I spent the 1970’s looking for a social policy agenda I could love. I thought I had found one in federal housing subsidies.

The image of the free family on its homestead powerfully appealed to my imagination. I saw the suburban home as heir to the Jeffersonian agrarian spirit, its bond to property stimulating the vigor, independence, and virtue once found on the yeoman farm. I agreed with Catharine Beecher, the mid-19th-century philosopher of the American home, that a proper dwelling could shape a family’s moral character, promote family stability, and help preserve a decent society. I was persuaded by architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1868 declaration that the suburbs combined the finest aspects of town and country and marked “the best application of the arts of civilization to which mankind has yet obtained.” I looked with approval on the business propagandists of the 1920’s who sought to chill labor unrest with the promise, “After work, the happy home,” and on the opportunistic idealism of developer Bill Levitt in the 1940’s, who declared; “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”

The politicians also persuaded me that they were, for once, doing the right thing. The monumental Housing Act of 1949, for example, had opened with a stirring declaration that “the general welfare and security of the nation . . . require . . . the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” Even that New Deal war-horse, Lyndon Johnson, made sense in his 1965 statement that “the ultimate goal in our free enterprise system must be a decent home for every American family.”

I became convinced that federal intervention into the family housing market had taken four positive forms (the fifth, “public housing,” always seemed a disaster). The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, was midwife to the long-term, amortized mortgage featuring a low down payment. Establishment of the Federal Home Loan Bank (1932-33) and the chartering of the Federal National Mortgage Association or “Fannie Mae” (1938) formed the financial infrastructure for an expanding mortgage market. The “GI Bill” of 1944 provided government insurance and waived down payments for the millions of vets seeking mortgages. And reconfiguration of the federal income tax in the 1930’s and 1940’s also gave preferred status to owner-occupied homes. Congress chose to exclude the “imputed rent” of such dwellings from taxation, yet at the same time allowed taxpayers to claim deductions for mortgage interest and state and local taxes. In addition, federal law exempted from taxation the capital gains derived from sale of a residence, if a new dwelling was purchased within a given time.

The powerful combination of direct and indirect subsidies appeared to have dramatic, positive effects after World War II. Between 1945 and 1960 alone, there was a 90 percent increase in the number of owner-occupied homes. Econometric studies confirmed that federal interventions accounted for a substantial share of this increase. More importantly, family life showed every sign of strengthening in this period. American fertility climbed from Depression-era lows to an average of 3.6 births per woman, marking an unprecedented reversal of a century-old birthrate decline. The divorce rate fell steadily between 1946 and 1960, while the number of new households created each year soared. Young American women embraced suburban domesticity with a fervor that embarrassed their suffragette mothers and grandmothers. By all signs, the laws of sociology and history had been shattered and a familistic America had been reborn. In my most dreamy-eyed moments, I even imagined that the Great Distributists—Belloc and Chesterton—would have smiled on this American scheme to “share the property” with the people.

I was aware, to be sure, of the dour complaints registered by economists and others of the Malthusian persuasion. Some noted the manner in which federal housing subsidies actually redistributed income from the poor to the well-off. Others complained about a startling “over investment” in housing by both individuals and the nation at large, which disrupted capital markets, retarded other forms of capital investment, and caused a net reduction in American productivity growth rates. Still others cited the heavy penalty imposed on renters. Environmentalists, for their part, fretted about the loss of prime farm land around Chicago or Indianapolis, or the new strain on air and water resources in Phoenix or Los Angeles. But these all struck me as relatively minor complaints alongside the gains in family strength and autonomy that the great suburban experiment seemed to have spawned.

At some point in the 1980’s, though, my confidence began to waver. True, the great American housing industry was continuing its forced march across the countryside. The massive Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 had looked to the imminent “huge increase” in the number of new families, as the baby boomers reached adulthood and began to form households of their own. Accordingly, it had sharply increased FHA mortgage ceilings, subsidized interest rates for first-time home purchasers with low incomes, and established the Government National Mortgage Association (“Ginnie Mae”) to buy up FHA and other loans at nonmarket rates. Moreover, these actions had infused huge new sums into housing, residential (nonfarm) mortgage debt rising from $358 billion in 1970 to $2,162 billion in 1987, an extraordinary after-inflation increase of 311 percent. And yes, I nervously chanted the mantra that all of this new money was going to new families in new homes, and strengthening our national fabric.

