Family Policy–A Brief Rejoinder

Stephanie Coontz

I CAN AGREE with most of what Julia Wrigley writes about education and welfare without feeling compelled to change my own argument. Social-welfare programs have been an important resource both for the working class in general and for women in particular. Public education was an important, progressive reform that represented a victory for the working class.

I expect Wrigley and I are equally in agreement, however, that education and social services would not just be funded better but would be organized in an entirely different manner in a socialist democracy. Capitalism’s grudging partial concessions to social-service and welfare needs have always been shaped by the system’s requirements for social control and its refusal to challenge the property or power relations of capitalist production. That is why the programs have been so top-heavy, so full of red tape and catch-22s.

One of the primary justifications for the stingy, arbitrary and humiliating nature of social welfare in the United States has been the myth of the self-reliant, private family; the idea that a normal, healthy family takes care of its own, stands on its own two feet, and seeks to live a private, autonomous life.
It is this myth that the capitalist state has imposed upon the working class. (The state has also been willing to subsidize the myth for the middle class and privileged sectors of the working class, with tax deductions for home ownership, federal subsidies for suburbia, etc.)

The twin poles of the private, self-reliant family and the interventionist state have represented the capitalist alternative to cooperative or collective forms of social organization and welfare.

I agree with Lasch and his co-thinkers only to the extent that I question any account which sees state intervention into families as purely benign in its effects or judges that state intervention into families necessarily fosters personal autonomy as it undermines older patriarchal relations. Larch suggests that there was a private, autonomous family life prior to the emergence of our current state-manipulated family. I argue, by contrast, that earlier family forms were not private or autonomous, and the ideal of such privacy is as much a product of state intervention as an alternative to it.

As Wrigley points out, and I thought I did too, the imposition of privacy and self-reliance as a social norm for families inevitably leads to intervention in, even destruction of, families that cannot live up to these ideals. Thus, for example, the myth that a proper family can take care of its own has often led to “policies that deprive women and children of aid if they live with the children’s father.”

There is no contradiction here: the notion that only broken or abnormal families need help is so ideologically central that the state is willing to destroy intact families rather than admit that they may be equally needy.

I agree with Wrigley that the norms of earlier community networks in the United States were often repressive, racist and sexist. It is not that, like Bellah et al, I wish to return to such communities, or even to the far more attractive ones of pre-class societies.

I hoped to show, however, that in some social contexts interdependency and mutual responsibility may be more salient than they are in our current society; debates about whether state welfare or family autonomy is better for the working class cede too much to an essentially alienated notion about the prospects for wider social cooperation.

Our vision of a better world must include a sense of how we might re-establish interdependence and social responsibility without recreating its earlier repressive aspects. We must consider how future society could provide social services without engaging in the kind of social engineering or bureaucratic control that has understandably made people suspicious of many plans for a “brave new world? At the same time, in opposing such social engineering we must avoid romanticizing a notion of personal privacy and family autonomy that is equally alienating.

November-December 1989, ATC 23

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