Americans love to talk about family values. That is to say, they love to express outrage—at Janet Jackson's exposed breast; at a politician's adulterous indiscretions; at the sexual orientation of their children's favorite underwater sponge—and slap a "family values" label on their outrage.
While "family values" makes for a convenient bumper sticker slogan for politicians running on a platform of discrimination, the reality is that our nation's domestic policies demonstrate that, in fact, we don't really value families at all. Those who claim to advocate for family values are far more concerned with narrowly defining what constitutes a family than with promoting policies that support and strengthen existing families. Relatively few governmental programs exist to assist families and those that do are laughably underfunded and restricted, and under constant attack from the very people who feign outrage at faux issues.
We could do this. Other countries around the world that have claimed an interest in helping families have invested resources in effective programs rather than propaganda. From family planning to family leave to subsidized health care and education, there are policies that do work. Unfortunately, our "family values" debate in this country dismisses such policies as socialism and sinfulness. So instead of investing in what works, our resources are diverted to propaganda that doesn't.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists family planning among the 10 greatest health achievements in the U.S. in the last century.
Access to family planning and contraceptive services has altered social and economic roles of women. Family planning has provided health benefits such as smaller family size and longer interval between the birth of children; increased opportunities for preconceptional counseling and screening; fewer infant, child, and maternal deaths; and the use of barrier contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and transmission of human immunodeficiency virus and other STDs.
Conversely, lack of access to family planning resources has severe consequences for women and their families. Lack of access is one of the most significant contributing factors in what Amnesty International calls a maternal health crisis in the U.S., where women have "a greater lifetime risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than women in 40 other countries." Amnesty International's study found that half of all maternal deaths in this country are preventable, and that education and access to family planning resources are critical to addressing this crisis:
According to the CDC, women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to develop complications and face worse outcomes for themselves and their babies. Women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to start prenatal care late and receive inadequate prenatal care.197 Furthermore, pregnancies that are spaced closely together pose additional risks for both the woman and the baby.198 For example, the risk of maternal death may be as much as 2.5 times higher when women become pregnant again less than six months after giving birth.
The value of addressing this crisis should be obvious. Dead women can't care for their children. Family values advocates will often say there is no more important role for a mother than caring for her child; thus, ensuring that women have safe and healthy pregnancies, and also receive the post-natal care they require, should be a priority. In response to this maternal health crisis, House Democrats have introduced H.R. 894, the "Maternal Health Accountability Act."
To amend title V of the Social Security Act to provide grants to States to establish State maternal mortality review committees on pregnancy-related deaths occurring within such States; to develop definitions of severe maternal morbidity and data collection protocols; and to eliminate disparities in maternal health outcomes.
Given the current hostility to family planning and women's health, however, the bill is all but destined to go absolutely nowhere. Which means that American mothers will continue to die, every single day, for reasons that are largely preventable.
Another factor that plays a role in unintended pregnancies, and in the maternal health crisis, is lack of access to information. Family planning services therefore must include fact-based, comprehensive sex education so that from an early age, boys and girls understand how to control their reproduction. Teens who receive comprehensive sex-education—rather than misleading, propaganda-based abstinence-only sex education, which has been proven wholly ineffective—are 50 percent less likely to experience unintended pregnancies. Given that approximately half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, costing taxpayers $11 billion a year, addressing and reducing those numbers is, or should be, a legitimate concern for those who value families, not to mention fiscal responsibility.
In addition to the myriad increased health risks, and severe economic consequences (for individuals and for the country), of unintended pregnancies, they also have a destabilizing effect on relationships:
There is also some evidence that unintended pregnancy has significant negative effects on relationship stability. Both marriages and cohabitations are more likely to dissolve after an unintended first birth than after an intended first birth, even after controlling for a range of socio-demographic variables.
In other words, family planning strengthens families. Unintended pregnancies undermine them. If creating strong, two-parent families is a goal of family values advocates, family planning is a necessary component to achieving that goal.
Title X of the Public Health Service Act, enacted in 1970, is "the only federal grant program dedicated solely to providing individuals with comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services." It is a critical program, given that:
Of the 36 million women in need of contraceptive care in 2008, 17.4 million were in need of publicly funded services and supplies because they either had an income below 250% of the federal poverty level or were younger than 20.
Of course, Title X is currently under attack by the Republican Party, at both the federal and state levels. They insist that even the relatively paltry $317 million invested in Title X programs is an unfair and immoral burden to taxpayers. Earlier this year, the Republican-led House passed H.R. 3, the bill to defund Title X. States, such as Indiana, are proposing and enacting legislation to do the same, even at the risk of losing all Medicaid funding, which of course means cutting off access to any health care for low-income women and men. In fact, 60 percent of women who obtain health care from family planning centers rely on those centers as their primary source of medical care.
