Talking about Family Values After “Family Values”

Talking about Family Values After “Family Values”

More than Just Race:
Being Black and Poor in the Inner City

by William Julius Wilson
W.W. Norton, 2009, 190 pp., $24.95

The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today
by Andrew J. Cherlin
Knopf, 2009, 288 pp., $25.95.

The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation Is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America
by Kathleen Gerson
Oxford University Press, 2009, 320 pp., $24.95

MORE THAN a year ago, the front page of the New York Times featured a story on a new workplace trend. Besides laying off thousands of workers, employers have also been resorting to pay cuts, downgrades, and shortened work weeks more often than at any time since the Great Depression. The article went on to tell what happened to Bryan Lawlor, a thirty-four-year-old airline pilot who lives in Virginia with his schoolteacher wife and their four children. He had been a captain earning $68,000 a year, in line for a promotion raise. But suddenly, he and other captains were demoted to the rank of first officer, automatically cutting their salaries in half.

Lawlor’s frank description of his emotional reactions to his new financial situation illustrates, in mild form, symptoms of what researchers have called the “normal pathology” of unemployment or other economic falls from grace. Not allowed to wear his captain’s uniform or command an airliner, and no longer the major breadwinner in the family, Lawlor feels “diminished.” He worries that the mortgage payments may now be unaffordable, and that the children, who have not been told of the change in family finances, will finally notice when Christmas brings many fewer clothes and toys than usual. And it bothers him that he can no longer pick up the check when the family goes out to dinner with his parents.

With a solid marriage, supportive relatives, a roof over their heads, and a still decent two-earner income, the Lawlors are not the hardest hit victims of the current recession. But they could be poster children for the economic forces that have made even solid middle class lives far more uncertain and stressful. And the trouble started long before the financial meltdown of 2008. Indeed, the great untold story of the past four decades is the steady erosion of the economic underpinnings of American families, even while the national economy seemed to be thriving.

Looking back at the rise of “family values” politics in the seventies, historian Matthew Lassiter has argued that the political impact of that pivotal era was not just that conservatives won political power, “but that cultural explanations triumphed over economic ones in setting the terms of public debate and determining the direction of public policies.”

Reorienting the debate, though, will require more than replacing cultural explanations with “It’s the economy, stupid.” The two are intricately i...