The Magazine

Indentured Families

Social conservatives and the GOP: Can this marriage be saved?

Mar 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 26 • By ALLAN CARLSON
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IN THE INTERNAL POLITICS OF the Republican coalition, some members are consistently more equal than others. In particular, where the interests of the proverbial "Sam's Club Republicans" collide with the interests of the great banks, the Sam's Club set might as well pile into the family car and go home.

Consider, to take one recent instance, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, enacted last year, after a long delay, with support from congressional Republicans. A controversial clause that would have prevented abortion protesters from filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying court-ordered fines had stalled the measure. After the Senate rejected this provision, GOP leaders drove the bill through both houses of Congress and gained an enthusiastic signature from President George W. Bush.

In a nutshell, the new law makes a "clean start" after filing for bankruptcy much more difficult for families with at least one wage earner. Instead, most affected households will find themselves essentially indentured to a bank or credit card bureau, paying off their debt for years to come. "A new form of feudalism," one critic calls it.

In truth, some had abused the old law, turning repeated bankruptcy filings into a kind of circus. A tightening on this side probably made sense. Significantly, though, the new law made no real changes on the lenders' side, measures that might have reined in an increasingly predatory credit industry. It is common knowledge, for example, that credit card companies intentionally urge financially troubled families to borrow still more money, because they can charge these households exorbitant interest rates. As one Citibank executive has candidly observed, "They are the ones who provide most of our profit." Late payment fees, another favored industry device, reportedly deliver over 30 percent of credit card financing revenue. Assurances by lawmakers that the new law will bring credit card interest rates down fly in the face of these more fundamental corporate strategies.

True, in the context of America's new debt-driven economy, this treatment of financially troubled families may constitute "good business" (even if under older ethical standards it's the equivalent of offering a barrel of whiskey to an alcoholic). More fundamentally, though, the GOP's opting for an outcome that's good for Citibank's profits while disregarding the effects on families should cause no surprise.

SOME HISTORY may help here. The modern "family issues" are actually about a century old. The first openly "pro-family" president was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. Between 1900 and about 1912, he wrote and spoke often, and eloquently, about the dangers of a rising divorce rate and a falling birth rate. He celebrated motherhood and fatherhood as the most important human tasks, and described the true marriage as "a partnership of the soul, the spirit and the mind, no less than of the body." He blasted as "foes of our household" the birth control movement, equity feminism, eugenics, and liberal Christianity.

However, the Rough Rider was the only prominent Republican of his time to think and talk this way. The dominant wing of the GOP tilted in favor of the banks, the great industries, and--perhaps more surprisingly--the feminist movement. Indeed, as early as 1904, the National Association of Manufacturers had formed an alliance with the feminists, for they shared an interest in moving women out of their homes and into the paid labor market. When the feminists reorganized as the National Woman's party in 1917, the manufacturers' association apparently provided secret financial support. More openly, Republican leaders embraced the feminists' proposed Equal Rights Amendment, first advanced in Congress in 1923. The GOP was also the first major party to endorse the ERA in its platform.

Meanwhile, the Democrats consolidated their 19th-century legacy of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion": that is, as the party favoring beer halls, the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, southern agrarians, northern Catholics, small property, the trade unions, and--importantly--the "family wage" for male workers. This cultural and legal device sought to deliver a single wage to fathers sufficient to support a wife and children at home. The Democrats also welcomed the "Maternalists" into their ranks, female activists who--while believing strongly in equal legal and political rights for women--also emphasized the natural differences between the sexes when it came to childbirth and child care. They favored federal programs for the training of girls in home economics and for "baby saving," meaning efforts to reduce infant and maternal mortality. They fiercely opposed working mothers and day care. Under this Maternalist influence, every New Deal domestic program openly assumed or quietly reinforced the goal of a "family wage" and the model American family of a breadwinning father, a homemaking mother, and an average of three or four children.

In short, from 1912 until 1964, the Democrats were--on balance--the pro-family party. The Republicans, on balance, were the party of business interests and the feminists.