Yet I couldn’t shake off the reality that family life in America was, in fact, unraveling. All the positive trends of the 1950’s had shifted noisily into reverse. The birthrate plummeted, from 118 (per 1,000 women, ages 15-44) in 1960 to 65 in 1978, while the number of annual divorces tripled over the same time span. Meanwhile, the level of illegitimate births soared, from 224,000 in 1960 to 715,000 in 1982 and over one million in 1989. The formation of new family households, meanwhile, slowed down, as young adults deferred marriage, many indefinitely. Once centers of optimism and bearers of the spirit of new community, the suburbs became instead symbols of gender-role confusion, white flight, and escape.

In face of these contradictions centered on the growing disjunction between housing and family life, I tried denial. Housing policy, I reasoned, had nothing to do with the family crisis: better to blame it on the feminists; or the pornographers; or the New Left. Indeed, I convinced myself for a time that the family situation might have been even worse, if the federal subsidies had not been there, working to shelter-families from the cultural storms. When that argument ceased to reassure, I clung to the “standards” argument: everything would have continued to work if FHA examiners had stuck to their guns, and had continued to deny mortgages to “unconventional” households and unmarried persons.

Yet some correlations continued to haunt me. For instance, the number of housing units had climbed from 53 million in 1960 to 91 million in 1987, while average household size had fallen from 3.33 to 2.64. In the 1970-76 period alone, the population of the United States grew by 10.3 million people, while the number of separate households rose by 9.5 million. In rough terms, this meant that for every individual added to the population a new household in a distinct dwelling was also formed. Amazingly, these changes had occurred when real incomes were relatively stagnant and the ratio of median home-sales price to median income was rising sharply, from 2.37 in 1970 to 3.05 in 1978.

Then, stumbling one day across the book America’s Housing: Prospects and Problems by George Sternlieb and James Hughes, I found my suspicions confirmed and my dreams shattered through cogent analysis. Noting that housing demand since the late 1960’s had been driven primarily by the shrinkage in average household size, they concluded: “The very decline in the size of household, with its nominal generation of increased demand for housing units, may in turn be a consequence of the availability and costs of housing units generally.” Put another way, the excess capacity of the residential construction industry resulted in the building of homes that could only be filled by the parts of shattered or never-formed families.

Slowly, agonizingly, the horrible truth came into focus: not only had federal housing policy ceased to sustain family life; it had now become an engine destroying families! Repeating the classic bureaucratic pattern, the regulators and the regulated had conspired to keep the housing industry afloat by sabotaging the very social institution they had once sworn to serve. A recession could be avoided, the macroeconomic argument went, only through the maintenance of residential construction at an artificially high level. The American economy was hooked, with a superheated housing market being its drug-of-choice.

Indeed, it was now obvious that both industry and government had a vested interest in family disruption. Federal regulators showed their hand by easing mortgage eligibility standards and offering direct subsidies that reduced the real costs of creating two households out of one. Other direct and indirect subsidies encouraged home ownership among the unmarried by substituting government help for the economic gains (such as economies of scale) provided by marriage and family living. Through this ready sacrifice of the family, the real estate and residential construction industries gained another two or three decades of life-as-they-knew-it, while the federal government gained a burgeoning number of “nonfamily households” (8 million in I960, 27 million in 1990) that would have more “needs” and be far more dependent on government “services” than the semiautonomous families they had displaced.

But this awful realization was merely the beginning of my reeducation. Looking back, I grew aware that the United States had paid another large price through its submission to the engineers of federal housing policy: a weird homogenization that cut at the fabric of authentic pluralism and real community. Its roots lay in the Housing Act of 1934. This measure charged the new FHA with the establishment of uniform insurance and property standards for a national housing market and the stimulation of technical and land-planning standards to ease tract housing work.

The push for “national housing standards” took on greater urgency with the onset of the Cold War. A special 1951 issue of the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists looked at “Defense Through Decentralization: A Symposium on Dispersal,” and elevated the suburbanization drive into a national security mandate. As a measure of civil defense, the editors urged that all future residential development be guided toward “garden cities” located in the open countryside. This dispersion of America’s population “would so reduce the advantages an enemy might hope to obtain by dropping his supply of bombs that . . . he might decide not to use the weapon at all.” Contributors agreed that private property rights and local political foot dragging stood in the way of reasoned national efforts. While hoping for a federal superagency to guide the needed planning, they concluded that Uncle Sam already had the needed power through FHA mortgage and CI insurance programs to push most new construction out to the urban fringe. This power should be fully exercised in line with the national “imperative” for “orderly dispersal” of the cities.

