What Families Need to Thrive

This article originally appeared in Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice.

The lack of widely available maternity and paternity leave sets the United States apart from other industrialized nations, yet the vast majority of Americans aspire for something different. Public opinion polls routinely report that Americans broadly support some kind of universal paid family leave. Early this year, the Pew Research Center noted a twist in this story. Although most Americans want family leave, we disagree about how to achieve it. Should employers be required to provide paid family leave or merely given incentives or rewards for doing so? Should we facilitate private savings accounts or enact a public fund that all qualified employees can access? No proposed solution garnered a clear majority.[1]

Our collective indecision about how to enable and protect family caregiving, even at critical moments such as the birth of a new child, has nothing to do with lack of love for family. Americans can’t agree about policies like paid family leave because we lack a vision for how key social institutions--family, government, business--should relate to one another. Public discourse tends to focus on one or the other institution to the exclusion of others. In reality, families thrive best as part of an ecosystem of mutually supportive social institutions. Paid family leave, a topic I explored in the 2016 Capital Commentary article Honoring Our Calling to Work and Family in Public Policy, is just one of the ways that businesses and workplaces support families. In this series, we will further investigate how the interconnection between workplace, church, public policy, and family can promote family flourishing in our contemporary economy.

FAMILY NOT JUST AN ECONOMIC UNIT

In June, a group of economists representing right-leaning and left-leaning perspectives released a bipartisan policy paper expressing a policy consensus on paid family leave. Their logic centered almost exclusively on the market. Advocates for paid family leave point to a higher employment-to-population ratio in places with paid leave policies, boosting economic productivity overall, as well as lower worker turnover and absenteeism. Opponents of leave, in turn, argue that paid leave will increase the cost of doing business and slow the economy and job growth.

The economic impacts of work-family policy certainly matter. Yet they only provide part of the picture. We honor family and caregiving in ways that economics alone can’t capture. For Christians in particular, families are an expression of the creative mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth. Families rest on a backbone of commitment that persists over time, rather than constituting themselves according to their members' changing interests or emotions. The aims of profit, fame, or power are not the principal drivers of family life, freeing families to pursue the flourishing, formation, and care of their members. Families raise children and care for those who are sick, disabled, or aging. It is often through familial relationships that we are most directly called to honor the sanctity of life.

It is often through familial relationships that we are most directly called to honor the sanctity of life.

Writing in First Things, the historian Agnes Howard gives an account of pregnancy that beautifully portends the whole of family life. Howard offers theological categories in place of overly economic and medicalized accounts of childbearing and childbirth. (The term “maternity leave,” for example, is the language of the market, construing childbirth and parenting “as if it were a vacation or hiatus from meaningful employment.”) Pregnancy is an act of “moral labor,” not just waiting but real work. It encompasses acts of hospitality, self-denial, and stewardship.[2] The pregnant mother is a “primary community, an exhibit to onlookers as well as to mothers of interdependence, charity, and life together. It qualifies our assumptions of autonomy, the liberal romance with individuality and self-sufficiency. None of us at the beginning is autonomous, and the continuation of the species depends on the partial sacrifice of autonomy that women make in childbearing.”

PRIVATIZING FAMILY LIMITS ITS FLOURISHING

In the twentieth century, Christians defending the sacredness of family life propelled a robust pro-family movement. In response to what many perceived as excessive self-interest, hedonism, and individualism in American culture, they sought to safeguard and edify family life. But this pro-family movement has also fostered a deeply privatized vision of family life, denying family’s interactions and interconnectedness with other institutions like business and government. In the contemporary economy, this isolated view of family has consequences, limiting our ability to help families thrive.

The pro-family movement recognizes stable, two-parent families as the bedrock of a healthy society and economy. Families produce good workers, good consumers, and good citizens. In the words of the Family Research Council, “family is the great generator” of human capital, savings, and entrepreneurship. Researcher W. Bradford Wilcox and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute found evidence to support this claim. States with higher levels of marriage have more economic growth, less poverty, and more economic mobility than those with lower marriage rates.[3] Grounded in these findings, many policy makers have encouraged families to follow a “success sequence” that prioritizes education, work, marriage, and then children. They counsel a lifting of marriage discrepancies in the tax code and tax relief for those who earn enough to benefit from it. Organizations like Focus on the Family provide a set of pastoral care resources to help families achieve success and thrive as a family unit.

Historically, the pro-family movement contended that teaching and incentivizing marriage delimits the government’s role. Further, it sought little from the market beyond the creation of jobs and demanded little of jobs but to exist. “Don’t expect corporate America to recognize how much fathers are needed at home," counsels a Focus on the Family article for fathers whose work schedules keep them away from their children. "The employee’s family life isn’t part of the annual report, nor can it be measured on the bottom line.” The article's solutions to work-life conflict are all worker directed: work more efficiently, skip lunch, reconsider that promotion, relocate to minimize your commute. In recent years, Focus on the Family’s parenting advice has come to acknowledge the many women in the workforce. Most of the organization’s advice to working mothers is also directed exclusively toward the household: pray, evaluate your options, prioritize, be creative.    

By focusing on the family, many Christians have come to assume the nuclear family’s economic self-sufficiency. But economic sands are shifting under many families' feet. Major changes in the job market over the past several decades threaten families’ quest for economic self-sufficiency. Earnings for the median, full-time working male have stagnated at $48,000 per year. Consider that the cost of raising a child is nearly $13,000 per year.[4] The expenses associated with two children consume half of that wage with plenty of housing, food, transportation, and health care expenses remaining. For workers without a bachelor’s degree, earnings have been steadily declining as has access to full-time work and its associated benefits.[5] Service sector jobs, one of the fastest growing segments of the labor market, tend to offer low wages, few benefits, and little opportunity for workers to control their schedule and hours. The father who prepares food at a restaurant can’t work through lunch in order to get home early, nor can the mother who works shifts in retail or at a hospital.