All this changed between 1964 and 1980 with the emergence of the "Reagan Democrats." This radical reorientation of American domestic politics began with debate about adding "sex" to the list of prohibited discriminations under Title VII (employment issues) of the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964, a fascinating event that ended with the addition of "sex" and the ensuing legal destruction of the "family wage" regime. The broad transformation continued with the rise of the "pro-family movement" during the 1970s, behind early leaders such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich. It ended in 1980 with the solid movement of northern Catholics and southern evangelicals into the Republican party, and the counter-movement of feminists and the new sexual revolutionaries into the Democratic fold. Ronald Reagan, a proud four-time voter for Franklin D. Roosevelt and a lifelong admirer of the New Deal, explained his 1980 victory to a group of Catholic voters this way:

The secret is that when the left took over the Democratic party we [former Democrats] took over the Republican party. We made the Republican party into the party of the working people, the family, the neighborhood, the defense of freedom. And yes, the American Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to One Nation Under God. So, you see, the party that so many of us grew up with still exists except that today it's called the Republican party.

In fact, this was only partly true. For the Republican party as reshaped by Reagan now saw pro-family social conservatives in political alliance with the interests of the banks and the large corporations. Main Street and Wall Street were under the same tent, which was a very new development.

SO, HOW WELL has the Republican party performed as the party of the traditional family? At the level of the party platform, it has done fairly well. Since 1980, pro-family activists have successfully shaped Republican platforms that oppose ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, endorse a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade and protect pre-born infant life, and call for pro-family tax measures.

And there have been concrete wins. Regarding taxation, for example, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 doubled the value of the child-friendly personal exemption and indexed it to inflation. Ten years later, another tax bill created a new Child Tax Credit. George Bush's 2001 tax cut raised this credit to $1,000 per child and began to eliminate the tax code's notorious marriage penalty.

There have been other gains. Congress approved and President Bush signed a ban on partial-birth abortion. The welfare reform of 1996 eliminated perverse incentives to out-of-wedlock births. Under the current President Bush, the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families and the Office of Population Affairs, important branches of the Department of Health and Human Services, are in pro-family hands. As of last month, so is the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Judges with pro-family records have won presidential appointment to federal courts, most recently Samuel Alito. Especially with the current administration, social conservatives have sometimes felt that they actually hold a true seat at the table.

Even so, all is not well within the existing Republican coalition. Indeed, there are other indicators that the Republican party has done relatively little to help traditional families, and may in fact be contributing to their new indentured status. Certainly at the level of net incomes, the one-earner family today is worse off than it was thirty years ago, when the GOP began to claim the pro-family banner. Specifically, the median income of married-couple families, with the wife not in the paid labor force, was $40,100 in 2002, less than it had been in 1970 ($40,785) when inflation is taken into account. In contrast, the real earnings of two-income married couple families rose by 35 percent over the same years (to nearly $73,000). Put another way, families have been able to get ahead only by becoming "nontraditional" and sending mother to work or forgoing children altogether. As the Maternalists had warned, eliminating America's "family wage" system would drive male wages down and severely handicap the one-income home. So it has happened.

Despite the economic pressures, though, such families are not extinct. They still form core social conservative constituencies such as home schooling families and families with four or more children. But again, they have little to show from the years of the Republican alliance. Indeed, the GOP has done absolutely nothing to curb the egalitarian frenzy and the gender-role engineering set off by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and enshrined at the Pentagon. Equity feminism still rules these roosts.

Or consider child care. A timely veto by Richard Nixon stopped the government's day care juggernaut in 1971, but only for a few months. The same year, Nixon signed a Republican-designed measure also backed by the National Organization for Women (heir to the GOP-favored National Woman's party). This law allowed families to deduct day care costs from their income tax, cleverly labeling them "business expenses." This has since grown into a credit worth between $1,500 and $2,100 in reduced taxes for households using day care. Even the wealthiest qualify.

Meanwhile, families that sacrifice a second income to keep a mother or father at home receive nothing except a higher net tax. Bills to correct this gross inequity have been regularly introduced in Congress since 1996, most recently the Parents' Tax Relief Act of 2006 (H.R. 3080). However, the Republican leadership has ignored them. To underscore the lost opportunity here, note that conservatives in Canada rode to victory just a few weeks ago by embracing a plan to extend that nation's day care benefit to stay-at-home parents; not a whiff of this, though, in the recent State of the Union address.

