What should be the role of government in strengthening family life? "What the government does is not particularly good, and it's costly," says a leading family historian. "It ought to stick to good stamps and housing."

"Families have to be freed from intrusion on their authority," a sociologist remarks.

"Laws are too rigid and federal involvement has been overdone," comments the director of a volunteer family agency.

Emotions run high as Americans debate the question. At issue are not only the myriad federal and state programs dealing with such problems as welfare needs and child abuse, but policies in public schools and legal and judicial trends. Welfare, income maintenance, sex education, busing, child custody, school textbooks, abortion, vouchers, day care -- these are among the controversial questions sometimes deeply dividing American public opinion and spilling into the arena of political battle.

On the ideological "right" are voices that favor a drastic reduction in the role of government. "The enormous superstructure of the state is on a collision course with traditional morality," says Connaught Marshner, chairman of the National Pro-Family Coalition. "Impersonal regulations, experimentation in the schools, and the rise of the so-called helping professionals are undercutting the family's authority."

On the left are liberal groups advocating that the government abandon the official definition of a family as "two or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption." They would broaden the definition to include such nontraditional patterns of living as homosexual households, communes, and cohabitation outside wedlock -- a move that would extend state benefits, programs, and protection.

Yet ideological lines are blurred, with many Americans holding conservative views on some family issues and liberal ones on others. The strands of opinion are complex. The significant point, howeveR, is that across the ideological spectrum there is a general disenchantment with government and skepticism about its ability to solve family problems. More and more, Americans today look to their own resources as well as to churches, volunteer organizations, and other private institutions for help on the home front.

Asked in a recent Gallup poll which six items they thought should be the main factors in bolstering the family, Americans put "government and policies" at the bottom of the list. Almost half of those interviewed said the federal government has an unfavorable influence on family life.

At the same time the vast majority of Americans want government to be sympathetic to family problems -- and to provide help in times of crisis.They believe it has a role in job creation, health care, and rescue from poverty. Most of all, they want federal and state officials to reexamine their policies in terms of how they might affect the family.

This fits in with today's call of professionals for what is termed a "family-impact approach" -- somewhat akin to environmental-impact analysis. This, in turn, grows out of the trendy concept of "family ecology," in which the family is viewed not as an autonomous unit but as it interacts with neighbors, the community, the city, and such larger institutions of society as churches, schools, and government. Where government is concerned, many policies and programs have had negative results for families, simply because their potential effects were never thought through. This is what many now want to correct.

"The government is up to its eyeballs in programs affecting families, so it's a myth that the government is neutal," says A. Sidney Johnson III, director of the Family Impact Seminar at George Washington University. "There's a fear about government intruding in people's lives. But the issue is not whether it should be involved -- but how."

Mr. Johnson and his staff have identified more than 250 government programs touching on family life -- from social security and welfare to education and day care. Some, like the Head Start program, enjoy substantial public support. All , however, are coming under increasing scrutiny and, in many cases, challenge. The three recent White House Conferences on Families, for instance, took up a broad range of proposals to reform existing practices (some of which even ultraconservatives applaud). Among them:

* Elimination of the "marriage penalty" in the income tax system. Under present law, married two-income couples pay a higher rate than two single wage earners living together.

* Revision of tax laws to encourage homemakers who care for preschool children or handicapped.

* A change of the social security law so that a woman who is widowed or divorced after less than 10 years does not lose all claim to her husband's benefits.

* Enactment of a tax credit for families caring for elderly relatives. The government, paradoxically, pays up to 75 percent of the cost of nursing-home care, but nothing to families with aged in the home.

Family experts, in and out of government, see many other areas for reform. The present welfare law permits half the states to withhold federal aid to mothers and children unless the father is absent from the home. "This is an incentive for the father to leave," says Mr. Johnson. "It's absolutely the wrong symbol if we care about the children in the family."

Foster care is also the target of mou nting criticism, a system under which the government now pays more money the farther a child is from its natural home. It will spend, say, $20,000 a year for institutional care, $1,500 for a foster-family home in the community, and almost nothing if the child remains at home. Yet many child experts have come to the conclusion -- after much trial and error -- that being with even a less-than-ideal natural parent or parents is better for a child than being bounced around from one foster home to another.

