alarming and misleading figures. She defuses the infamous 1986 Newsweek suggestion that women over 40 have more chance of being killed by a terrorist than of marrying for the first time. She points out that one reason why parents may be spending 40% less time with their children since 1965 is that the number of children has dropped 28%. The next two chapters point out some of the mythologies of family life in the fifties, and the complex relationships between liberal ideology and the status of women.
Really invaluable is the next chapter, on the conservative cant of "self-reliance." As she points out people have always had to rely on family partnerships, godparents, mutual neighborhood aid, ethnic and labour lodges: the Ayn Rand ideal is an utter fantasy. She points out that the Little House on the Prairie books were written by Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter to remove all the help the family received from the community. More important she points out how the American west and American highways, housing and suburbs have all been generously subsidized. In 1988 federal tax subsidies for homeowners were four times as high as direct spending for low-income housing assistance. Coontz also points out that there is precious little evidence that welfare encourages two parent family break-up: a 1987 General Accounting Office report of more than one hundred studies found little connection. Other studies have pointed out that "high-benefit states tend to have a relatively lower proportion of their children in poverty than low-benefit states" while mothers on AFDC have only one-fourth the number of babies while they are on welfare as those mothers who are not. And though poverty programs in the United States were among the least generous in the OECD, they could work when they were allowed to even when the economy stagnated: infant mortality fell in half between 1965 and 1980, a far greater reduction than in the previous 15 years.
Coontz provides an invaluable historical perspective on all sorts of issues, such as how the rise of a privatized family moralism coincided with the corrupt and selfish politics of the Gilded Age. If people are upset at the rise in premarital sex, they should note that it has helped reduce prostitution, where in 19th century Savannah there was one prostitute for every 39 men. Coontz also provides useful chapters on the complex nature of state intervention in the family, the history behind women's work, the rise of consumerism. In comparison to these the works of Christopher Lasch, let alone the contributors to Commentary and the New Republic, appear thin and shallow.
Coontz helpfully points out that the teenage childbirth rate has fallen by half since 1957, though a far larger proportion occur to unmarried mothers and the teenage pregnancy rate is at least twice that of other Western countries. She also defuses the panic about the toxic effects of day care and divorce, which are too often recklessly exaggerated. The chapter on the black family is especially useful, although it could be updated more. She reminds us that two parent families existed under slavery and were the norm after emancipation. She points out the intense strains these families were placed under, not only in the post-Reconstruction South, but also under the vicious racism of the North. (The position of blacks in antebellum Philadelphia and Boston actually worsened). She points out how blacks bore the brunt of the deindustrializaiton and economic stagnation of the seventies. The average real income of young black men fell 50% from 1973 to 1986. According to the most rigorous studies if black family structures had stayed the same in 1984 as in 1973, the proportion of black children living in poverty would have fallen from 41% to 38%, instead of rising slightly to 43%. Coontz concludes with thoughtful and useful moderate social democratic reforms which would do so much to ameliorate matters. But of course that would mean challenging the dogmas of the right and the opportunism of the centrists who prefer to view unions, racial minorities and feminists as scapegoats for their failure to attract support. So in the end, nothing happened.