Add to these examples the bankruptcy reform measure discussed earlier, and ask: What do these issues have in common? All three are matters where the interests of big business and the interests of traditional, one-breadwinner families have collided, and in each case the Republican party has sided in the end with business. Concerning one-income families, the great corporations continue to view them as a waste of human resources, artificially raising labor costs by holding adults at home. Judging by its inaction and results, the GOP agrees. For the same reason, large businesses generally favor federally subsidized day care, for it creates incentives for mothers to work rather than care for their children. Existing Republican policy strongly favors this social parenting. And the credit industry has every interest in creating a new, indentured debtor class annually sending 20 percent of its income to the banks. The Republicans concur.

OTHER DEBT-DRIVEN FAMILY ISSUES are looming, with little indication of a Republican willingness to tackle them in a pro-family way. Consider the Federal Student Loan program, launched in the mid-1960s as a modest supplement to means-tested federal education grants. The system has since morphed into a massive debt machine, lending out $58 billion in 2005 alone and fueling a huge increase in college and university costs. The average bachelor's degree recipient currently graduates with $20,000 in debt; students having attended graduate school report another $50,000 to $100,000 in debt, creating in one commentator's words "the most indebted generation of young Americans ever."

Here we find another newly indentured class of Americans, also paying about 20 percent of their incomes to the banks for decades to come. Disturbingly, over 20 percent of these borrowers report that they have delayed having children because of their debt, while 15 percent say they have delayed marriage. These are not pro-family outcomes. The most recent Republican response to the borrowers' plight--undertaken in early February in the name of fiscal responsibility--was to pass a measure whose net effect will be to raise the long-term debt facing young adults.

Another troubling new issue is Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, the federal government's child support collection and enforcement program. Originally designed to track down the welfare fathers of illegitimate children, the measure has increasingly targeted middle income households affected by divorce. There is mounting evidence that the system now encourages marital breakup and exacerbates fatherlessness by creating a winner-take-all game, where the losing parent--commonly a father wanting to save the marriage--is unfairly penalized by the loss of his children and by a federally enforced child support obligation. Here we find objectively false feminist views--the assumption that men are always the abusers and women are always the victims--driving public policy. And here we find still another newly indentured class of citizens--noncustodial parents--being squeezed financially by the state. If you think this an exaggeration, I refer you to no less an authority than Phyllis Schlafly, who calls this runaway federal law the most serious danger facing American families today.

Democrats often dream of wooing the "Reagan Democrats" back into the fold. Bill Clinton, who could speak "evangelical" and who embraced pro-family tax and welfare reforms, succeeded to some degree. Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg, who actually coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats," argues that "a new, family-centered politics can define and revitalize the Democratic party." Its message should highlight "family integrity and parental responsibility" and offer a "progressive vision of family support." Greenberg even theorizes that "Roman Catholics would [again] rally to a Democratic party respectful of family and committed to defending government's unique role in supporting it."

If the Democratic party remains the party of the sexual revolution, as its open yearning for same-sex marriage suggests it may, such dreams will remain just that. However, if a Democratic leader can ever shake that monkey off his--or her--back, and if this occurs in conjunction with an economic downturn, the prospects for another broad political realignment are fairly high. A new economic populism, delivering child-sensitive benefits and skewering predatory banks and bureaucrats, could work politically for a clever Democrat.

Moreover, when push comes to shove, social conservatives remain second class citizens under the Republican tent. During the 2004 Republican convention, they were virtually confined to the party's attic, kept off the main stage, treated like slightly lunatic children. Republican lobbyist Michael Scanlon's infamous candid comment--"The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right [and] Christian radio"--suggests a common opinion among the dominant "K Street" Republicans toward their coalition allies.

Contemporary Republican leaders need to do better--much better--toward social conservatives. They must creatively address pressing new family issues centered on debt burden. And they must learn to say "no" sometimes to Wall Street, lest they squander the revolutionary political legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Allan Carlson is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois.