It's a new year, so it's a new chance to harp again on one of my pet peeves — the evasive abstraction of the so-called "pro-family" agenda of the so-called "pro-family" groups.
These groups sometimes announce their "pro-family" stance by stating their allegiance to "The Family" right there in their name — Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, American Family Association, etc. But there are also dozens more such groups without that word in their names.
The problem with this idea is that it doesn't actually mean anything. What is this "The Family" they speak of? These groups all say they want to "strengthen The Family" or "defend The Family" or celebrate, validate, honor, protect, support or advocate for "The Family."
But there is no such thing. This abstraction — "The Family" — does not actually, tangibly exist in any meaningful way. All those verbs they pile on in front of this abstraction — strengthen, defend, support, etc. — require a direct object. They require a direct object that actually is an object, a thing, something objective and real. Strengthening the abstract concept of The Family doesn't really mean much of anything.
This would be a purely semantic complaint if it were a purely semantic problem, but it's not. It's not simply a matter of these groups saying "pro-family" and speaking of "The Family" when what they really mean is that they are pro-families or that they are in favor of helping families. The track record of these organizations shows the opposite. When it comes to policies, regulations or legislative proposals that will actually, tangibly help actual, tangible families, these groups are almost always opposed to such proposals.
That suggests to me that this semantic slipperiness, this elusive abstraction is deliberate. It is a feature, not a bug. It allows these groups to avoid any accountability for the consequences of the positions they advocate. Their effect on or effectiveness on behalf of The Family is, like The Family itself, hopelessly abstract. It cannot be measured or evaluated.
And I think that's intentional. Or at least suspiciously convenient. Because after decades of work, the impact of these pro-The Family groups is clear. Their efforts to strengthen The Family have weakened families. Their efforts to protect The Family have attacked families. The result of their work is, quite simply, pro-Family and anti-families.
I am as adamantly opposed to the pro-family agenda as they are viciously opposed to me and to my family (and to you, and to your family). But I am completely in favor of a pro-families agenda.
I think "pro-families" provides an excellent yardstick for measuring the value of policies and laws. What will this policy/regulation/law mean for the actual situation of actual families? That's a firmly concrete, measurable, answerable question. And it's a question worth asking about any given proposal.
It's also a question that suggests several additional questions. What do actual families actually need? What problems do families face and how can they be assisted or empowered to overcome those problems? What's the difference between a healthy, happy, secure family and an unhealthy, unhappy, insecure family? How can we create a context — institutional, cultural, educational, economic — to ensure more of the former and fewer of the latter?
Tina Rosenberg of The New York Times' "Fixes" blog highlights what may well be the world's most successful and effective pro-families effort, a program begun in Mexico that has spread to Brazil, with astonishingly positive results.
The program, called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil, goes by different names in different places. In Mexico, where it first began on a national scale and has been equally successful at reducing poverty, it is Oportunidades. The generic term for the program is conditional cash transfers. The idea is to give regular payments to poor families, in the form of cash or electronic transfers into their bank accounts, if they meet certain requirements. The requirements vary, but many countries employ those used by Mexico: families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mom must attend workshops on subjects like nutrition or disease prevention. The payments almost always go to women, as they are the most likely to spend the money on their families. The elegant idea behind conditional cash transfers is to combat poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow. …
The program fights poverty in two ways. One is straightforward: it gives money to the poor. This works. And no, the money tends not to be stolen or diverted to the better-off. Brazil and Mexico have been very successful at including only the poor. In both countries it has reduced poverty, especially extreme poverty, and has begun to close the inequality gap.
The idea’s other purpose — to give children more education and better health — is longer term and harder to measure. But measured it is — Oportunidades is probably the most-studied social program on the planet. The program has an evaluation unit and publishes all data. There have also been hundreds of studies by independent academics. The research indicates that conditional cash transfer programs in Mexico and Brazil do keep people healthier, and keep kids in school.
In Mexico today, malnutrition, anemia and stunting have dropped, as have incidences of childhood and adult illnesses. Maternal and infant deaths have been reduced. Contraceptive use in rural areas has risen and teen pregnancy has declined. But the most dramatic effects are visible in education. Children in Oportunidades repeat fewer grades and stay in school longer. Child labor has dropped. In rural areas, the percentage of children entering middle school has risen 42 percent. High school inscription in rural areas has risen by a whopping 85 percent. The strongest effects on education are found in families where the mothers have the lowest schooling levels. Indigenous Mexicans have particularly benefited, staying in school longer. …
When I traveled in Mexico in 2008 to report on Oportunidades, I met family after family with a distinct before and after story. Parents whose work consisted of using a machete to cut grass had children who, thanks to Oportunidades, had finished high school and were now studying accounting or nursing. Some families had older children who were malnourished as youngsters, but younger children who had always been healthy because Oportunidades had arrived in time to help them eat better. In the city of Venustiano Carranza, in Mexico’s Puebla state, I met Hortensia Alvarez Montes, a 54-year-old widow whose only income came from taking in laundry. Her education stopped in sixth grade, as did that of her first three children. But then came Oportunidades, which kept her two youngest children in school. They were both finishing high school when I visited her. One of them told me she planned to attend college.
Oportunidades and Bolsa Familia are, demonstrably, measurably and provably, pro-families programs. They help families, millions of actual families, in myriad tangible ways. They strengthen those families, protect those families, defend those families — do all the things for those families that the allegedly "pro-family" groups all claim to want to be doing for The Family in the abstract.
If those pro-The Family groups really were pro-families — if they really were in favor of strengthening, supporting and defending actual families of actual people — then you might expect them to support efforts like Oportunidades or Bolsa Familia.
But they don't. They view such real, tangible assistance for real, tangible families as a Bad Thing. Those programs empower poor women, and empowering women, the "pro-family" groups say, weakens The Family. Those empowered poor women are more likely to use safe contraceptives, and the use of contraceptives, the "pro-family" groups say, threatens The Family. So in the name of The Family, the pro-family agenda opposes policies that help families.
They're pro-Family and anti-families. So if you're a part of an actual family, anywhere, of any kind, they're anti-you. Keep that in mind.
Update: For one of today's examples (there are multiple examples of this every day), read how Concerned Women for America protected The Family by helping to torpedo the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2010. They argued that the "victims support" part was anti-The Family because it didn't call for the arrest and prosecution of minors enslaved in the sex trade. Prostitution is against the law, after all, and if we go around not enforcing the laws when they are broken by children forced to break them, then we erode morality and weaken The Family. The Family cannot abide allowing these children to be restored to their families. The Family requires that these children be incarcerated.