How Conservatives and the GOP Destroyed the "Traditional Family" They Claim to Treasure

For decades, social conservatives have had a lot to say about the decline of “family values” in the United States, and they have a long list of people they like to blame, including gays and lesbians, Hollywood, the adult entertainment industry, feminists, rappers, the ACLU and abortion providers. As the Christian Right sees it, a major cultural war has been taking place in the U.S. -- and the American family is being attacked by everyone from Larry Flynt and Planned Parenthood to 50 Cent and proponents of gay marriage.

Social conservatives are right about one thing: the American family is under attack, but not from cultural liberals. The greatest threat to the American family is economic stress -- and the modern-day Republicans and social conservatives who preach family values are the ones who have done the most to imperil the American family. From union-busting and the outsourcing of jobs to developing countries and opposing universal health care, social conservatives have not only endangered the American middle class -- they have also made it increasingly hard to raise a "traditional" family.

Economic Hardship Makes People Delay Marriage and Childbearing

Many Americans are well aware of the economic pressures families are facing in the United States, influencing their attitudes toward marriage and childbearing. During the summer of 2009, the Guttmacher Institute surveyed 947 fertile women (18–34 years of age) with annual incomes under $75,000. Guttmacher reported that because of the economic downturn, 44 percent of the women surveyed wanted “to reduce or delay their childbearing” -- and 64 percent agreed with the following statement: “With the economy the way it is, I can’t afford to have a baby right now.” That 64 percent increased to 77 percent among the women who had annual household incomes under $25,000.

Meanwhile, physicians all over the U.S. have been reporting a sharp increase in the number of men inquiring about permanent sterilization. In 2009, Planned Parenthood reported that requests for vasectomies had increased by more than 30 percent at some of their clinics in Southern California, while Dr. Marc Goldstein of the Cornell Institute for Reproductive Medicine in New York City estimated that he was seeing a 48 percent increase in consultations for vasectomies. The Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio has reported a 50 percent increase in the number of vasectomies performed in that facility.

“In some ways, you can compare fertility patterns to what we’re seeing with consumer spending,” said Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute. “People are saying, ‘This isn’t the time I want to make major purchases or take on major expenses’ -- and there is nothing bigger in your expenses than having a child. I think that even women who might be able to afford to have children are hesitating because they’re thinking, ‘Is this really the time that I want to go on maternity leave? Will my job still be here when I get back? Will I make myself vulnerable to losing my job if I go on maternity leave?’”

Tough economic conditions not only discourage procreation -- they also discourage people from getting married in the first place. In a 2009 survey, the legal Web site found that 21 percent of people between the ages of 18-34 were postponing their marriage plans because of the economy. That survey also found that 40 percent of participants between the ages of 18-34 were putting off marriage, divorce or procreation for economic reasons.’s survey indicated that on one hand, people who are already married are more likely to want to avoid the expense of a divorce during recessions -- and on the other hand, the unmarried want to avoid the costs of getting married when times are bad.

If present economic trends continue, the U.S. may experience its greatest dip in procreation and marriage since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But the economic assault on middle-class American families didn’t begin with the recession of 2007-2010. It has been in the works for decades, and in order to understand how the U.S. went from being family-friendly to being so unfriendly to families, one needs to take a look at the economic trends of the last 80 years.

The Decline of the Middle Class

After recovering from the Great Depression, the U.S. boasted a robust middle class (both white collar and blue collar) and became an environment in which it made sense financially for many married couples to have at least two children. Economist Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, has described the period of roughly 1946-1975 as the U.S.’ “not quite Golden Age” -- a time in which the U.S., inequalities and all, exemplified “suburban middle-class affluence.”

Ironically, the decade that social conservatives point to as a cultural ideal -- the 1950s -- was also a time when unions were at their strongest and, under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who supported elements of the New Deal and would be much too centrist to receive a GOP presidential nomination today), Americans in the highest income bracket paid income tax rates of up to 92 percent. There were some major economic injustices in the 1950s and 1960s, of course -- especially for the many African Americans who found themselves on the outside of the American Dream looking in. But on the whole, American families were better able to afford a middle-class life. A college degree practically guaranteed a living wage for white-collar workers, and many blue-collar men went to trade schools, joined unions, bought houses and raised two or three kids on a single salary.

John Schmitt, senior economist for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), said the U.S. is actually a more prosperous country now than it was in 1950s, '60s or '70s; unfortunately, Schmitt said, most of the prosperity is concentrated at the very top.