At about the same time, leading residential architects and urban planners fell under the spell of a peculiar theory in family sociology, with further pernicious results in the public policy realm. They referenced the work in the 1920’s of William Ogburn and Ernest Rutherford, who had emphasized that “there is a considerable and increasing disorganization of the family” that would end only as the family structure adjusted to modern realities. Housing theorists took a more particular shine to the work of Ernest, W. Burgess and Henry J. Locke, who argued that as the family shed its legal, social, and economic functions, it reorganized on the companionship principle. Embracing this world view, the social engineers presumed that this “companionship family” would predominate in the future, resting on “the mutual affection, the sympathetic understanding, and the comradeship of its members.” As the home became the place for psychological intimacy, democracy, and love, they asserted that governmental and other nonfamily institutions would solidify their control over the old family functions of education, financial security, youth training, and religious piety.

Catching the spirit, urban planners drew the conclusion that “it becomes possible . . . to maintain family interaction without recourse to the traditional housekeeping dwelling unit.” Home structures “inherited from the family farm” should be supplanted by rational, flexible designs more in tune with “modern life patterns.” In an influential 1951 article, architect Svend Reimer celebrated the use of “family functions as a guide to residential architecture.” Stressing that “housing attitudes must be related to long-term trends of social change in the family,” Reimer saw functional architecture promoting a “definite way of life,” one that abandoned formal rooms like parlors or single-purpose rooms and replaced them by flexible rooms “that serve the everyday life of the family.”

These functionalist assumptions about the loss of the family’s economic and social roles and the reorganization of the family about its intimate psychological core burrowed deeply into federal housing policy. The official 1979 “Fannie Mae” history of housing stressed that “the family was no longer the basic economic as well as the social unit.” Regarding home design, this meant that “there was no longer so great a need for attics, sheds, storage cellars, work rooms, sewing rooms, etc.” Easy access to “processed food supplies” meant less need for pantries and large kitchens. The loss of the family’s social role also implied little need for “the drawing rooms and grand staircases of former years.” Instead, the new “companionship family” needed “open plans with flexible spaces that could be adapted to the family’s more informal lifestyle. . . . Space and facilities for nurturing . . . were needed to replace the space for workshops that had been used when economic function was so important.”

In truth, this quasi-official analysis offered intellectual cover to an attack on the residual economic importance of the family, and the real power it still held vis-a-vis the state. Housing policy joined other modernist weapons in a final assault against those “functions” clustered under the phrase “household production,” which protected family autonomy and, in turn, personal liberty. FHA guidelines transformed rogue sociological theory into action, and mortgages were systematically denied to any residence that contained facilities designed for use as a productive shop, an office, a separate apartment for extended family member or renter, or a preschool.

This federal pressure for a national leveling of family life took other forms, as well. FHA rules discouraged both regional and experimental architectures, favoring instead “conservative” design focused on a few models: Cape Cod, Colonial, the “split-level,” and the “basic ranch.” The agency’s Underwriting Training Handbook cast such matters under the rubric of conformity and nonconformity, explaining: “The significance of nonconformity in real estate is that as the degree of nonconformity progresses further from a reasonable degree of conformity with other properties in the neighborhood, the value of the nonconforming property becomes less and less.” In service to this tongue-tied principle, New Orleans’ suburbs would be built government welfare program, quietly working out the to resemble Boston’s suburbs, to resemble Tucson’s suburbs, perverse logic of the great New Deal experiment in state to resemble Minneapolis’ suburbs, in the imperative federal capitalism, launched sixty years ago quest for homogenization and harmony.

At the end of my withdrawal, I concluded that federal housing policy had become a noxious, even despotic tool. Not only did it suppress family autonomy, subvert real communities, and assault regional vitality, but it also worked to corrupt the morals of the citizenry and to encourage family breakup. In turn, federal housing policy helped to spawn the social pathologies—teenage pregnancy, juvenile crime, substance abuse, long-term dependency, educational failure—that now degrade our once-sheltered suburbs, as well as our cities. (Feeling charitable at the moment, I won’t discuss here the important role also played by housing mythology in creating the fiscal debacle known as the Savings and Loan crisis.) In short, I found the federal housing agenda to be merely another, fairly run-of-the-mill government welfare program, quietly working out the perverse logic of the great New Deal experiment in state capitalism, launched sixty years ago.

Clear-eyed now, the experience leaves me unnerved. If housing policy, with all its promise, has proven to be socially destructive on a scale such as this, what can one say about Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, school aid, Medicaid, Social Security, or any of the hundreds of lesser known federal programs also promising “comfort and aid” to the citizenry? Simply this: in every case, the result of federal activism has been to diminish household integrity and to increase personal dependence on Uncle Sam. It is not true, as conservative critics of the federal enterprise often charge, that “nothing works.” In fact, virtually everything works to undermine the government’s principle rival, the family, and to create a population of isolated, ignorant, and dependent sheep.