chapter  7
37 Pages

Families as a Legitimate Focus of Public Policy: Yesterday and Today

The American penchant for individualism is pervasive. As reviewed in the previous chapter, individualism has shaped the structure and function of family life. This chapter turns to how individualism shapes public perceptions about what role government should play in American society. This cultural ethos of individualism, if carried to its extreme, idealizes the rugged, self-reliant individualist who sees little need for government. But not everyone agrees with this view. From the earliest years of our nation, two of our founding fathers who later became presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, had heated disagreements about the size and role of government in a democracy. This tension between the

intersection of the private role of individuals and the public role of government continues to this day with these words from the current president in a speech to Congress:

One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-

reliance, our rugged individualism, our fi erce defense of freedom, and our healthy

skepticism of government. And fi guring out the appropriate size and role of govern-

ment has always been a source of rigorous and sometimes angry debate . . . . Our

predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every

problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from

government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they

also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils

of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash,

monopolies can stifl e competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. (Obama’s

Healthcare Speech, 2009)

The fi eld of family policy is no exception to this ongoing debate over the appropriate size and role of government. Are families primarily a private matter, or are they also a proper target for public policy? The most prominent question the fi eld has faced since its early history is not whether families need support, but whether support should be provided by government (Trzcinski, 1995b). Whether families are a legitimate issue for public policy is a question that can be informed by science, but not one that can be answered by science. Instead, it is a political question of values, priorities, and political judgments.