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When the Bough Breaks: The Cost of Neglecting Our Children
by Sylvia Annn Hewlett
Basic Books, 341 pages, $22.95

Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Kids
by James Dobson and Gary L. Bauer
Word Publishing, 291 pages, $17.95

Childhood’s Future: Listening to the American Family; New Hope for the Next Generation
by Richard Louv
Houghton Mifflin, 356 pages, $21.95

There is general agreement among Americans that the past few decades have witnessed serious negative developments in the lives of our children, including psychological distress, poverty, and lowered educational attainment. In discussing these developments, recent new books on the deteriorating conditions of American childhood emphasize serious changes in family lifehigh divorce rates, less time spent by parents with their children, the lack of social support for parents, and the growth of single-parent families through vanishing fathers and unattached mothers. The American public shares this view, with a large majority now believing that the quality of childhood for most children has declined, and that this decline is mainly due to what has happened to the family. (One is tempted to say that only a few “family life experts” today believe otherwise, but even their number has been rapidly shrinking.) 

These books, however, strongly disagree about how to remedy the condition. In this, too, they seem to share in American public opinion, which is spread along a continuum from left to right. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, for instance, advocates a panoply of new child-oriented income-transfer programs like those found in the European welfare states. Noting with concern that a mere 4.8 percent of the federal budget goes to programs that support families with young children while 22.9 percent goes to the elderly, she proposes substantial increases in the amount of public money invested in young people. Those increases, according to Hewlett, need not require net long-term additions in government spending. Society will actually save money down the line, she argues, through decreased expenditures on such problems as crime and welfare. 

At the opposite extreme from Hewlett are conservatives James Dobson and Gary L. Bauer, the heads of Focus on the Family and its research arm, The Family Research Council, respectively. In this collection of short articles and essays, Dobson and Bauer view ever-bigger government with its inevitable “social engineering” as itself part and parcel of the problem. Their solution for our difficulties involves turning back the insidious forces of “secular humanism,” ending the “siege of unbridled individualism,” and “return[ing] America to the Judeo-Christian values system with which we started.” Among the forces held responsible for “the steady decline of Western Civilization” are abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, and pornography, issues notably absent from the other two books, and guaranteed, of course, to raise the hackles of liberals just as welfare-state programs are to increase the ire of conservatives. 

Caught somewhere in the middle of this debate, downplaying both big-government programs and a radical change in values, is journalist Richard Louv. In this breezily written and somewhat meandering book, based on interviews with both families and family experts across the nation, Louv focuses on the local environment of childhood and finds it to be “unraveling.” “The new landscape pf childhood,” he writes, “is increasingly threatening to emotional health.” The solution: “transformed public schools, family-friendly work places, new community designs, new ways of structuring family time, a synthesis of traditional and modern family values.” Louv is very fond of the recently fashionable term “liberation,” and he gives it a family twist, calling for a grass-roots “family liberation movement.” 

Here, then, are three distinct prescriptions for saving our nation’s children: new government programs; a radical change in cultural values; and a grass-roots movement for local community rebuilding. To be sure, each of these solutions overlaps with others at some points. Hewlett would certainly like to see more family-oriented values, and she is by all means in agreement with Louv on the need for more family-friendly work places. Dobson and Bauer want a $7,000 tax deduction for each dependent, which presumably would raise taxes for households without dependents; they also call for a radical transformation of the nation’s school system using the voucher plan. In Louv’s book, the desire for both more big-government programs and serious value change, while muted, is evident. Nevertheless, each book sharply frames one of the three major kinds of proposals for saving children circulating today, proposals over which ideologues have contended with notable intensity. 

Ideology aside, which alternative solution seems most likely to bring about some decent remedy for the plight of the nation’s children? Each, in my view, has much to recommend it; and given the magnitude and urgency of the problem, the time for ideological debating has run out and the time for a national mobilization comprised of all three approaches has arrived. 

Of the three alternatives, government programs are probably the easiest to institute. The United States is considerably out of line with the northern European welfare states when it comes to national family-support programs. Yet the Europeans have been highly successful with such programs. The European family as an institution may have weakened as it has here, but the economic consequences of family decline have been much better attended to. And although the citizens of welfare states are in constant danger of becoming overdependent on their governments (as one wag put it, the welfare states established a safety net, but may instead have ended up with a hammock!), these nations are still doing relatively well economically and most are virtually free of serious poverty. 

Of course, there are major social, economic, and political differences between the European welfare states and the United States. We cannot emulate them, nor should we. Still, it is alarming that the United States does not have proper health care for all infants, that preschool education for many children is nonexistent, that parents cannot take time off from work at the birth of a child without suffering severe economic consequences, and that family households are rapidly falling behind non-family households in economic terms. One may well worry about over-dependency on government in a place like Sweden, but in America such problems pale in comparison with what the “free market” is not doing for our nation’s children. Unless and until the market enthusiasts come up with a viable solution to these problems, and they certainly have not yet, this nation is well advised to take Sylvia Ann Hewlett to heart and shift more in the European direction with respect to certain health, education, and family-support programs. 

Now consider the issue of value change. Is it really possible to turn back the clockto become less individualistic, less materialistic, and less secular? There is no way literally to reconstitute the past, but social and cultural values can and do shift over time. Witness the value changes in recent decades with regard to civil rights, women’s roles, and treatment of the environment. It is noteworthy that each of these shifts was successfully promoted by social movements designed to raise cultural consciousness of the need for change. 

Over the past half-century our middle-class youth have changed, in popular parlance, from being squares in the 1950s, to hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, to yuppies in the 1980s. Now there are signs that they are becoming more traditional and familistic againi.e., square. Drug and alcohol use are down among young adults, for example, and marriage and babies are up. The time is ripe to actively promote this trend through movements of cultural change. I doubt, however, that Dobson and Bauer are putting forth the kind of message that will accelerate this change. Unfortunately, it is cast in such rigid terms, and with so much extra theological and moral baggage, that many of the young are likely to reject it. But these authors surely cannot be faulted for calling to our attention the paramount need for cultural change. It is hard to visualize a successful solution to our nation’s family and community problems without some cultural diminution of individualism, and a corresponding accentuation of such other-oriented values as familism. 

Even with massive government programs and substantial value change in place, however, there would remain the problem of everyday life in contemporary America. What Louv is calling forthe social rebuilding of our local communities and “civil society”is in many ways the most fundamental and important of the solutions, just as it may be the most difficult to accomplish. 

What regularly and inescapably confronts our daily consciousness, often causing us to behave one way rather than another, is the local environment that surrounds us. If it is safe and secure, nurturing and uplifting, we tend to feel good about ourselves and about our fellows and are willing responsibly to carry out our family and other social obligations and commitments. If it is crime-ridden, rejecting, and forbidding, we tend to feel anxious and alienated, to withdraw into our private lives, and to become excessively individualistic and narcissistic. 

There can no longer be any doubt that American civil society is rapidly deteriorating. But what to do about it remains a vexing question. How is one to halt crime, end poverty, de-materialize American daily life, restore neighborhood integrity, and rebuild confidence in our schools and local political institutions? A tall order indeed. Yet if we are to restore vitality to families and provide children the conditions that are essential for their full human development, answers to these questions are ultimately necessary. 

Thus, rather than ideological debates, what is needed is a new national resolve and an all-fronts mobilization. For today’s inner cities, perhaps only a domestic Marshall Plan will do the job. For the suburbs, we must vigorously fight the privatization of life and hammer away at the need for community integrity and greater social awareness. In both residential settings our goal should be to stabilize and protect “natural” communities wherever they are found, and seek to build them where they are absent. Natural, or functioning, communities are those that contain strong feelings of belonging and common purpose, and in which warm, personal, enduring social relationships are highly valued. They are communities that provide their residents both social support and cultural identity. This is the kind of local environment in which strong, child-oriented families flourish. And it is the kind of environment that is fast disappearing from the American scene.

David Popenoe is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies.