Where Government Operates On Cradle-to-grave Basis, The Family Is Atrophying

Posted: August 21, 1991

A lot of us, looking at the shortcomings of U.S. social policy, have wondered why America can't be more like Scandinavia.

We worry over what to do with aging and ailing family members, as though we are the first generation to face the problem. The Scandinavians have worked it out with a system of retirement homes. We fret about the results of enforced idleness in our prisons. Scandinavian prisoners can work for pay in prison industries, earning enough to help support their families and to smooth their return to society.

We hassle about child care - its quality, its availability and its affordability. Through a combination of child allowances, wage subsidies for parents who look after their own children and universal eligibility for government-paid child care, the Scandinavians have worked that one out as well.

Or have they? I've just been reading a pair of critiques of the world's most successful welfare states. And while both find much that is commendable in the Scandinavian model, both see signs of danger ahead.

David Popenoe sounds the clearest alarm. "A major goal of the welfare state was to strengthen families, not weaken them," he has written for Public Interest magazine. "Over time, however, welfare states have increasingly tended not so much to assist families as to replace them. . . . In a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences, the family under the welfare state is gradually losing both the ability and the will to care for itself."

Or even to sustain itself. Look at what is happening to families in Sweden: The marriage rate is the lowest in the industrial world, while the statistics for divorce and out-of-wedlock births are among the highest. Popenoe admits that the numbers may be misleading, given that fully a quarter of Swedish couples are living together but not married. As a result, the statistics may exaggerate the number of out-of-wedlock births and undercount the number of divorces. No one keeps track of "divorces" among the never-married.

No matter. Popenoe's point is that the Swedish government's efforts to reduce the financial and child-care burdens on families have in fact made

families both less viable and (economically) less necessary.

Alan Wolfe, a Queens College sociology professor who spent a year teaching in Denmark, makes a similar point, citing the creation of an unintended second welfare state.

"In the first welfare state," he argues, "government provided financial help to families; in the second welfare state (created over the last 20 years), government has begun to carry out some of the functions of families."

This extensive network of government supports is unquestionably great for women, who are freer than ever to enter jobs or politics and who may also be closer to gender equality than anywhere else in the world. But how is it for children?

Interestingly enough, neither critic seems all that certain. On the one hand, they cite reports of better self-control, better school performance and greater independence among children who have spent time in day-care centers. On the other hand are the reports that these same centers produce children who are unhappy, antisocial, with little respect for their elders. (Wolfe suggests that the difference may be in the amount of time the children spend in day care. Up to 20 hours a week seems good for children; much more than that may be bad.)

But the worries of both men go beyond the socio-academic effects of day care, beyond the cost of universal supports, beyond the fear that Scandinavia's largess (funded by astronomical taxes) may wind up killing the state economies.

What worries them is this: What happens to a society when families become weak and increasingly irrelevant? What happens when the focus on individuals undercuts both the authority and the importance of families? What happens when you, in effect, turn the whole country into a series of kibbutzim? Who, in the absence of strong families, will inculcate the values and the attitudes necessary to a viable society?

The worries may be more relevant to Scandinavians than to us, since there is virtually no chance that our child-care and welfare system will reach Scandinavian proportions.

But they are not irrelevant here. There's no doubt in my mind, for instance, that one reason for the increase in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households in the United States is the substitution of the welfare check for a wage-earning husband. Poor women, especially, are more likely to marry the welfare department than the father of their children.

The fundamental question, which we've hardly begun to raise in serious discussion, is simply this: How can we optimize freedom and economic security for individuals, including children, without undermining the one time-tested institution for raising children - the family?

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