Washington apparatchiks have spent the last two decades in a frustrating search for a theme that could carry the sagging American welfare state. There are signs now that they have finally identified a, two-headed creature slouching toward Bethlehem-on-the-Potomac to be born: “families” and “children.” Jimmy Carter had a vague sense of the political power behind these words, but his White House Conference on Families degenerated into a nasty fray over definition of the key word. In the mid-1980’s, New York Governor Mario Cuomo made headlines and rhetorical headway with speeches about “the family in America,” using the label as a metaphor for collective social responsibility. More recently, the sorry status of many American children (e.g., relatively high levels of illiteracy, illegal drug use, and poverty) and the strains on family living created by the two-career couple have brought the solicitous attention of the pols and pledges to use the “Peace Dividend” to help “all our children.”
Fortunately, history offers a few lessons about governmental efforts to help families and children. For over one hundred years, a common explanatory theory has been advanced to buttress the case for state intervention. Modern conditions of industrialization and urban living, it says, have shattered inherited community supports, put intense pressure on families, and created an array of new social problems: hunger, city poverty, and the control of urban children. Traditional structures of relief such as churches and extended families, the theory goes on, are unable to cope with these problems, leaving government as the only vehicle capable of social reconstruction.
American sociologist William Ogburn, writing in the 1920’s, emphasized the family’s progressive “loss of function,” as economic, educational, and even religious activities left the home, passing over to professional guidance and control, while families refocused on the remaining “personality function.” By the 1930’s, observers pointed to low birthrates throughout Western Europe as signs of distress and of the family’s inability to cope. Conservatives, fascists, and socialists alike came to agree on the need for expanded family benefits. As Swedish theorist Alva Myrdal explained, “a portion of the traditional family tasks must be socialized. Modern society must free families from the anxieties which modern society itself has placed on families.”
What have been the results? Answers are found in two very different socialist experiments: in the Swedish welfare state, 1935-75; and among those families in the Cold War military services of the United States, 1947-90.
The family crisis in Sweden welled up twice in midcentury, first in the mid-1930’s, and again a decade later. Socialists and conservatives agreed on the need to remove the “living standard penalty” imposed by children on traditional family life. The new programs included child allowances, free education, family housing subsidies, maternity assistance, family health care, state run daycare, and various youth services.
For a time, the results seemed to confirm the soundness of both theory and response. Swedish marriage and birthrates climbed in the late 1940’s, and the nation apparently returned to traditional standards of family life and morality. Writing in 1954, Danish sociologist Kaare Svalastoga described the typical Swedish family as consisting of husband, wife, and two children, with the husband as the only breadwinner and a “patricentral” distribution of power. Other evidence of triumphant Leave-It-To-Beaverism came from a contemporary Gallup Poll which found that 90 percent of Swedes considered absolute marital fidelity “indispensable” to happiness. The country’s 1956 Handbook on Sex Instruction in Swedish Schools declared it “extremely important that pupils should realize fully that home and family are the ground rock of society, cemented together partly by love between man and woman and parents and children, partly by law.” Even the number of legal abortions in Sweden declined by nearly 40 percent.
However, this sweet domestic interlude papered over deeper pressures building within the welfare structure. All new state benefits, for example, were granted to both legitimate and illegitimate children, and commonly paid out through the mother. Both innovations helped undermine the natural economic gains of marriage. New equal pay laws, designed to protect working mothers, had the effect of dismantling the semiformal “family wage” system that undergirded the patricentral family. Swedish family housing projects rejected the single-family home model and gave preference to multifamily, high-rise dwellings, which discouraged family autonomy and encouraged a turn by individuals from family to peers as the dominant force in the shaping of values.
A similar, albeit little-noticed American experiment in socialist family policy developed on our military posts in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the consequence of a dramatic break in American tradition. The nation’s founders had held a deep distrust of a large standing army, seeing such a force as a threat to political liberties and regional loyalties. Their alternative vision saw small, elite services supplemented by a citizen reserve in periods of crisis or war. This model remained the American norm from 1775 to 1947, supplemented by the assumptions that officers would take care of their own families, while enlisted men would remain bachelors. Until 1942, for example. Army regulations forbade the peacetime enlistment or reenlistment of men with wives or children.
