Working Paper No. 12-70:
Curbing Its Enthusiasm: U.S. Federal Policy and the Unitary Family

Author(s):

Helen Alvaré

Date Posted: October 2012

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Abstract:

The federal government’s voice on the subject of parenting has become much more audible over the past several decades. Because opinions about the normative good of the unitary family (i.e. adults related to one another by marriage, and related biologically to each of their children) are in flux both at the state and the federal level, the federal voice is important. Taken together, federal parenting policies, programs and rhetoric do not exhibit a robust preference for the unitary family. Rather, they vigorously promote economically self-sufficient parenting, and involved fathers. They weakly support parenting within marriage. And they discount or dismiss biological parent-child ties in favor of the good of individual adults’ choices about parenting -- both about the form of adults’ intimate association and whether or not there will be a biological relationship with the children they rear. This article describes how the federal government exhibits these preferences. It also affirms the benefits of federal policies highlighting fatherhood, and the link between non-marital births, poverty and diminished child welfare. It critiques federal policies along two lines: first, the failure to affirm more explicitly the good of biological parenting, and the link between marriage and effective fathering; and second, the absence of reflection upon the long-run failure of its birth control strategy to curb single parenting and associated poverty.  It finally suggests that politics and ideology -- as distinguished from concern for children and for the welfare of women and vulnerable populations -- might be influencing federal parenting policy unduly.