Chapter 4 of The Way We Never Were explores the myth of self-reliance in the U.S. and the fact that the family is seen as the perfect self-reliant unit. In a conversation between Coontz and her grandfather, her grandfather demonstrates the historical amnesia many U.S. Americans have when it comes to self-reliance and non-dependence on the government:
It's not like all these people nowadays, sitting around waiting for the government to take care of them. The government never gave us anything, and we never counted on help from anybody else, either.
(pp. 68-69). Coontz notes that her grandparents are not the only U.S. Americans to believe this myth of self-reliance. Politicians are susceptible to the "convenient amnesia that permits so much self-righteous posturing about how the 'dependent poor' ought to develop the self-reliance and independence that 'the rest of us' have shown" (p. 69).
Self-reliance is one of the most celebrated U.S. American value today, and "most Americans agree that prior to federal 'interference' in the 1930s, the self-reliant family was the standard social unit of our society. Dependencies used to be cared for within the 'natural family economy,' and even today the healthiest families 'stand on their own two feet'" (p. 69).
This belief fits well with my research on, and own experience working within, federal marriage promotion programs. Beginning with 1996's welfare reform, federal marriage initiatives promoted by conservative politicians pledged to assist single-parent poor families in poverty. The statistics supported this effort: non-marital families tend to be worse off economically than families that include married couples. Children in single-parent families fare poorer in several areas than do children raised by married couples.
In 2003, Congress authorized $750 million, in conjunction with welfare programs, for “healthy marriage promotion” and fatherhood initiatives. The George W. Bush administration heavily supported these programs. I personally recruited for one such program. While on its face, this program appeared to benefit couples who struggle financially, I eventually began to question whether millions of federal dollars should be directed toward personal relationship skills. Later research shows that marriage promotion programs have turned out to be ineffective, and the results are dismal. The divorce rate did not change, and marriage rates did not increase.1
The New York Times Magazine recently featured an article by Annie Lowrey that proclaimed that, "[w]ith Democrats and Republicans pitted against one another in a vicious election-year battle over how to alleviate poverty, marriage is the policy solution du jour." Lowrey quotes Senator Marco Rubio, who deemed marriage "the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty." Do politicians never learn?
Lowrey specifically mentions the program for which I recruited, which saw success. Unfortunately, this success was the exception rather than the rule:
Couples who participated in an Oklahoma initiative called Family Expectations were about 20 percent more likely to stay together for three years than couples in a control group, for instance. But over all, Uncle Sam tends to make a poor Cupid. The preponderance of evidence is that Washington instead has, over the years, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on relationship counseling — laugh with your partner! Talk it out! — to no real effect on marriage rates or child poverty or anything else.
Lowrey points out a similar conclusion that I made after conducting my own research: "Some researchers think that marriage — or a lack thereof — is not the real problem facing poor parents; being poor is." Once we end poverty, the marriage woes faced by our country would likely end. Children would end up in more stable homes, and married couples would face fewer economic issues that often strain relationships.
In the face of this research, then, it is incredibly frustrating to see political and religious conservatives consistenly oppose the very measures that would lift many families out of poverty. This opposition is a result of the long-held U.S. American value of self-reliance. Coontz shows that this cherished belief is actually a myth:
The fact is, however, that depending on support beyond the family has been the rule rather than the exception in American history, despite recurring myths about individual achievement and family enterprise. It is true that public aid has become less local and more impersonal over the past two centuries, a process described in chapter 6, but Americans have been dependent on collective institutions beyond the family, including government, from the very beginning.
In the next installment, I will take a look at the rest of Chapter 4, and Coontz's exploration of the tradition of dependence on others.
Aly Parker, Can’t Buy Me Love: Funding Marriage Promotion Versus Listening to Real Needs in Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, 18 S. Cal. Rev. L. & Soc. Just. 493, 495 (Spring 2009).