The emergence of the Cold War in 1947-48 shattered this arrangement. The assumption of long-term international commitments meant retention of a full-time military force numbering two million or more. Given such numbers, the maintenance of a bachelor force would no longer be realistic, and attempts to reconcile family living with the demands of martial discipline proceeded.
At one level, these attempts were cultural in nature. For officers, marriage came to be considered vital for career advancement, and divorce detrimental. Their ladies entered an elaborate world of social customs and unofficial duties centered on the officers’ wives clubs found on every post.
Among the enlisted ranks, the socialization of the military’s new families proceeded more directly through the crafting of a comprehensive welfare system, and the emergence of a new category of persons: “military dependents.” Military planners reasoned that special welfare benefits would usefully insulate personnel from the civilian world, provide a sense of security, foster morale, and encourage solidarity. Family measures created in the 1940’s included expanded dependent allotments, some medical benefits including obstetrical care, and subsidized food and consumer goods in Post Exchanges. The 1950’s witnessed a rapid growth in on-base family housing construction, passage of the Dependents Medical Care Act of 1956, and creation of daycare centers on both domestic and foreign posts, the latter action designed “to enhance the morale of servicemen and their families.” The services reached a milestone in 1960, as military dependents outnumbered active duty uniformed personnel for the first time. This led to creation of the Army Community Service Program and its naval and air force equivalents, followed by the comprehensive Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS) in 1966, which further expanded the availability of government medical care.
While the details differed, this list of benefits bore a striking similarity to the system found in Sweden. Our nation’s strategy for battling scientific socialism abroad essentially involved the socializing of our military families at home.
Did this, military version of the pro-family welfare state work, in the sense of encouraging traditional family life? As in Sweden: for a time, yes. Military officers in the 1960’s, for example, were much more likely to marry, and much less likely to divorce, than their civilian counterparts. As one researcher put it, the officer’s “loyalty to the country, to the Air Force, and the unit may carry over into loyalty to the wife.” The wives of both officers and enlisted men were also much less likely to be employed than civilian wives. Some evidence even suggested a pro-natal result, seen in an elevated fertility rate among military families.
But again as in Sweden, surface success concealed weaknesses. The delicate balance in military gender roles, for example, was vulnerable to outside challenges, particularly pressure from feminist and egalitarian interests after 1970 to open the service academies and combat roles to women. Similarly, bureaucratic control of “military dependents” tempted planners to renege on their roles as defenders of social tradition, and instead take the more interesting role of “vanguard of modernization.” As Harvard sociologist M.D. Feld explained in 1978: “One consequence of the contemporary fusion of the notions of national security and national welfare has been the sensible eradication of the conceptual distinction between the nation-in-arms and the nation at peace. . . . It is being replaced by the model of the permanently mobilized state: a state mobilized not for reasons of war, but in order to allocate its resources in the fullest and most rational manner possible.” The Cold War family, in this view, was merely one variant of the fully socialized family, part of and dependent on the kinder, gender Leviathan state.
Indeed, both the Swedish and American experiments in the state defense of tradition have recently turned against family life. In Sweden, the shift came in the 1960’s, as feminist critics blasted “the almost pathological confinement of mothers,” and stimulated a revolution that destroyed the legal and economic bases for marriage. As one expert explained in a quasi-official statement: “I should like to abolish the family as a means of earning a livelihood, let adults be economically independent of each other and give society a large share of responsibility for its children.” The 1969 report of the Working Group on Equality, headed by Alva Myrdal, laid out the components of this agenda, which was fully implemented by the mid-1970’s. Sweden now boasts of the world’s lowest first marriage rate, one of the lowest birthrates, and an illegitimacy ratio of about 500 (per 1,000 live births). While himself an admitted social democrat, Rutgers sociologist David Poponoe argues in his provocative book Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies that “the very nature of the welfare state compromises the institution of the family.” Although the Swedish project began with the goal of helping families to function better, “the very acceleration of welfare-state power weakened the family further.” This represents a “cultural contradiction” which has played no small part in creating Sweden’s contemporary “welfare-state crisis” of rising obligations and insufficient resources.