The more than 450,000 children taken from their parents each year have "rarely fared well," says Brigette Berger, a Wellesley College sociologist. "Separation from their families means for them an endless stream of foster homes , confusion, and heartache, frequently resulting in irreparable psychological damage."

"Removal of a child from its natural home is the ultimate form of state intervention," remarks a family counselor.

John Calhoun, commissioner of the US Administration for Children, Youth and Families, agrees the government ought to put more stress on repairing family life. "We want to reverse the dramatic misuse of foster care," he comments. "We have to look beneath the alcoholism and other problems and see if we can't work with the family, rather than merely focusing on the victim."

Inasmuch as so many family problems reduce to money pressures -- housing, medical care, education -- the question of how the government should deal with poverty continues to be one of the fundamental concerns of family specialists. Some child-care experts, espousing what might be termed a monolithic approach to the problem, advocate such solutions as a "negative income tax" or income-maintenance program. Kenneth Keniston and the Carnegie Council on Children, for instance, in their well-publicized study three years ago, "All Our Children," proposed government cash supports that would assure every family an income equal to 40 percent of the national median. They drew an impressive picture of national child neglect largely by the fact that distribution of wealth and income has not changed significantly in the United States in more than a century.

But such all-out change seems to have lost enthusiasts in these times of inflation, recession, and budget restraint. Most professional observers tend to stress the more feasible "incremental route"; that is, chipping away at bad tax and other laws and making sure that funds are more wisely allocated and spent. "There's not the public support for the big programs now," comments a congressional aide working on legislation affecting families, "and only a small percent in Congress would go for a total approach."

Certain new legal and judicial trends in the country also are arousing public argument. In today's volatile social climate the courts are groping for decisions that reflect new moral and cultural attitudes. When a family broke up five generations ago, for instance, the courts awarded custody of the children to the father, who kept the family together. Then, in recent decades, it became established practice to give the mother custody. Today, the leaning is toward awarding custody to the parent best suited and able to care for the children or even joint custody -- a trend many observers deem salutary.

Some judicial actions, however, are coming into question as perhaps contributing to the very problems society would like to eliminate. Thus, social critics suggest that some of the difficulties children are having in the home and in school stem in part from the growing emphasis on "individual rights" and from the increasing recourse to lawyers and courts for protection of children from parents and other caretakers. Judicial intervention is often needed, it is argued, but sometimes it goes too far.

"You have to protect child rights," says Nathan Glazer, a sociologist at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. "But we are undermining the authority of our parents, teachers, cops, social workers, and other authority figures -- and effectiveness depends on authority. The rise of individualism in our society was wonderful; it released energies and saved people from abuse. But now we see an attack on all forms of responsibility."

The situation is paradoxical, Dr. Glazer states. In pursuit of child rights, civil lawyers often constrain the very state institutions -- schools, social welfare agencies, police -- to which families have increasingly looked in recent years for support and help. At a conference of the American Enterprise Institute last year, Dr. Glazer cited a Boston suit in which the state welfare department was charged with removing children from their parents too hastily, and then a subsequent suit in which a child under the welfare department's protection was allowed to remain with the parents and later died through neglect and cruelty.

Such legal attacks, Dr. Glazer argued, merely undermine the ability of the welfare workers to defend the family and the child. "The assumption is that a new legal rule can solve the problem," he said. But, he added, "in difficult situations in which someone's discretion must be employed, the legal rule can merely reduce the range of discretion and so reduce the range of responsibility, concern, and care."

Dr. Glazer admits he is "old fashioned" and worries about the loss of traditional values. But he is not alone in questioning where "pure rights" will lead.

Paul Ramsey, professor of religion of Princeton University and one of the nation's leading scholars in the field of ethics, similarly argues that marriage and the family have been subjected to the "relentless forces of an insistent atomistic individualism." He believes the US Supreme Court and lower courts have eroded parental authority and exacerbated the fragmentation of values in society. The proliferation of pornography, for example, he attributes partly to the Supreme Court's view that, in his words, "freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment means something quite different from anything our Founding Fathers had in mind." That, he says, was "freedom of civil discourse"m -- not license for all manner of self-expression.

Most of the American public apparently agrees. According to Gallup, while Americans have grown more liberal in their sexual attitudes in recent years, only a small proportion favor relaxing community standards with respect to the sale of explicit sexual material.

Under the notion of privacy, Dr. Ramsey says, citing another example, the courts are helping to erode family law that has been traditional for generations. Thus, every law passed by a state legislature requiring parental consent for a teen-age abortion or even a notice that it has taken place has been struck down so far. "Parents have to write an excuse for a teen-ager to be out of school," he comments wryly, "but not one regarding the right to have an abortion."

The tragedy, Professor Ramsey says, is that this hurts the teen-ager herself. "To deny the parents even knowledge about what's happening removes from them the ability to support her in a difficult time -- and that is devastating to the family."

Legalized abortion itself, of course, continues to be the subject of public dispute. Pro-life groups have been pushing vigorously for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion. Yet even many Roman Catholics and others who oppose abortion on moral grounds do not support such political action, believing that in today's permissive social climate it would only polarize and further fragment the nation. It is reasoned that in the absence of a consensus on the issue, it is better for the law to allow free choice and therefore legalized clinics, which can perform abortions safely. It is not denied, however, that freedom of abortion has led to vastly increased incidence of abortion and to such harmful practice as repeated abortions by teen-agers.

Still another theme being sounded more insistently these days is the important role of the schools in fostering family life. But there is not always agreement on what that role should be. The most conservative groups strongly oppose sex education in public schools, for instance, believing it has promoted rather than discouraged sex experimentation and premarital sex. They note the high incidence of teen-age pregnancies outside wedlock even in affluent communities where sex education is included in school curriculums.

Yet, according to that same Gallup poll, the overwhelming majority of Americans favor sex education in schools with parental consent. So do many family and child experts and other professionals, although some would prefer courses of shorter duration and others recommend involving family members in the courses as well. "We're no longer a barnyard society," argues a well-known sociologist. "Kids used to learn everything by observing the farm around them. But in an industrial society, with parents usually reluctant to explain things to their children, some instruction is needed."

One of the country's eminent researchers of the family, Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, would even have the schools provide courses in "caring." Given the decline in the size of families, he says, many children are brought up today never having held a baby or knowing how to care for one. School courses could help prepare them for their own future family responsibilities. Most Americans, Gallup finds, would support such training.

So-called moral education of "values clarification" courses in the schools also seem to be under attack, after a period of popularity. Spawned in the years after Vietnam and Watergate, such courses proliferated to the point where some 6,000 school systems now are estimated to offer them. Their stated aim is not to inculcate any given moral standards, proponents say, but to help children arrive at their own moral conclusions. This in itself has raised the hackles of more traditional, especially religiously fundamentalist, parents who feel that moral upbringing belongs in the home. With renewed emphasis being given to upgrading basic education, moreover, it is felt by some critics that schools should not be laden with other responsibilities.

"Parents should be pressuring the schools to enhance basic education, because they don't have enough energy left after working to deal with this themselves," says Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist of Columbia University. "But character building really belongs in the home. What teachers and administrators can best do is set an example themselves."

One could cite many other "family and state" issues percolating in the public consciousness. They are sensitive and difficult, often confusing families as well as professionals. They are far from resolved. But if there is agreement on anything, it is the overriding importance of self-help -- the need for families to reassert themselves and to work more closely with schools and institutions at the community level, and for these institutions themselves to be more sensitive to families. Government should be de-emphazied, it is felt, and this requires building stronger links between the family and such "support institutions" as churches, volunteer organizations, and places of work. Says Dr. Bronfenbrenner:

"What we are experiencing is the unraveling of the social fabric which makes the society. When that unravels, none of the parts of it can function. What we face is the need to reweave, to rebuild, the connection between family, church, school, so that they understand each other and see each other as complementing each other."

Next: The heart of the matter

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