Strengthening the Family

We do not underestimate the family-destroying consequences of economic insecurity. Unemployment or the fear of unemployment creates fears that often get expressed in alcoholism, drug abuse, family violence, or even crime. Even in the less extreme cases, these fears are translated into a decreased energy for dealing with family relationships, less openness with others, and more general fears about the world. Unemployment affects the employed worker as well since the worker is constantly reminded that he or she is expendable, and that creates tensions that are too often brought home. So a program for full employment must be a central part of any family support program. Full employment can be achieved through paying stay-at-home parents and family caretakers (whether of the elderly or disabled) and mandating a 32-hour maximum work week, thereby opening up the possibility for more jobs and more family time.

The same need to rid ourselves of economic insecurity leads us to understand that programs designed to restrict the negative impact of plant closing will be family support programs. Plants must give adequate notice to the community, provide ways for the workers to buy the plant and keep it operating, or provide alternative ways for people to survive financially, including new jobs and retraining for these jobs. In addition, they must provide adequate counseling and support systems to head off the negative impact on the families of workers and on the entire community affected by the plant closings. Some of this can be achieved through passage of the ESRA—Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Working people need a Bill of Rights that restricts the ways that the owners of the corporations can infringe upon their family lives.  For example, workers need to have more control over their work schedules, such as: the elimination of forced overtime, sufficient vacations so that they coincide with the needs of their families, voluntary (rather than required) shift work, and greater compensation for the actual time working people spend in travel to and from work. In this regard, a four-day (32-hour) work week may be the most critical advance that can be made in the next decade for strengthening family life, as it would provide more time for workers to spend with their families—of course, without cuts in pay or benefits. In addition, workers need safety and health committees at the workplace that can plan ways to make the work less hazardous and less stressful. If these committees are given real power to monitor and make changes, the dramatic impact on the levels of stress facing working people will be reflected in a new vitality in family life. To strengthen the work of these committees, workers’ compensation must be guaranteed at a much higher level, extended to cover disabilities due to stress, and communities in which the companies operate should be given the power to elect workers’ compensation judges.

A major contributing factor to the dissolution of family life is the fragmentation of communities, which has been deeply exacerbated by our economic structure. Families are isolated from each other and now have few natural support systems to help them through moments of crisis or strain. As people have been forced to move away from their communities of birth in order to find new jobs or to escape the decay of cities, older ties have broken and extended families fragmented. But little has replaced these older ties, and people often find that it is difficult to form ties with the people who live around them, sometimes difficult even to know their neighbors. They often communicate in superficial ways about their own family lives, getting their information about what is happening in other families more from magazines and television dramatizations than from honest communication with their neighbors. Because their own problems often seem more intractable than those that can be solved in the 27 minute time span that is needed for television characters, some viewers come to feel that their own problems are worse (and they as people are worse) than those of others around them. This sense of not enoughness is exacerbated by social media where people regularly post the celebrations of their lives and rarely highlight the challenges or realities. This can lead to despair and defeatism as well as a desire to avoid honest discussion with their neighbors or co-workers or members of their religious or professional communities. The isolation increases, and with it the tendency to have no outside supports for dealing with family tensions. The usual pattern consists of long periods of covering up the tensions and unhappiness, followed by a sudden rupture that may lead to family violence, alcoholism, depression, separation, or divorce. Part of the task of Friends of Families must be to encourage family alliances in each neighborhood so that people can meet and discuss shared problems, receive empathy, and learn from the experience of those who have already gone through those problems and successfully dealt with them.

There are a host of other specific institutional supports that can be created for family life. One obvious example is an adequate system of childcare. In the past, communities and extended families provided the necessary support systems for the raising of children. This is much less true today, and we need to take community responsibility for supporting those people who are raising children. Childcare must be available both through community-controlled centers (funded both by the community and the large corporations who employ people outside the home and through neighborhood associations developed on a voluntary basis and aimed at assisting parents by paying attention to the children of the neighborhood and their needs.

We need to foster private initiative and a widespread consciousness of the importance of raising children, as well as an awareness of how hard that is and how much parents need to experience help and support. Community-wide family support training should be available to teach families the techniques for dealing with the normal problems that arise in communications, stress, and dealing with children and relationship tensions. Training should also be available for people who are not raising children so that they can be of aid and support to their neighbors.

Not all families have the same needs. While middle or lower income families often find that they have to spend too much time making a living and have little time or energy for their children by the time they get finished with the world of work, upper middle class families who can afford child care and other privately funded family supports, face another problem: the tendency to believe that the best parents are those who prepare their children for the competitive marketplace that they will face as adults. The result: they are often overly involved in their children’s mini-decisions, encouraging them to gain skills and focus attention on the future goal of economic success. As a result, even children from privileged families sometimes come out of these families feeling valuable only to the extent that they can “make it” in school and then in the competitive marketplace. This is not the fault of parents, but rather a way that parents get their parenting distorted by absorbing the logic of the competitive marketplace. Only a whole new consciousness, a reaffirmation of the values of what we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives call “A New Bottom Line,” can work to counter this dominant worldview. That New Bottom Line encourages all of us (including our children) to value any path of action and behavior, any institution or social practice, not for how much it is likely to contribute to our economic success, but rather to how much it contributes to our ability to be loving, caring, kind, generous, environmentally sensitive and responsible, capable of seeing other human beings as embodiments of the sacred rather than through the narrow instrumental framework of “what can they do for us,” and to respond to Nature (and the universe) with awe, wonder and radical amazement (rather than simply seeing nature as something to be utilized for our own personal aggrandizement or profit).

Strengthening families also requires a host of support institutions in the larger community. Health services must be freely available—and their use cannot be a function of anyone’s income. Nothing destroys families more dramatically than sickness or death— and often these could be prevented if we had a more rational health system. It is precisely in the name of family support that we must argue for eliminating the profit from health care and developing a system that is based on the real needs of the community. Family-counseling services should be publicly supported so that people who are facing tensions can get support before the tensions have gotten out of hand. Birth control counseling and adequate education about the care and rearing of children must be given a much higher priority for public funding. We want strong families—and those are families who have made a real choice about when and under what circumstances to bring children into the world, and who have the material and spiritual resources to raise their children in a loving and supportive way.

This requires full support for reproductive rights, including the right to abortion; while some of us may personally oppose the practice of abortion we support the right of others to make this choice without pressures from legal or economic coercion.