“The U.S. economy is much richer now than it was in the 1950s or 1960s; the problem is the economic distribution that we have now,” Schmitt explained. “The economic distribution was better in the 1950s and 1960s, although there were big pockets of people who were excluded. For example, African Americans were excluded in the 1950s because of segregation, and women’s economic rights were greatly curtailed compared to where they are now. But even so, if you looked at the economic distribution of the 1950s and the 1960s, it was much more equal then than it is today. So even though we are much richer as a country than we were 50 years ago, the distributional effects have been so negative.”

Politically and economically, the 1980s were a bad time for many blue-collar Americans. The decade in which the GOP became synonymous with Christian Right “family values” groups like the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was also a decade in which unions became weaker and many manufacturing jobs were lost. Organized labor suffered a major blow when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, which was a victory for union-busting and proved terrible for American families. Steven Greenhouse, who has covered labor issues for the New York Times, summarized the effects perfectly when he said: “I remember in the 1980s when the air traffic controllers union was wiped out. For 15 years after that, employers all across the country cut jobs, cut pensions, cut health coverage and stepped onto workers' rights.”

Deregulation of large corporations and tax cuts for the wealthy were two cornerstones of the Reagan/Bush Sr. era, and proponents of Reaganomics -- most of them social conservatives -- insisted that if the people at the very top prospered, their profits would “trickle down” to the middle class and the poor. Socially conservative Christian fundamentalist churches preached a “gospel of prosperity” to their middle-class and low-income flocks, urging them to vote Republican and assuring them that profits for the wealthiest Americans would also result in profits for them. Falwell, in his sermons and speeches, was as quick to praise Reaganomics as he was to condemn homosexuality, abortion, rock music and adult entertainment. But the economic data indicates that those corporate profits and tax breaks for the rich didn’t have a trickling-down effect but rather, set in motion a trend of more of the overall wealth being concentrated at the top.

From 1952-1977, the top 10 percent of American wage earners never accounted for more than 35 percent of overall national income; in 1992, they were bringing home just over 40 percent -- and in 2006, the top 10 percent of wage earners accounted for 50 percent of overall national income. Reich has noted that “even as late as 1980, the richest 1 percent of Americans received only about 9 percent of the nation’s total income” and that by 2007, that 1 percent was bringing home 23.5 percent of the nation’s total income.

“The argument in favor of deregulation,” Schmitt said, “was always, ‘Oh, this is going to be great for increasing efficiency in the United States.’ I don’t see a lot of evidence that efficiency has improved, but what we do know is that working conditions in those deregulated industries have declined a lot. Trucking, for example, was hard work in the past, but you got paid well. Now, it’s still hard work, and most truckers are really struggling. Or look at the airline industry, which used to be regulated and was a good source of union jobs with good working conditions and good benefits -- and since deregulation, there has been massive pressure on workers in that sector. Telecommunications used to be another source of good union jobs, but that changed after deregulation.”

In the 1980s, white-collar workers often assumed that their college degrees shielded them from the economic turmoil many blue-collar families experienced. But the recession of the early 1990s demonstrated that white-collar workers could also be quite vulnerable to downsizing and layoffs. The early 1990s were full of anecdotes of university graduates flipping burgers and waiting tables -- which, Schmitt noted, was unheard of in the 1950s, '60s or '70s.

“The first time people started noticing that white-collar workers were getting hit was actually in the early 1990s recession,” Schmitt said. “During that recession, white-collar workers were definitely hit a lot harder than they had been in the past. But you were still at a much bigger disadvantage if you were in manufacturing.”

The perception that President George H.W. Bush was out of touch with the hardships that both blue-collar and white-collar workers were experiencing in that recession led to Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992. There was a considerable amount of prosperity during the Clinton years, which saw the creation of more than 22 million new jobs. But while the Clinton era was an economic success story in many respects, some problems persisted, including the loss of manufacturing jobs, the decline of unionization and a broken health insurance system. And the Republican administration that followed Clinton’s two terms, the George W. Bush administration, proved disastrous for both white-collar and blue-collar families, leaving the U.S. with record deficits and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Reagan on Steroids

The George W. Bush years were like the Reagan/Bush Sr. years on steroids when it came to social conservatism and economic policy. A strident social conservative, Bush Jr. had an even closer relationship with the Christian Right than his father and Reagan; Bush Jr. repeatedly called for an end to legal abortion and wanted a constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage nationwide. And federal obscenity prosecutions of adult entertainment companies -- which had come to a halt under Clinton’s attorney general Janet Reno -- were a high priority for John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, two of Bush, Jr.’s attorney generals.

But while Bush Jr. was preaching family values and railing against abortion, gay marriage and porn, his policies of corporate deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy were making life harder for families. From tax cuts for the richest Americans to creating a huge federal deficit (after inheriting a budget surplus from Clinton) to letting Wall Street and banking institutions run wild, Bush’s economic policies left many American families in bad shape. Arianna Huffington was not exaggerating when she said, “America is in danger of becoming a Third World nation.”

For eight years, the Bush administration ignored the health care crisis -- which has been an ongoing hardship for American families. In fact, the modern Republican Party has a long history of siding with health insurance companies over patients; first in 1994 (when the GOP and lobbyists for the health insurance industry defeated Hillary Clinton’s attempts at health care reform), and then in 2010, when Republicans opposed even the modest reforms of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The GOP’s resistance to health insurance reform has played a major role in numerous families going broke from medical expenses. When Dr. Steffie Woolhandler (a professor of medicine at Harvard University and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program) conducted a study on medical bankruptcies in 2009, she reported that 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. were due to medical expenses -- and out of that 62 percent, 78 percent were Americans who had health insurance. It was also in 2009 that the Harvard Medical School reported that the deaths of 45,000 Americans per year can be attributed to a lack of health insurance.

When Republicans and health insurance lobbyists defeated Clinton's efforts to reform health care in 1994, they didn’t propose any type of alternative. As a result, a bad situation became worse; premiums continued to rise substantially, and the abusive practices of health insurance companies -- excluding people with preexisting conditions, dropping patients’ coverage when they get sick, rescission -- went unchallenged by Republicans in Congress. It wasn’t until 2009 -- after Barack Obama had been sworn in as president and Democrats were the majority in both houses of Congress -- that the health insurance reform debate seriously regained momentum. And when the House of Representatives finally passed a health care reform package in 2010, it did so without a single Republican vote. No matter how much Democrats compromised and watered down health insurance reform -- even when Democrats gave up the public option -- they couldn’t get Republicans on board.

Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, and Republicans haven’t wasted any time trying to roll back that legislation -- or at least parts of it. In March, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and 12 other state attorney generals (all but one of them Republican) filed a lawsuit against part of the reform package. McCollum described the lawsuit as bipartisan, but that is barely true because the only Democratic state attorney general involved was James D. "Buddy" Caldwell of Louisiana. In Virginia, a separate lawsuit challenging part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was filed by State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli earlier this year.

Schmitt pointed out that wages alone cannot be used to analyze conditions for working parents. One must also take into account health care benefits, retirement plans and paid vacation time -- and in all of those areas, American workers in general have been losing ground.

“For me, the biggest problems facing U.S. families are not wages,” Schmitt asserted. “Obviously, wages are an important issue -- you have to have a job to support a family -- but I think the biggest problems affecting American families have to do with the terms and conditions of employment. For me, one of the biggest factors in determining a good job versus a bad job if you’re trying to support a family is whether you have health insurance or not. You can tell me that one job pays $10 an hour and another job pays $25 an hour, and at first glance, I’m going to say that the $25-an-hour job is probably better than the $10-an-hour job. But if the $10-an-hour job has good health insurance and covers your family and the $25-an-hour job doesn’t -- if you have to buy your own health insurance for you and your family with the $25-an-hour job -- then in my view, the $10-an-hour job is probably better. We’ll see what happens, but I’m hoping that health care reform will start to make a difference so that even if you lose a high-paying job and are forced to go work at the local Wal-Mart, you’ll still have access to a decent, affordable health care package for your family.”

Europe is the continent social conservatives love to hate, but Western Europe is much more family-friendly than the United States. Universal health care is the norm in Western Europe, where working parents also benefit from more vacation time and paid maternity leave.

Schmitt noted: “To be unemployed in a country where there is universal health care is a completely different experience from being unemployed in the U.S., where most people’s health insurance -- if they have health insurance -- is tied to their employer so that when they lose their jobs, they also lose their health insurance.”

Ideally, Schmitt said, he would like to see the U.S. regain the strong middle class it had in the 1950s and '60s minus the racial and gender inequality of that era. But he said that in order to restore middle-class prosperity, many things will need to change. Health insurance reform, he said, will need to be expanded -- not rolled back -- and unions will need to regain their strength. American businesses and politicians, according to Schmitt, will need to look at Western Europe’s social safety net as a positive rather than a negative.

“If you want to talk about building a society that is family-friendly,” Schmitt said, “you need to have universal health insurance. You need to have some reform in the ways we deal with paid time off, including paid sick days, paid vacation time and paid parental leave.”

Clearly, economic stress -- not cultural liberalism -- is placing a heavy burden on family life in the United States. And unless present economic trends are reversed, the U.S. will continue to be a harsh place to raise a family.


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