If we as a nation were truly concerned with assuring that men and women are best able to provide for their children, assuring that they have access to the resources that enable them to plan for their families is the first, critical step.
Subsidizing stay-at-home parents
For example, almost every country on the planet provides at least minimal paid family leave to encourage mothers—and, in many countries, fathers—to be able to spend the first several months, or even years, at home with their children. The U.S. is one of only three countries that does not offer any paid family leave.
A comprehensive study by Human Rights Watch examined how family leave works in other countries around the world. Among its many findings:
Financing for paid leave can be done in many ways, but the trend in most developed countries is away from requiring employers to directly pay wages during leave, and toward establishing social insurance funds (often financed with payroll tax contributions or through general tax revenues) that employees can access during leave. This public financing approach helps mitigate discrimination by private employers in the labor market by reducing the disincentive to hire workers they consider likely to have children and take leave. Of the countries included in the 2010 ILO study, 53 percent financed maternity benefits through social security, 20 percent relied on joint contributions from employers and social security, and 26 percent required employers to cover the full amount (down from 31 percent in 1994)
Sweden, which offers 16 months of paid family leave, paying 82 percent of the annual income, is often cited for having the most generous family leave policies in the world, a result of the Swedish government's unapologetic goal to increase family stability, decrease divorce rates, improve fathers' involvement in parenting, and encourage women to remain in the work force. And its policies have been extremely effective at doing just that.
Companies have come to expect employees to take leave irrespective of gender, and not to penalize fathers at promotion time. Women’s paychecks are benefiting and the shift in fathers’ roles is perceived as playing a part in lower divorce rates and increasing joint custody of children.
But Sweden is hardly the only country to provide such generosity to its citizens.
Denmark offers a full year of leave, at 100 percent of income. Brazil provides 120 days, paying 100 percent of salary, with a tax deduction for employers. Slovakia offers three years of parental leave; six, if the child is handicapped. Ethiopia provides three months at 100 percent. Estonia offers 140 days at 100 percent—more if there are medical complications.
Even the libertarian paradise of Somalia offers 14 weeks at 50 percent.
The list goes on, of course. Countries around the globe, regardless of religion, form of government, or economy, all recognize the value of providing paid leave for women (and increasingly, men) when a child is born.
But here is the bottom line: The U.S. offers nothing. Zip. Zilch. Squat. For a country that boasts of being No. 1!, we are actually at the bottom. The extent of our family leave policy is the pitiful and toothless Family Medical Leave Act, full of restrictions and conditions, which merely allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. What that really means is that unless an employer has opted to provide paid leave for its employees, a family can only take advantage of the allotted 12 weeks if that family can afford to go without pay for three months. The reality is that FMLA is a privilege, not a right, for those who are wealthy enough to be able to use it.
As paltry as our family leave laws are for the first few months of a child's life, our support for those parents who do embrace the stay-at-home mandate is even worse. Mothers are expected to forgo their careers (and incomes) in order to provide full-time, unpaid care for their children. And even those few programs intended to provide additional resources, like Head Start, are dismissed by the very same "family values" crowd as being unnecessary and even harmful.
Take, for example, the Republicans from the Frederick County, Maryland, Board of County Commissioners, who voted earlier this year to cut in half local funding of Head Start programs because the government shouldn't invest in early childhood education; instead, women should just get married and stay home and educate their own damn children.
Never mind that early childhood education has proven to have many benefits for children. While other nations subsidize early childhood education, ours doesn't.
Those who advocate most strongly for "family values" applaud stay-at-home mothers who do not work, but instead sacrifice their income (and other benefits that accompany a job, like health insurance and retirement and Social Security contributions). But again, the government refuses to provide the resources that allow all mothers to make such a choice. Those women who have availed themselves of government assistance—such as Medicaid, to have access to health care; food stamps, to be able to feed their families; and welfare—have been shamed and demonized as "welfare queens" who are abusing the system, and taking unfair advantage of the government, in order to do the very thing the "family values" advocates insist they should be doing: foregoing a paycheck in order to be with their children.
Rather than properly fund and gladly encourage women to make use of these few kinds of resources, "family values" advocates demonize and shame them. And even the minimal funding of such programs is now at risk by the current crop of "family values" Republicans.
This year, for example, Florida Gov. Rick Scott cut $ 2 million from the state's budget that funded programs to assist at-risk mothers and children, like in-home visits from nurses, calling such programs "special interest waste."