In practice, some well-intended efforts to focus on and protect the family have set families up for a unilateral, one-way relationship with the wider society.

In practice, some well-intended efforts to focus on and protect the family have set families up for a unilateral, one-way relationship with the wider society. Families offer strength and prosperity to our nation, raising up future workers, entrepreneurs, and citizens. Families are a net contributor to society but they must manage their own struggles internally. This vision fails to fully account for what our other institutions owe to families.

FAMILIES CONNECTED TO OTHER INSTITUTIONS

Not all streams of Christian tradition link the sacredness of family with its privatization. Indeed, deep and diverse Christian teaching see family in interdependent relationship with other institutions of society while nevertheless honoring family’s unique and foundational character.

In Amoris Laetitia, his “love letter to families,” Pope Francis described family as “a hub for integrating persons into society and a point of contact between the public and private.” Francis’s vision for family is multidimensional. Family functions simultaneously as the dynamic center of society, a source of life and procreation, and “a living icon--capable of revealing God as creator and Savior.”

Christian Reformed philosophy of family centers around the covenant — a lasting commitment of love and trust enacted before God and the whole community. The couple’s union symbolizes God’s covenantal relationship and his eternal love for humanity. In the marriage covenant ceremony, the community stands in for God and in relationship to the couple.

Christian Reformed philosophy of family centers around the covenant — a lasting commitment of love and trust enacted before God and the whole community.

In both Catholic and Reformed traditions, family’s distinct contributions to society in the procreation and rearing of children and the instilling of virtue exist alongside contributions from other social institutions. According to Catholic Social Teaching, these institutions are responsible for the provision of a family wage, either via a wage-earner’s salary or social support. Families should have access to health care and insurance to protect the life and health of workers and their families.[6] Market-based actors, like unions and employers, as well as government, are all agents in this vision alongside families themselves. There are no one-way lines of responsibility. Instead, in the words of Pope John Paul II, the spheres of work and family “must be properly unified and must properly permeate each other.”

Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical on labor goes on to explore the implications of a unified work and family sphere for women’s roles at home and in the workplace. A mother’s unique calling and capacity for caregiving creates a duty for employers to properly accommodate mothers in the workplace. He counsels employers not to discriminate against women and mothers. “The true advancement of women requires that labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which mothers have an irreplaceable role.” Here, the resolution of work-family conflict is not only the household’s private responsibility. It requires cooperation, action, and even restructuring on the part of other institutions such as the workplace.

Some Christian thinkers have looked to the laws and practices of ancient Israel as a paradigm for just, family-supportive social structures, noting that “the economic well-being of the family was the objective of the Bible’s instructions regarding property and land in general.”[7] Families were the primary source of economic support for all of their members. But laws and customs such as the Jubilee ensured that families had the capacity to support themselves and were not trapped in landlessness or debt slavery.

FAMILIES VALUED AND SUPPORTED

While families offer a locus of care and nurture that no other institution can rival or replicate, this series will explore how families need and deserve support from other institutions as they pursue their vocation. Combining a high view of family with an understanding of the interconnectedness of family to other institutions might help resolve some of our paralyzing indecision about public policies like paid family leave.

Kristin Kobes DuMez gives a historical perspective on how we got to our present arrangement of work and family responsibilities. She informs our present impasse about providing families time and capacity to care for their members, challenging our assumptions about which norms are necessary and which are historically contingent. Elizabeth Schiltz makes the case for employer accommodation of working mothers, grounded not only in the economics of employee retention but in the true value that mothers bring to the workplace. Robert Francis reflects on the calling of fatherhood within a changing economy. Writing from the perspective of rural communities, Hannah Anderson calls on churches, long acknowledged by the pro-family movement as partners in family support and formation, to deepen their attention to families in crisis. She ponders the ways that a widespread cultural idolatry of individualized, romantic marriage combined with the church’s blinkered attention to middle and upper-class families has hobbled church ministry to families who cherish but fall short of this norm.

Family is an institution with a divine calling of its own, not a means to other ends. To properly honor family means neither reducing it to its economic input nor cordoning off family in a private space. Instead, we can hold firm to God’s purposes for family, honoring family as precious, unique, and essential while also embracing the need for other institutions to help families thrive. 

-Rachel Anderson is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice. She is an attorney and founder of the Faith & Credit Program at the Center for Responsible Lending.

[1] Pew Research Center, “U.S. Views on Paid Family Leave,” March 2017

[2] Howard, “In Moral Labor,”

[3] W. Bradford Wilcox, et at, “Strong Families, prosperous states: Do healthy families affect the wealth of states?” American Enterprise Institute, October 19, 2015.

[4] Expenditures on Children by Families, 2015, United States Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. January 2017.

[5] Melissa S. Kearney, Brad Hershbein, Elisa Jacome, Profiles of Change: Employment, Earnings, and Occupations from 1990-2013, Brookings Institution, 2015

[6] Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens [Encyclical on human work on the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum], 1981.

[7] John D. Mason, "Biblical Teaching and Welfare Policy in the U.S." in Welfare in America: Christian Perspectives on a Policy Crisis. Stanley Carlson-Thies, James Skillen. 1996. P166.