Families Under Siege

Public Policy Aimed at Helping Could Be Making
Things Worse, Scholars Conclude

by Pat McBroom, Public Affairs

American families across the social and political spectrum are in trouble and need help raising children.

The difficulties are not restricted to poor or single-parent families, but also affect affluent, two-parent families, those often held up by conservative commentators as models of family life.

Unfortunately, public policies that are supposed to help children and their parents are actually making things worse, according to a new analysis by 11 family scholars at UC, 10 of whom are from the Berkeley campus. This collaboration includes academics from the fields of law, history, sociology, social welfare, psychology and public policy.

In their new book, "All Our Families: New Policies for a New Century" (Oxford University Press), the Berkeley Family Forum, a group of mostly liberal academicians, joins conservatives in diagnosing trouble for the family, but reaches vastly different conclusions about solutions.

The authors call for new ways to support children born into the diverse families of the 1990s. More than half of the children born this year, for instance, will lose one or both parents to divorce, abandonment or neglect before they reach adulthood. Evidence shows that such children risk developing emotional, social or academic problems.

But the researchers emphasize that marriage by itself is no solution because middle class, two-parent families are in trouble too.

In provocative new findings on mainstream marriages, two members of the forum reveal that up to a third of the couples they studied begin having significant difficulties upon the birth of a child. Depression and marital conflict are common.

"There is cause for concern about the health of 'the family'-even those considered advantaged by virtue of their material and psychological resources," said psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan.

"A surprisingly high proportion of couples experience increased tension, conflict, distress and divorce in the early years after arrival of a first child," they said.

Between a fourth and a third of some 200 families studied by the Cowans, from pregnancy through a child's transition into elementary school, scored high on depression and low on a marriage satisfaction scale, indicating that their marriages could benefit from professional intervention.

Now in its 10th year, the Cowan study provided some of the 200 families with psychological intervention and found not only that marriages improved, but the children's performance in school did also, compared to families receiving no outside help.

"Families are isolated," said Carolyn Cowan, a research psychologist with the Institute of Human Development. "As a parent, you don't necessarily know what you are doing, even if you've read a lot of books.

"There is no obvious place for parents to turn for help before their stress begins to spill over into their marriages and their relationships with their children," she said.

The Cowans are among some 40 academics at Berkeley who have been meeting for the past three years in monthly seminars aimed at creating new policy solutions for difficult family issues. Discussion has ranged widely, from examining proposals for making divorce harder to new reproductive technologies, the role of race in foster care and adoption, welfare reform, social security solutions, domestic partnerships and European family policies.

Eleven of the participants have now brought their work together in "All Our Families" edited by Professor of Social Welfare Mary Ann Mason, psychological
researcher Arlene Skolnick, and Professor of Law Stephen D. Sugarman.

Chapters cover many hot-button issues, including teen-age parents, stepparents, single parents, parents who kidnap, children of divorce, gay and lesbian families, abusive families, dual career and nuclear families. Each chapter has been written with a view toward creating public policies that will better serve the welfare of children than current U.S. approaches.

One of its more controversial conclusions is a recommendation that laws and rights governing parenthood shift from an emphasis on blood relationships and give more rights to non-genetic parents, such as stepparents, while making it easier for neglected children to be adopted.

"Our policies are rooted in blood and marriage. That seems wrong in a day when biology bears less and less relationship with what children need and current families are like," said Sugarman.

Mason, also a lawyer and professor, agreed that family law must shift "from this great emphasis on biological parenthood, which is not always best for children."

Mason argues for the creation of a category of de facto parent that would give more rights and duties to stepparents who are actually raising children.

The book also discusses other solutions infrequently proposed in a public forum-such as using the social security system to support children whose fathers have abandoned them in the same way it now supports children whose fathers have died.

"From the child's viewpoint, it doesn't matter whether the father has died or disappeared," said Sugarman. "It isn't fair that we help one child and not the other." In addition to the usual problems that put a child at risk, such as having only one parent or being poor, the book makes it plain that children from traditional two-parent families are also being impaired psychologically and scholastically because of parental stress.

Because of the Cowans' long-term follow-up of two-parent families, they have been able to link actual declines in a child's early school performance with the psychological and marital health of the parents-something that has been hard to prove in past research.

Additional struggles in these families were caused by changing sex roles, which made adversaries out of couples who needed and expected their partners to be their main supports, said the Cowans.

The problem does not lie with working mothers, however. The researchers discovered that children from families where mothers worked outside the home for pay were slightly better off than children whose mothers worked only at home. So, returning to traditional roles for women, as advocated by conservative family commentators, is not likely to make things better for families, the researchers said.

In fact, the Cowans found that the more traditional the family's sex roles were in the division of labor, the more likely the parents were to suffer from depression.

Calling modern couples "new pioneers," the psychologists believe that the process of becoming a family is more difficult than it used to be. They point out that instead of integral communities and kin groups of the past, "most modern parents bring babies home to isolated dwellings where their neighbors are strangers."

They recommend that health networks provide in-home care services and consultation to new families.

"We need to hook these families up with some support services," said Philip Cowan, noting that in England, public health nurses provide home visits and clinic access to each couple with a new baby, throughout the child's first year.

"When you provide even minimal but thoughtful support, you see such a difference," he said.

The authors said that new policies should also be made in the legal arena, as in changing the laws governing parenthood, and by assuring that children living in poverty receive greater financial support.



Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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