The American Family as National Infrastructure
Darel Paul on why America’s social institutions require robust family policy
by Darel E. Paul
This article is a lightly edited version of a speech given to the conference “Restoring a Nation: The Common Good in the American Tradition” at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Steubenville, Ohio, October 7–8, 2022.
A popular typology of post–World War II welfare capitalism exists in the academic literature on political economy. Different national models are defined by the different character and combination of three universal social institutions: the state, the market, and the family. These institutions together form a “welfare regime” or, more stylistically, a “world of welfare capitalism.” As this popular approach goes, three distinct types exist: the social democratic regime typically represented by Sweden, the conservative regime whose exemplar is Germany and the liberal regime of which the United States is the archetype.
As a liberal country, the United States has a characteristically “residual” welfare state oriented towards the poor. This is so much the case that, among Americans, “welfare” is understood not as the aggregate well-being of society—the sum of social goods that is the common good of a people—but instead a collection of means-tested government transfer payments such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In a liberal regime the middle class is not supposed to receive “welfare” from the state but should instead secure its well-being privately by means of the market and the family. Thus fundamental elements of social welfare such as health care, childcare, pensions and income in lieu of work should all derive from ones own labor remunerated through the labor market or from one’s familial attachment to such a worker. The state is meant to step in only at moments of market or family failure, and then to step away as soon as possible.
We are familiar with the importance of the market in a liberal welfare regime. The state calls the abstract and capacious “market” into existence through property and contract law, incorporation and central banking, transportation infrastructure and tax (dis)incentives. Labor markets are particularly important. Work has long been the shared normative fulcrum of the American political economy and remains so today. One might recall the defining feature of “welfare reform” in the 1990s being its strong work incentives.
We tend to pay far less attention to the family and how much a liberal welfare regime depends on its successful functioning. Even though the family produces less welfare in a postindustrial than an industrial economy, and less welfare in an industrial economy than an agricultural one, even in twenty-first-century America the family remains a fundamental site of the production of welfare services like childcare and education, meal preparation, cleaning, shopping, maintenance and repair, transportation and entertainment. It is also, of course, the preeminent site of welfare consumption for those we call “dependents”—members of society who do not, cannot and/or should not seek their material succor from the market.
While the liberal state mainly finds the family already in existence and treats it as a spontaneous association of the private sphere, this laissez-faire approach hides a powerful implicit familism. To keep members of society out of poverty and off “welfare,” the family is expected to generate welfare even as the state takes little initiative in actively cultivating the ability of the family to perform this central function. The family is also expected to generate essential public goods, as mundane as the funding of Social Security and as profound as the moral education and continuation of the community itself.
Perhaps once we could reasonably assume that the family would uncomplicatedly reproduce itself, that “private” and “local” institutions such as churches, neighborhoods and voluntary societies, would perform what support was required to ensure that the family would persist, that it would both produce welfare in the present and the continuation of the society itself into the future. Today, however, the liberal laissez-faire approach to the family is falling woefully short. The evidence has become overwhelming, not only at the bottom of society among those for whom the residual welfare state exists, but throughout all of society. The American family is not merely challenged to produce its customary degree of welfare. It is increasingly beleaguered simply in the process of reproducing itself.
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