My mother would call Allan Carlson a man gifted with “common sense.” In her eyes this was high praise. She was right in this as in so many things. Carlson’s most recent entry into the seemingly interminable debate about “whither the family?” or even “whether the family?” is marked by a refreshingly clear writing style: a crisp recitation of many fascinating historical, economical, and sociological facts; a forthright ethical imperative; and, finally, a rather remarkable restraint in light of the heated polemics that all too often accompany this most central and personal of “academic” subjects. My one regret is that the book will enjoy a smaller audience than it should. For one thing, Carlson is not “politically correct.” For another, he writes as an expert “outside” the academy, and academics often have great difficulty crediting that.

“Love is all you need,” sang the Beatles. No, it isn’t, argues Carlson. We Americans are a notoriously romantic lot. We seem to believe that love and “personal values” and good will can overcome all obstacles and create the world anew, even as we are shocked at the mounting debris, the wreckage in human lives that more and more surrounds us. How could things have gone so wrong when we all meant so well? Carlson helps us to understand what has happened to and with us and why. He assists us in placing in perspective extraordinary claims that are, nowadays, taken for ordinary.

Let me proffer an example of what I have in mind. As I write, I have before me the New York Times for Wednesday, July 14, 1993. A front-page headline proclaims: “Census Reports a Sharp Increase Among Never-Married Mothers,” with the reassuring subtitle, “Puncturing Stereotypes of Out-of-Wedlock Births.” The stereotype that here gets punctured, in the view of the Times, is that out-of-wedlock births are tied to poor, uneducated, or minority women. Not so! the Times exults, well-nigh giddy at the thought. Everybody’s doing it! One finds, for example, a “particularly steep” increase in out-of-wedlock births among “educated and professional women.” Of course, what the article is at pains to mask is the fact that, although the overall percentage of “white women and women who attend college” having children without benefit of marriage has risen sharply, this category still accounts for a small percentage of the overall figure of nearly a quarter of the nation’s unmarried women becoming mothers, “an increase of almost 60 percent in the past decade.” Specifically, women with a bachelor’s degree compromise only 6.4 percent of such births; black mothers (who are more likely to be poor and undereducated) account for 55.5 percent, with the overall percentage of babies born to unwed black mothers skyrocketing to 64 percent last year.

Why is the narrative that accompanies these figures designed to steer us aside from the obvious conclusion? Why is the one “expert” the Times consulted a professor of sociology at Princeton who describes herself as a “former divorcee” who has “been a single parent for 10 years”? The Times would never describe a counter-expert (had they consulted one) as having been “a married parent for 10 years.” While the article notes that critics of single parenthood exist, their views are condemned “as stepping on the toes of those who are trying to support women’s independence” by the “expert.” So much for the facts. So much for a debate. But what should be noted, in part because it is so startling an example of redescribing a phenomenon in order to make it fit ideologically preferred categories, is the use of the phrase “women’s independence.” Tell that to a 15-year-old unwed mother living in rundown housing in a violent crack-infested neighborhood in an inner city. I imagine it will brighten her day considerably, dependent as she is upon courts, welfare bureaucracies, the therapeutic arm of the state, whatever may remain of her family structure, and here-today, gone-tomorrow boyfriends.

Beyond the contempt for the difficulty of the lives lived by most unwed mothers and the disdain for the mountain of evidence of how children without fathers are at a disadvantage according to every index of risk we know, this claim of “independence” is an example of the sleight of hand Carlson’s tightly reasoned book exposes. Before I turn to his argument, let me note for the record that the best antipoverty program for children is a stable, intact, two-parent family. We know this. We know that if one controls for all other factors, the absence of a second parent (most often a father) is implicated in poverty, violence, absence from school, and the future likelihood of another single-parent home. Fully 70 percent of juveniles in state reform institutions grew up in singleparent or no-parent situations.

Carlson’s tough-mindedness in this matter is heartening and a challenge to thinkers on the right and the left alike. For he shows that government tinkering and social engineering are more likely to corrode than to cure things, even as campaigns of moral uplift and evangelical fervor and denunciation do little good either. What the government giveth the government can taketh away when those in charge are swept by some new enthusiasm. And where religious belief may encourage marital stability and responsibility, it simply cannot prevail against a society determined to weaken and discredit theological teaching. Few people want their favorite nostrums challenged. The left will rise up and cheer if fundamentalist efforts to restore a traditional, patriarchal family are attacked. The right will shout hosannas when the intrusive “nanny” state is taken to task. So Carlson will please no single side to the controversy. But the most interesting work now being done is work that pleases no single side.

Carlson observes that the American Constitution is remarkable for its failure to mention “family” or “household.” This can be explained, in part, by the Framers’ commitment to Enlightenment verities of rational self-autonomy. But, more importantly, our forefathers and foremothers assumed the existence of an extra-governmental or nonpolitical sphere of strong families and communities, for these defined the social order in which the American experiment first took root. Things began to change, not so much with feminist (or some other) protest against that social order but with top-level moves to tinker with and define American life. This tinkering was spurred by social realities, of course, but abstract theorists and social engineers also did their part. For example, the Progressive Era was marked by an astonishing optimism about what government might accomplish, if government only had the knowledge and advice of “experts” to comprehend society and design policy appropriate to its problems.

