`The Family' Has Many Definitions. A proposed UN observance could cloak the real problems facing women and families

COMMENTATORS have expressed perplexity over the controversy touched off by a United Nations proposal to create an ``International Year of the Family.'' The misgivings of many women about this project have been interpreted as hostility toward family life or dogged insistence on doctrinaire feminism. The fact is, however, that many people besides feminists have good cause to be suspicious of programs or policies that insert a definite article in front of the word ``family.''

Historically and cross-culturally, there is no such thing as ``the family.'' Family structures and norms vary tremendously. Some groups consider extended families the proper family form; others insist on the primacy of the nuclear unit and its freedom from interference by kin. Some societies sanction plural wives or husbands; among others children are regularly fostered out.

Modern American notions that a child should stay with his ``own'' family sound selfish and fragmenting to cultures that stress social parenting and child exchange. As a Naskapi Indian once told missionaries who urged him to restrict his wife's independence to be sure of each child's legitimacy: ``Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we love all the children of the tribe.''

Different groups in America have constructed and sanctioned distinctive families, and many have learned to their sorrow what happens when another group's concept of ``the family'' is institutionalized in public policy or elevated to a cultural ideal. At the end of the 19th century, working-class family arrangements came under sustained attack from reformers who believed, in one leader's words, that to create a ``true home'' it was often necessary to ``break up an unworthy family.''

In the early 1900s new housing laws and public regulations forced the poor to adopt restricted, nuclear families, while ``Americanization'' programs in the schools exhorted immigrant youths to repudiate the traditions of their elders.

Right up through the 1960s many people were denied welfare or discriminated against in housing and employment if state officials deemed their family arrangements improper. Ethnocentric, often arbitrary definitions of what constitutes ``the'' family still work against prospective adoptive parents, opponents in child custody cases, and clients in the social-service network.

Preoccupation with ``the'' family, moreover, is often an excuse to ignore broader social and economic dilemmas. The clich'e that ``the family'' is fragmenting directs attention away from the fact that the world is fragmenting.

A MAJORITY of developing countries have lower per capita food consumption and higher poverty rates today than they did 20 years ago, and the gap between rich and poor nations has been widening steadily. Even within our own country, income inequality has increased dramatically since the 1970s.

The result: One in 5 American children - 1 in 2 black American children - is poor; a half million more children than usual died last year in the developing world because of deepening poverty associated with the international debt crisis. This is a social challenge requiring international cooperation and exertion, not simply a problem for ``the family.''

There are two main drawbacks to focusing on ``the family'' in the coming period.

First, causal connections tend to be wrongly inferred between family changes and economic problems. Many people, for example, blame poverty and child neglect on divorce, desertion, or unwed motherhood. But 54 percent of the increase in family poverty in America since 1979 has occurred in families with both spouses present, with only 38 percent concentrated in single-parent families. Economists Peter Gottschalk and Sheldon Danziger have calculated that the poverty rate in 1982 was only about 1.8 percent higher than it would have been without any of the demographic changes since 1967. Internationally, the case is even more cut and dried: Economic and political decisions, not family ones, have produced the rising tide of misery and impoverishment.

American blacks are uncomfortably familiar with the victim-blaming associated with false inferences about ``deviant'' families. Black poverty has often been attributed to failure to maintain ``the family.'' But numerous researchers have shown that black family arrangements, far from being pathological, are reasonable attempts to cope with the fact that black men have faced rising unemployment rates and steady marginalization in the economy since at least 1954.

While all young men have experienced a fall in real annual income since 1974, young black men's real earnings have dropped 50 percent. Reversing these trends and countering the resurgence of racism in America would do much more to help black families than spending a year celebrating ``the family.''

Second, emphasis on strengthening ``the family'' often substitutes for acknowledging wider social responsibilities for the dependencies created by a worsening economic climate.

An international focus on ``the'' family in this era of international economic and social crises would be adopted by many nations only as part of an attempt to bury the casualties of their social policies in families. Since women tend to be the people within families charged with caring for dependents, it is hardly unreasonable for many to fear that this would have grave repercussions on their role and image. Many governments are likely to be tempted to avoid dealing with the dependencies associated with the international debt crisis and worsening economic or environmental trends by assigning women the job - all in the name of fostering ``the family.''

Women, half the world's population, already put in two-thirds of the world's work hours, while being counted as only one-third of the world's work force and taking home just one-tenth of the world's income.

It is not at all doctrinaire to worry that a year celebrating ``the family'' as an ideal could worsen the lot both of women and families, as they exist in their real variety and complexity.

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