Facts of Life for a Whole Nation

The News Tribune, Wednesday May 28, 1997, By Kathleen Merryman

Those who say "Here's what's wrong with families" in front of Stephanie Coontz had better be able to pull out the numbers.

Stephanie Coontz can't thank Dan Quayle enough. She had just published The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap when Quayle blasted television character Murphy Brown for choosing to become a single mother. There was Quayle, conjuring up a nostalgic vision of "traditional" American values sustained by "traditional" families that looked very much like 1950s sitcom icons. And there was Coontz, the Evergreen State College professor of history and family studies, using history to demonstrate that Quayle's vision was a seductive myth.

Radio and television producers from I-5 to the Washington Beltway booked her.

Pat Buchanan debated her.

The National Enquirer misquoted her.

And thousands of ordinary people - precisely the kinds of ordinary people that college professors rarely get to meet - called her on talk shows and wrote to her.

Over and over they told her they were sure they were failing as families. Money was tight. Jobs were insecure. They were stressed and isolated. They blamed themselves, and they got lots of help. The airwaves and opinion columns are stuffed with pundits, politicians and preachers blaming the nation's problems on the collapse of family values. If only Americans would return to the traditions of the past - when men brought home the bacon and women cooked it and the kids washed their hands and said please before they ate it - everything would be fine again. Politicos from the left offered no comfort to folks who aren't as affluent or educated as policy makers and futurecasters, she said. Society is changing, deal with it or get left behind, they said - and did nothing to help.

The people Coontz heard from had been buying the blame argument - it was so simple when everything else in their life was so complex - and blaming themselves.

Coontz stopped them right there.

Families aren't failing and pulling America down with them, she told them. The situation is far more complex, and the solution does not lie in imaginary visions of the past or predictions of -an affluent techno-future.

She believes it lies in accepting change and enlisting government and business and individuals to deal with it creatively. When Coontz didn't hear creative, practical solutions from the left or the right, she stepped in with a sequel to The Way We Never Were.

The Way We Really Are: Corning to Terms with America's Changing Families, ($23, Basic Books, HarperCollins) musters the tools of social science to explain what's going on in real homes and communities. For starters, what's going on right now is not the Apocalypse of American Society. It is intense economic and social change, and - with the possible exception of winning Lotto - change is always tough. For most people things are changing in very complicated ways.

They experience their anxiety as a loss," Coontz said on a sunny afternoon in the cozy bungalow she shares with her son and husband in Olympia. Outside, lilacs planted 40 years ago scented the air. Inside, the phone rang with more talk show producers and the graduation ceremony coordinator at the high school where her son is a sophomore. She married two years ago, but for much of her son's life, Coontz; has been a single mom with a full-time job.

Coontz's home life was the American situation in miniature: Everything looked the same on the surface, but there has been a huge shift in how people are supporting and living within it. All the time, when she debates proponents, of the family values argument, she explains that it's not enough to point to the past and lead the troops backward toward a cozy memory.

For starters, the realities of the past and the way it is being remembered are very different things, she said. Coontz reminds readers of The Way We Really Are that in the 1950s government supported families to a much greater extent than it does today, with low-interest home loans, college educations for veterans and massive public works projects. Business re-invested its profits and unions negotiated living wages. A dependable worker could expect employment security. The minimum wage of $1.48 in 1968 was enough to keep a full-time worker's family of three above the poverty line, she wrote in the fact-stuffed book bolstered by 46 pages of footnotes. Life for some people - especially white people - was full of hope. But segregation was still the law in large chunks of the nation, and violence against minorities is part of almost every major city's history. "At the end of the 1950s, despite 10 years of economic growth, 27.3 percent of the nation's children were poor, including those in white 'underclass' communities such as Appalachia," Coontz wrote. "Almost 50 percent of married-couple African American families were impoverished - a figure far higher than today."

Even if families could choose to return to the shape they held in the 1950s, it's unlikely that business and government would follow, Coontz said. Government has shifted its economic benefits away from workers and toward businesses and the wealthy, she argued, and she can produce figures to back it up. "Corporate subsidies and tax breaks cost the Treasury $1,388 per person per year - more than three times what we spend on all child nutrition, food stamp and welfare programs," she wrote.

As the people who called and wrote kept telling her, jobs are a gamble. Layoffs are a constant threat. They see benefits eroding. They can't take care of their families with one salary. More than a third of all two-parent families with children would be poor unless both parents worked, Coontz said.

It's absurd and pointless to blame mothers for working, she said. Many are working to keep their children out of poverty. Sometimes, that one salary is all that protects a family from economic and emotional disaster. She cited studies that show that when a breadwinner loses a job, the stress manifests itself in the family. There are arguments, poor parenting decisions, and a disproportionately high number of divorces. While some family-values proponents want to make divorce more difficult - and to penalize single mothers socially and economically - Coontz argued that punishments or a mandated return to past roles won't save or encourage marriages -especially in the face of overwhelming economic pressures. She suggested that government and business should try a little tenderness.

"Employers aren't catching up. Schools aren't catching up. Government isn't making any of the policy changes that are needed, though there's certainly public support for them. People want quality child care, parental leave and insurance," she said. "There is absolutely no evidence that working parents - or decent child care - are bad for kids," she said, anticipating the argument she's often heard: that if mothers stayed home, their children wouldn't need child care. "I'm increasingly thinking of the need for quality child care and limits on the work week as the new health and safety regulations we need in this society," she said.

She's debated conservatives who say that's not government's role, and it would be intrusive for government to require business to meet those needs for its workers. She disagrees.

Providing children with good care, and families with decent health insurance, are in the public interest - as are the federal health and safety regulations the meat-packing industry fought as intrusive earlier in the century, she maintained. Already, she said, businesses that don't recognize that employees have lives are paying. Employers who are demanding more are getting less as employees who can't settle family issues at home are increasingly getting it done on work time. "The more employers make family life harder, the more they get the worst of both worlds. Employees who are not renewed in the family make up that renewal on work time," Coontz said.

She suggested measuring the work day in some businesses by what's Produced and not by time spent. That would cut down on time wasted on the phone, on e-mail or in pointless meetings. Flextime could help some employees who want to be home for their children - especially their teens. "Kids get in trouble between 3 and 6 p.m.," she said, pulling out studies that document the times of day when kids have sex, get hit by cars and commit crimes. Moms or dads who could go to work early and get off in time to monitor their kids could have a stabilizing influence on whole neighborhoods.

Schools could rework schedules to match kids' needs. Research has shown that teens especially have a tough time waking up early. High schools that begin at 9:30 a.m. and let out at 4:30 p.m. would fit kids' body clocks - as well as the schedules of parents who could be home around 5 p.m. "Let's kick the notion around," Coontz said. If parents had more free-time, Coontz predicted, the community would benefit. Parents would find it easier to volunteer -especially in activities that benefit children.

"The track records for certain programs are exemplary," she said. Young people who volunteer can benefit from the experience, too, provided they're doing meaningful work. Her own son volunteered several years at Camp Easter Seal, she said. This summer, that experience helped him earn a meaningful summer job at the camp. And that, she said, will help set him on a straight course into the future.

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