Family Values

Orange County Review
12 Oct. 2000

To the editor:

Tamara Jones’s letter in your Oct. 12 issue advises people to vote in the upcoming elections not with regard to “the economy” but with an eye toward supporting the idea of “the family.” I’d like to argue that families often stand or fall because of economic matters, such as the declining wages most Americans are receiving for increased hours at work.

Jones blames smaller paychecks on taxes, but taxes have not increased. The amount of pay (in real purchasing power terms) that most people are able to earn before taxes has decreased. This may come as surprising news in this era of a “booming economy” with billionaires raking in additional billions. It’s especially so at the lowest income levels. The federal minimum wage is (adjusted for inflation) lower than it was 30 years ago. The legal minimum wage for some occupations in some states, such as Texas, is significantly lower still.

If Jones would like to see taxes cut, there are plenty of places government spending could be slashed. We waste hundreds of billions of dollars on unneeded weapons, corporate welfare, highway construction, and other projects we would be better off without. No doubt, Jones would have her own ideas on what to cut. But this wouldn’t do much to increase people’s paychecks. As long as wages continue to fall and labor rights continue to erode, it will remain impossible for many couples to survive on the income of one parent alone, be that parent ever so masculine, church-going, and heterosexual. Those with the lowest incomes are not taxed at the rate Jones cited. Those who are would gain less by reducing taxes than by increasing salaries in proportion with even a small fraction of the increase in productivity the U.S. has seen in recent years.

Jones also seemed to want “partial birth” abortions banned and parents notified of young women’s pregnancies, discrimination against homosexuals permitted (“freedom of association with organizations that promote morally straight principles”), day cares closed, and women kept or permitted to remain at home to take care of kids.

I share a number of premises with Jones. Care for children is important. It’s better to raise children well than watch the consequences and spend a fortune imprisoning them later. Morality matters, and it is important for elected officials to consider social problems. Parents’ time spent working is shortchanging our kids.

From these premises, Jones arrives at positions very different from my own. She wants to place blame on some government sin of commission. Things would be good, she believes, if not for something the government did that it shouldn’t have – such as when the wife of a certain elected official said “It takes a village,” or when some ill-conceived welfare policies encouraged single-parenting. (Jones seems not to know welfare has been largely eliminated. Does she also not know that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts?)

I, on the other hand, see sins of omission. One parent could support a family, allowing the other parent to remain at home, if the government did not allow wages to continue to fall. Jones could be forgiven if she is unaware that most Americans are working longer hours for less money and going deeper into debt. After all, the television news is constantly telling us that the economy is “booming” and updating us on stock prices despite the fact that most of us don’t own any stocks, 75 percent of which are owned by 5 percent of Americans.

The federal government has allowed the legal minimum wage to fall and has failed to protect workers’ rights to organize. Women (and men) who would rather stay home are working because the government has done what right-wingers want and kept its nose out of the workplace (except when dishing out corporate welfare, which dwarfed welfare for the poor when we had such a thing). And who gets the blame for the increased work hours? The government, of course. It must have DONE SOMETHING to cause this.

Jones may think the problem is that the government allows abortions. A connection there is conceivable. There is probably a woman somewhere who will tell you that she decided to go off and work rather than stay home with her children because she didn’t value them enough, and that she didn’t value them enough because she had had an abortion.

Without minimizing the pain of that woman or the death of her embryo, it is possible to observe that most working mothers are not so lucky. They work because they have to, and most of them are married to men who are working too. That some are single, separated, or divorced is a problem. But a huge contributor to divorces (and abortions) is financial strain. Solving that problem is the only government solution I see to the problem of kids lacking two (or more) parents.

The Right talks a lot about Family Values, and the Left talks a lot about a Living Wage. With some modifications in vocabulary, this could be a single successful discussion. Parents could spend time with kids if a single salary could support a family. For most Americans this is no longer the case.

Remember the horrified talk a decade ago of what would become of “latch-key kids”? Most kids are now latch-key kids, and many no longer use the label or worry about the problem. Remember the idea of a “house husband,” the notion that a couple might choose which of them would stay home with the kids? Now that neither parent can stay home there doesn’t seem to be much happy feminist liberation in women’s working outside the home, and certainly no talk of men’s working in the home.

How have we managed to create so much work and to call it success? Why are we pleased to hear how much we’ve “grown the economy” as if it were our child, when our jobs are getting longer and more tedious, our children more neglected and troubled?

Why, as productivity skyrockets, are we content to allow wages to decline? Is it really preferable to spend 50 or 60 hours a week cursing at a computer, calling on the company’s full-time computer fixers, attending training sessions on new software, answering desperate phone calls from your children, and not earning enough to support a spouse, much less kids, as opposed to spending 40 hours a week with a pen or a typewriter and earning a living wage? How do we define “progress”?

And what about the people who come through the office at closing time to pick up the trash and recycling? Does it matter to us that their families are falling apart or never being formed because they work two or three jobs in order to survive? Is it more important to us to do something for them or to prattle on about “Family Values,” as if this were a mere code for support of short-sighted greedmongering expansion of the gap between rich and poor?

I’m convinced that most of the people who actually like the term “family values” do so because they care about people, and would do something to allow families a better shot at survival if they understood the problem and how easily it could be helped.

Following what I believe was the sixty-ninth serious shooting incident in an American school, thousands cried out that guns don’t kill, people lacking moral training kill. And many thousands more expressed disgust at the idea of psychologists stepping in to help troubled kids. That’s the parents’ job, of course. But the parents aren’t around. The parents are out working for shrinking wages in the richest country on earth, and as likely as not are divorced – a situation in many cases contributed to by financial strain.

Some voices suggested priests and preachers instead of psychologists. Religion is, of course, usually a winning stance with the Right. But if anything can top religion it’s Family Values, and that’s the banner I want to fly. Raise minimum wages to what they were thirty years ago and then raise them some more. Raise them until no full-time worker needs food stamps and a second job, and until every full-time worker can support a family. Provide businesses with increased morale and reduced turnover expenses. Provide communities with greater stability. And provide kids with parents.

The first step in this direction should be a vote for the only presidential candidate who has promised to address the matter: Ralph Nader. Nader favors keeping abortions legal, wants equal rights extended to homosexuals, and is probably fond of “villages.” But he will do far more for families than either Bush or Gore, beginning with allowing them to share in the nation’s mountain of wealth.

Since children benefit from a combination of time in a loving home and time socializing with peers – that is, from both families and villages – perhaps we should set aside that debate for their sake and support both families and villages as well as such values as honesty and reliability by voting for the only candidate with a history of openness and integrity. Vote for Ralph!

David Swanson

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