This optimism was applied to a variety of measures designed to “improve” families and family life. As market imperatives severed home production from wage labor, the family was stripped of its “economic, educational, and security functions” and came face to face with “the looming power of its ancient rival, the State.” Curiously, the degradation and loss of family autonomy produced by the forces of industrialization and the growth of state power were keenly observed by Marx and Engels, among others. (Their “solution,” of course, was to see this stage through and await—or push forward—the moment of resolution when all contradictions would melt away.) What Carlson foresees is less the possibility of melting contradictions than the meltdown of families and communities.

With admirable concision, Carlson analyzes the loss of an informal (or voluntary) family wage and the failure of government-encouraged experiments to create a sustainable family wage—an idea favored, by the way, by many in an earlier generation of feminists. He notes that the growing alliance between “rights-absolutist” or individualist feminism and capitalism won that fight and continues to dominate feminist argumentation. He shows the ways in which the burgeoning of suburbs was no accident but rather a direct result of government and corporate incentives, with government initiatives taking primacy. Federal Housing Administration policy favored the detached, single family dwelling quite literally cut from uniform cloth in conformity with the requirement that housing follow a few basic models.

By the 1950’s the “welfare state” really benefited the middle class, who were in the best position to take advantage of low-cost housing loans and most adventitiously placed to indulge in “raw consumerism,” a development that “threatened historic American virtues such as modesty and frugality.” In the suburban family, what stay-at-home mothers did was isolated from a wider social context and significantly devalued: this is the context from which feminist protest sprung in the 1960’s. Writes Carlson: “[O]ther costs of federal housing policy—the loss of regional variation in land use and housing design, the intentional abandonment of extended family bonds, the deliberate weakening of the residual family economy, and the consequent isolation and devaluation of woman in the home—were also imposed, albeit on a deferred basis, beginning in the late 1960’s.” In accordance with the law of unintended consequences, much of this country’s success in guaranteeing separate family dwellings spurred instability in social and economic relations. The story here is a complex one, and I can only urge the reader to consult Carlson’s volume for the details.

Faced with the quandary of deeper separation of home life from work life, of women from men and men from women and families, a generation of experts whose work dominated discussion in the 1950’s began to call for official buttressing of the family in order to sustain America’s competitive edge and leadership in the world. This era saw a “unique bonding of sustained militarism to the expanded welfare state,” giving “social planners a powerful tool to effect change.” Some of the material Carlson brings forward in this discussion is genuinely creepy. For what one finds in overt mandates is an insistence that American society (especially families) must be mobilized in toto “in order to allocate its resources in the fullest and most rational manner possible.” More intrusion and manipulation—all for “the good” of those being intruded upon and manipulated, of course—resulted. Carlson’s discussion of the infusion of this managerial, social-engineering perspective into the armed services and the “home economics” movement is particularly good.

We come to our present impasse. For those who can afford it, there is “Kentucky Fried Children” in the form of franchised daycare outfits. (Or, of course, live-in immigrant housekeepers and childminders for all prospective Attorney Generals.) For others, there is a frantic scramble for tending to the kids and two jobs and a home and, perhaps, elderly parents. “Scientific homemaking” means, in practice, less home, more stress, overworked parents, undernurtured kids. Why should any of this surprise us? Family relationships are not like work relationships. Family relationships are different from friendships. Families rest on “communitarian rather than individualistic principles,” and if families are to sustain themselves they must be based on notions of sharing, not notions of efficiency. Neither the logic of markets nor of states (in the form of macro-level top-down social-engineering schemes) can substitute for families, but this logic—to the extent that it intrudes upon and takes over families— can, has, and will continue to corrode actual families and even our idea of families.

Love alone will not hold families together. Religious belief “cannot function as a substitute economy.” What Carlson argues so convincingly is that the family that works together is more likely to stay together. We need both love and work. Love and intimacy, he concludes, must be “concretely expressed through a common economic life of both production and consumption.” Romanticists will never understand this and, at bottom, both the wildest revolutionary and the most stalwart reactionary are romanticists.

My single critical query in respect to Carlson’s book is this. If, as the author claims, the family emerges from natural imperatives and there is something akin to a “universal model” for the embodiment of those imperatives in society, why are we witness to such persistent falling away from this norm? Is it because we have so mucked things up that the imperatives cannot win out? Does this mean that, if “left alone” (to the extent that anything and anybody can be left alone by postmodern society), the family industry and autonomy Carlson favors so heartily would reemerge with vigor and clarity? Just how much variation on the male/husbandry, female/housewifery model does Carlson find possible or desirable? We await further contributions from Carlson on these vital questions as we lurch into the next century, hailing as “independent” human institutions that could scarcely be more dependent on often unaccountable and undemocratic forces outside ourselves, whether market or state.


[From Cottage to Work Station: The Family’s Search for Social Harmony in the Industrial Age, by Allan C. Carlson (San Francisco: Ignatius) 181 pp., $12.95]