Soon families will be gathering together to celebrate Easter. Siblings and cousins might compete in Easter egg hunts. Aunts and uncles might make their biannual appearance at church. And many families will gather around the table to celebrate a joyous meal together.
But this serene vision of family life does not reflect the current reality faced by many American families.
The American family is facing unprecedented threats that are imperiling an institution that serves as a key foundation to building and sustaining the common good. These threats are both cultural and economic. Yet despite the serious challenges and the often depressing statistics we see on the status quo (from divorce rates to out-of-wedlock births), there is reason to hope for a brighter future if we commit to a comprehensive set of pro-family policies that will support families in the 21st century.
Reflecting on the October Synod of Bishops on the family and the challenges facing families today, Dylan Corbett of the USCCB wrote that “perhaps the Church and the State need to think seriously about exercising a preferential option for the family.” That is precisely what is needed at the present moment. We need to evaluate the impact of policies on the family and craft new policies that will reduce burdens on struggling families — which will help existing families and encourage others to choose marriage and experience the joys and sacrifices associated with being a parent.
The economic pressures on middle-class and working-class Americans are both the product of family breakdown and one of its principal causes. The minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage. Many working-class people live paycheck to paycheck, fearful that a single mishap will push them over a financial cliff — a state of mind that generates immense stress that weighs heavily on relationships.
Meanwhile, middle-class income levels, in real terms, have been stagnant for decades. With college costs skyrocketing, childcare often more expensive than college, and countless other costs that add up, middle-class parents face not just status anxiety, but the real fear of sending their kids to inadequate childcare, of failing to give their children the best education possible, and of one spouse setting aside their career ambitions and the contributions they hoped to make to the common good in order for the family to survive.
Millennial parents have the sense that the perennial American belief that if you work hard and make sacrifices, your kids will have greater material security may no longer be true for them.
These worries and the economic pressures that families face may grow as we enter the Easter season. The Federal Reserve appears ready to increase interest rates, while many are still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession. With Congressional Republicans proposing to cut spending on healthcare, food assistance, and early childhood education, families fear a greater fraying of the safety net and fewer opportunities for upward mobility.
Of course, economic security is not everything. It can act as an obstacle to embracing the radicalism of the Christian life, which requires devotion to the poor and accompanying the vulnerable.
But the security of a loving spouse, the security of parents who are there for you, and the security of permanent love is as necessary as food, clean water, and shelter. Human flourishing depends on this type of security, and its absence prevents many people from reaching their full potential. When economic insecurity and injustice produces this type of insecurity, the imperative to remedy it grows even stronger.
Economic threats are not the only ones undermining the American family. Culturally, radical individualism and a market mentality have led to what Pope Francis has presciently labeled “the throwaway culture.” Far too many people are throwing away their most intimate and meaningful relationships because of defective cultural values. Temporary happiness and the desire for autonomy too often trump duty and love. An underlying nihilism encourages materialism, consumerism, and hedonism, while our relationships suffer.
When relationships become contests in the accumulation of power, communion is not possible. When members of the opposite sex are objectified, inhumane treatment will follow. When individualism dominates a person’s thinking, trust will erode and love will disappear. Unless a sense of community, solidarity, and love gains ground on the autonomy and egotism of individualism, no economic changes can fix the crisis facing American families.
Nevertheless, it is essential to work through the political system to promote greater economic justice, including greater support for families. The government — through an increase in the minimum wage, adequate social safety nets, and measures like the earned income tax credit — must ensure that hard-working people can take of their families and provide for their essential needs. The US can catch up with the rest of the developed world on paid family leave and enact other policies that make the workplace more pro-parent and pro-child.
Finding the right solutions requires prudence, but prudential reasoning does not extend to the imprudence of trickle-down economics or convoluted schemes shaped by an anti-government mentality.
And to be clear, the social safety net is not a hammock; it’s not even sufficient. Far too many kids receive inadequate childcare. Far too many Americans still lack access to quality, affordable healthcare. And we must not forget the unborn. Abortion is part of the throwaway culture. It is clear that many poor women who choose abortion are doing so because of economic pressures. Helping pregnant women and the parents of young children is essential to protecting the lives of the youngest family members.
Churches can help families dealing with these economic pressures to a certain extent. Dioceses and parishes need to find new formulas for making Catholic education affordable. They can help facilitate support networks to give parents more help and flexibility. Perhaps they could even pay their own workers a family wage.
They can also expose young people to successful marriages. As Amber and David Lapp explain, “Young people want to believe in marriage again, but they need to see good marriages to restore their trust.”
Finally, they can promote a message that is both countercultural and connected to the daily lives of parishioners. They can work to inculcate values and virtues that remove the problems that arise from widespread individualism (and even provide instruction in practical techniques that will make marriage and parenting more rewarding).
Not all the changes to the American family are bad. We are finally tapping into the immense potential of women to contribute to the common good at the workplace, in politics, and through other avenues which were once unjustly closed. The structure of our families and society needs to catch up so that both can flourish.
‘Traditional marriage’ was often dictated by economic arrangements, as well as racial/class prejudice, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. Contemporary marriages are predominantly initiated by a sense of mutual love. This is sometimes viewed negatively, particularly when love is viewed as an emotion that can be fleeting. But it is an exciting development, and it can bring us closer to the highest ideals of the Christian faith.
Couples have unprecedented freedom to seek communion with the person they love in an entirely unique, special way. If the love is genuine and rooted in virtue (and our society does more to support these couples), the prospects for becoming one flesh are as high as possible for human beings. While stable marriages are good for our society, these one-flesh marriages reflect God’s true vision of marriage, the one so strongly endorsed by Jesus Christ.
While the threats to marriage and families are real, if we exercise a preferential option for the family, we have the chance to build a stronger, more just society where families flourish.