The New Familism

A new social movement in America is advocating some very sensible policy proposals while arguing for pro-family values.

The communitarian movement, as it is called, is made up with those who believe that neither the market alone, nor the state alone, is able to solve all our problems. Both are needed to support the work of community institutions. Thus the movement slices across traditional left/right divisions, emphasising elements of each approach.

This is best illustrated in its stand on the issue of the individual versus the community. The communitarians do not minimize the importance of individualism, but hold that strong individual rights presume strong responsibilities to the communities. As an example, if one wants to enjoy the right to trial by jury by one’s peers, one must be willing to fulfill the responsibility of serving on a jury. Thus rights are balanced by responsibilities, and the needs of the individual are balanced by the needs of the community, avoiding the Scylla of classical liberalism and the Charybdis of traditional conservatism.

One expression of the communitarian movement is the Communitarian Network, a public interest organization that is “dedicated to shoring-up the social, political and moral environment” The group, in coalition with other organisations, advances specific causes in two ways: by promoting “habits of the heart” – people’s values, attitudes and practices – and by advocating innovation in public policies and the practices of private institutions.

The movement produces a journal called The Responsive Community, and is led by such authorities as Amitai Etzioni, University Professor at George Washington University; Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard University, Jean Elshtain, professor of political science and history at Vanderbilt University, Alice Rossi, former president of the American Sociological Association, and William Galston, professor of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland.

One of the most important aspects of the communitarian movement is its emphasis on the family and family values. “Being a mother or father isn’t just another ‘life-style choice,’ but an ethical vocation of the weightiest sort.” The communitarians believe that the well-being of children is a prime responsibility of parents; that the “family is the cornerstone of the moral and social formation of children”; and that current social policy is not family-friendly, but should become so.

Policy recommendations therefore should include these perspectives: “Economic, welfare, and human service policies should help, not hinder, parents in their child-rearing responsibilities, and all programs should encourage self-help rather than promoting and deepening dependency.” This is because “the weight of the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence suggests that on average two-parent families are better able to discharge their child-rearing duties.”

As such, the communitarians have recommended to President Clinton (with little success so far), that he formulate a coherent family policy that will promote the following goals. The first goal is a fair and equitable child care policy, with two main objectives: “bonding for infants with their parents at home at least until age one, and improved child care facilities for older children.” Such priorities should put the interests of children first, not the ambitions and careers of parents.

A second aim is the establishment of pro-family economic policies. One example is a child allowance. Such an allowance would aid all families by putting money directly into the pockets of parents. Economic justice is the aim here: “At issue is whether the government should enact public policies that discriminate against those who wish to maintain child-orientated families and reward those that have decided to be two-paycheck families for economic, careerist, or other reasons . . . Parents should be able to choose between working at home and outside the home, but government policies should not be used to favor families who earn more because both parents work outside the home when there are young children in the family.”

A third measure being recommended is the strengthening of the marriage bond. All laws should be examined with an eye to their impact on the culture of divorce. Also, divorce laws should be changed “to favor children and slow the rush to divorce.” Moreover, divorce settlements should be based on the principle of “children first.”

Fourth, reform of the welfare system is also needed. “The welfare system must be fundamentally reformed to reinforce rather than undermine family stability and personal responsibility. While many factors are at work, there is little doubt that current welfare structures tend to exacerbate tendencies toward single-parent households with all their attendant problems.” Two aims of welfare reform should be encouraged: local efforts should emphasise incentives for parents who find jobs and leave welfare; and if welfare parents consistently act irresponsibly, their benefits should be gradually reduced.

A final goal should be the restoration of childhood – putting an end to premature sexualisation. A comprehensive campaign is needed to deter teenage pregnancy and sexual permissiveness. Claiming that “the ethos of self-indulgence and sexual objectification has become self-destructive,” communitarians argue that all sex education must stress personal and social responsibility: “The heart of our message must not be safe sex or mere technique, but responsible behaviour as one feature of our mature identity.”

A culture of familism, in other words, is what is being called for. “As Americans, we rightly cherish our individual freedom. But we cannot live without communitarian roots: families, communities, religious and secular associations, and various social movements. Children growing up outside a richly textured, interconnected network of human relations are deprived of a most precious gift: society itself.” “In short,” they say, “children are bearing the brunt of a profound cultural shift toward excessive individualism, whose negative features we are now in a position to observe and whose continuing costs will last longer than our own lifetimes.”

The communitarian movement has struck a responsive chord in the hearts of many people disillusioned with the social and political scene in America. Given that what transpires in America – both good and ill – tends to find its way here in a few years’ time, one can only hope that this communitarian emphasis will filter into our political and social climate. Such an emphasis may be just the option many disenfranchised Australians are looking for.

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