Scott also signed into law a bill requiring women seeking enrolling in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (also known as welfare) to first submit to a drug test—at their own expense. The absurd and absurdly burdensome requirement relies on the completely inaccurate stereotype that the only women who would seek government assistance in order to provide for their families are drug addicts, and also that children of drug addicts are not entitled to the same quality of life as children whose parents do not require government assistance. So while "family values" advocates will argue that all children deserve to be born, not all children deserve food and health care.
Florida isn't alone, of course, in slashing aid to families who most need it. Other states, like North Carolina, are attempting to balance their budgets on the backs of at-risk and low-income mothers and their children.
So even parents who would love nothing more than to be able to spend the first months, or years, at home with their children cannot realistically do so. Those who avail themselves of the few government resources available are not lauded for following the "family values" mandate; instead, they are ridiculed, demonized, and even punished.
As in so many cases, when it comes down to it, our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy of governing trumps our "family values" rhetoric.
Immigration officials said they made provisions for the children so none would be left alone. But in the days right after the raid -- as a 7-year-old called a hotline and asked for her mother, and a breastfeeding baby refused a bottle and was hospitalized for dehydration -- Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) began to categorize the raid's aftermath as a "humanitarian crisis."
As Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wrote at Daily Kos following the raid:
The reality of illegal immigration is anything but simple and the solutions are difficult. The Department of Homeland Security was ready with hundreds of officers to subdue a group of frightened workers, but they were totally unprepared to deal with the aftermath of their raid. DHS knew that it would be detaining young parents, and yet it had no effective plan to identify and help the children who would be left alone. The photographs of bewildered, desperate, crying children brought home the full horror of the government raid distinguished by its callousness.
According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 4 million U.S.-born children have at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. In other words, millions of American children live every day with the very real threat that they could be separated from their families, their parents forced to decide whether to leave their American-born children behind or uproot them to a a country that has never been home to them, effectively punishing children for their parents' desire to provide them with the aggressively advertised "We're No. 1!" great American dream.
Likewise, immigration policies that value families would not separate parents from their children because of sexual orientation. At least 35,000 bi-national gay couples live in the U.S., and almost half of them are raising children. Which means that, as with children of undocumented immigrants, those thousands of children live with the threat of being separated from their parents or facing deportation.
While heterosexual Americans are allowed to sponsor their foreign-born spouses for green cards, gay and lesbian Americans are barred from that privilege. So committed couples living together, even raising children together, face the very real prospect that they may not be able to keep their families together. Democrats in the House and Senate have, for several years, introduced the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow same-sex bi-national couples the same immigration rights as heterosexual bi-national couples, but this legislation has faced strong opposition from many of the very same politicians who claim to support family values. If keeping families together is indeed a goal of the U.S. government, such legislation would be enacted. As Sen. Patrick Leahy said when he reintroduced the bill this year:
A core tenet of our immigration policy is preserving family unity. Yet gay and lesbian Americans are still forced to choose between their country and being with those they love.
Any policy that separates, rather than supports, families is an absolute affront to the notion of family values. Just as budgets cannot be balanced on the backs of poor women and their children, the value of keeping parents and children together ought not to be conditional upon immigration status or sexual orientation.
Loving, stable homes for children
A handful of states have outright bans on gays and lesbians adopting children in need of homes; more than a dozen states have introduced and even passed such legislation that was ultimately found unconstitutional by the courts. While family values advocates speak of the importance of children being raised in stable families, they exclude gay couples from that calculation. So children who could otherwise be raised by loving parents are left instead to bounce around the foster care system. If children are indeed better off being raised by parents, instead of the state, laws should make it easier—not harder, or even illegal—for loving couples to open their homes to children in need. Abandoning children to the care of the state for the sake of discrimination is in no way a family value.
If the government does have a legitimate interest in promoting families—certainly a debatable point, but for another day—then there are steps we could take, policies we could support, legislation we could pass, and resources we could devote to that end. We could provide the education and resources to enable men and women to choose if, how, and when to have families. We could ensure that every child is born to a healthy mother, regardless of her economic level. We could enable mothers and fathers to stay at home with their children in those first critical years, funding and expanding resources to ensure that all children, regardless of their parents' income, have access to the basic necessities of food, shelter, health care, and education. We could eliminate discriminatory laws that divide, rather than unite, families. We could allow and encourage every man and woman who is willing and able to raise children in need.
We could do all of those things. If family values really mattered to us, there are dozens more steps we could take to show just how much we value families. And none of them involves censoring cartoon characters.