With some variation, the pattern has been repeated in the American military’s socialist experiment. Here, 1970 seems to be the swing date, after which traditional families fell into sustained retreat. Already by 1980, an official Air Force report stated that the traditional family (Air Force father, non-working civilian wife, and one or more children) was disappearing from its ranks. Even when excluding the unmarried, traditional families only represented 28 percent of all Air Force families. At the same time, “new family forms” needing “special supports” emerged as the norm, including dual-career service couples and single-parent (usually meaning “father absent”) families. Despite the comprehensive (if, admittedly, often tacky) array of welfare programs already in place, intense pressure grew for additional child care and youth service. One consultant declared that “the provision of child care for military families may be essential today for mission readiness,” while the Army Family Action Plan called an expanded child care benefit “a crucial program for the Army.”
Building what the Army’s 1983 White Paper calls military “families of excellence” has, in fact, meant a steady decline in family autonomy, and an embrace of themes and goals hostile to tradition. One Marine Corps study on retention problems among females, for example, proposed that the Corps “help women develop short term alternatives to marriage and pregnancy for overcoming loneliness.” Meanwhile, the feminist theory of androgyny—that there are no relevant differences between the sexes—has emerged as a form of military social gospel. As author Brian Mitchell explains in his book Weak Link, each military unit now has an “equal opportunity officer” who monitors gender relations and reports violations of policy, “much in the way the Soviet military has Communist Party officers assigned to units to keep Commanders politically straight.” As in Sweden, the welfare state has been converted into an engine destructive of traditional family bonds and duties.
In light of these experiences, it is possible to see the flaws implicit in the theory guiding government aid to the family. To begin with, state aid simultaneously creates dependency and undermines responsibility, which creates a dilemma for the rationally constructed welfare state. As one Danish welfare official recently put it: “if [the welfare state] is to fulfill its intended function, its citizens must refrain from exploiting to the fullest its services and provisions—that is, they must behave irrationally, motivated by informed social controls, which, however, tend to disappear as the welfare system grows.” The system consumes itself.
Second, it turns out that emotional bonds are not enough to preserve the family as an autonomous social unit. Love is insufficient when arrayed against a state apparatus that has appropriated the functions of early child development, basic education, economic support, recreation, civil religion, and old age security. Simply put, the comprehensive welfare state holds all the “loyalty” trump cards in its hand.
Indeed, if one looks deeper into history, a century-old conflict between the state and the family for the loyalty of the individual grows clear. Mandatory school attendance laws and so-called child labor laws have subverted parental control of the economic lives of children, while a mandatory Social Security System has socialized the insurance value of children, to the advantage of the childless. As the state has grown, the family has lost.
At the more diabolical level, we see that the abstract state has a clear interest in eliminating all institutions that stand between the governors and the governed. As Princeton demographer Norman Ryder has artfully summarized: “Political organizations . . . demand loyalty and attempt to neutralize family particularism. There is a struggle between the family and the state for the minds of the young.” In contemporary Sweden, the struggle seems to be over, with the state the undisputed victor. In the United States, the issue awaits firm resolution. Our military families appear to be caught in the same liberty-destroying matrix as the Swedes. However, other developments suggest that some American families are still fighting back: witness the surging home school movement, or the passage in many states of parental notification laws for teenage abortion.
Family autonomy and human liberty will grow only as the state shrinks. The fate of family life in the American national security state suggests that there is no exception to this rule. While dispute rages over the continued existence of a serious Soviet security threat or the pending end of the Cold War, there are independent and compelling reasons for social conservatives to support a sharp reduction in the size of our standing military force. Rather than a blow to conservative principles, this action would represent a traditionalist liberation from the misshapen socialism that has recently taken root in the services. The same reasons urge continued opposition to proposals that would subject American civilians to the Swedenization that has befallen our military compatriots.