Why you should care

Because it’s now debatable as to which political side owns “family values.” 

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Earlier this year, a group of policy folks gathered at a think tank in Washington, D.C., to extol the virtues of “stable, healthy marriages.” If you’re now anticipating another round of the ’90s culture wars, please stand down for the time being. The setting was not the conservative Heritage Foundation or Family Research Council, but the Democratic heavyweight Center for American Progress (CAP), and the audience was largely the kind of liberals who wouldn’t touch “moralizing” with a 10-foot, eco-friendly pole. Indeed, the first speaker, Katrina Gilbert, was a single mother who described her worries about getting food on the table.

This is Family Values 2.0: the Liberal Version. After decades of Republican dominance over issues of home and hearth, lefties are trying to reclaim the F-word — no, not that one — as their own. Their focus is on millions of single parents like Gilbert — mothers, mostly, who didn’t expect to end up on their own and are now struggling to get by. For Democrats, they’re victims of the “marriage gap,” a split that mirrors the country’s economic divide and is yet another way that working-class families are getting left behind. As a concept, the marriage gap aims to shift debate over family values away from moral and cultural grounds, and toward economic ones. There is nothing we can do to reduce poverty more quickly than to increase the number of dual-parent families,” said Paul Peterson, a Harvard professor, at another recent policy forum in Washington, D.C.

Liberals say not everyone can afford to get married, and they have reams of new data to underscore the argument.

One big question is how. “Families are some of the most complex structures in the world,” says Melissa Boteach, the CAP expert who co-authored a recent report on how policymakers can encourage the dual-parent variety. And the 21st-century American family is turning out to be much more varied — and unstable — than many had predicted. Over 50 percent of American kids will likely live with an unmarried mother at some point before they hit 18, according to a December paper. Solo parenting, however, is usually temporary, according to CAP. Researchers have also found that children who grow up without a biological father present are 40 percent less likely to finish high school or attend college.

Conservatives, of course, have likewise long linked marriage and economic stability, though historically they saw getting married — or not — as a choice. In contrast, liberals say not everyone can afford to get married, and they have reams of new data to underscore the argument. For instance, research shows that low levels of income, education and career advancement are all associated with higher rates of marital strife. Moreover, Americans of all classes say they value marriage. Indeed, Boteach says, lower-income Americans have more traditional views of marriage than do the rich. It’s “not that lots of people out there have decided to abandon marriage,” says Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and one of the founding members of the Marriage Opportunity Council, a left-right alliance of thinkers working to reduce barriers to marriage. “They want to get married.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) poses with President of the Center for American Progress (CAP) Neera Tanden (C) and CAP founder and Chairman John Podesta at the 10th Anniversary policy forum in Washington, October 24, 2013.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (right) poses with the Center for American Progress (CAP) President Neera Tanden (center) and CAP Chairman John Podesta in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 24, 2013.

Source Yuri Gripas/Corbis

To get more young people to the church on time, liberals are advocating policies like tax relief for people in their 20s without children, so they’re more prepared to support a family when it comes. But for the most part, liberal family values provide another justification for long-standing policy prescriptions, like increasing the minimum wage and strengthening worker protections for those in low- and middle-income fields. To Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, supporting families isn’t a change of heart. Progressives, she writes via email, have long worked to do so through things like equal pay laws and paid family, maternity and paternity leave.

Trying to find their voice on political turf long claimed by conservatives is another matter. Historically, liberals have been “timid” about voicing the positive role of marriage and two-parent families, and have focused instead on helping single parents, Boteach admits — effectively ceding the territory to conservatives. Ever since Moral Majority rose to prominence in the 1980s, conservatives have dominated that conversation. Some of them, like David Blankenhorn, one of the co-founders of the Marriage Opportunity Council, are embracing liberals’ renewed focus on marriage promotion. Others are skeptical. Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the conservative Family Research Council, says that while he welcomes the pro-marriage message, he doesn’t agree that there are economic barriers to marriage. Single parenthood is largely a cultural problem, he argues. Even those who don’t question the economic connection aren’t likely to agree with liberals’ big-government prescriptions.

Rauch, however, believes that it’s just a matter of time before progressive politicos grasp what progressive intellectuals already have: The United States is never going to eliminate poverty with government welfare alone. We “have to do it by helping people have the stronger family structures,” Rauch says. “It will become part of the agenda because it has to.”

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