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Rick Santorum’s Family Provocation

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Posted on Oct 16, 2011
Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-SA)

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Lost in the hubbub over Herman Cain’s love affair with the number 9 during last week’s Republican debate were some compelling observations by Rick Santorum about “the breakdown of the American family” and its relationship to poverty. His comments deserved more attention than a wacky tax plan or Newt Gingrich’s proposal to jail two Democratic foes.

“You want to look at the poverty rate among families that have ... a husband and wife working in them?” Santorum asked. “It’s 5 percent today. A family that’s headed by one person? It’s 30 percent today. We need to do something.”

Noting that “the word ‘home’ in Greek is the basis of the word ‘economy,’” the former Pennsylvania senator argued for “a policy that supports families, that encourages marriage, that has fathers take responsibility for their children.” He added: “You can’t have a wealthy society if the family breaks down.”

Santorum is broadly right. According to Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, in the 2005-09 period, 5 percent of married family households were poor at some point within a given year, compared with 28.8 percent of single-parent households. For 2010, the figures were 8.4 percent and 39.6 percent.

Interestingly, one politician who agrees with Santorum is named Barack Obama. “We know that children who grow up without a father are more likely to live in poverty,” the president said at a Father’s Day event last year. “They’re more likely to drop out of school. They’re more likely to wind up in prison. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol…. They’re more likely to become teenage parents themselves.” Growing up without a father, he added, “leaves a hole in a child’s life that no government can fill.”

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Before we ask what is to be done, what we shouldn’t do is blame gays and lesbians for disrupting the heterosexual family. We straight people have done a fine job of this all by ourselves.

Santorum takes a somewhat different view. He has argued that if same-sex marriage becomes the norm, “marriage then becomes, to some degree, meaningless.” This I don’t understand. Neither my marriage nor Santorum’s is rendered “meaningless” because a gay or lesbian couple decides to make a lifelong commitment.

On the contrary. Jonathan Rauch, a friend and one of the ablest champions of gay marriage, has argued that the demand for gay marriage could be seen as a conservative turn within the gay community, involving as it did a “communitarian and family-minded” emphasis on “civic responsibilities.”

Beyond the gay marriage battle, we need a bargain: Liberals should acknowledge, as Obama has, that strengthening the family is vital to economic justice. Conservatives should acknowledge that economic justice is vital to strengthening families.

For example: Our national policies on sick leave and family leave are among the most anti-family in the developed world. When faced with a choice between the needs of the family and the needs of employers, we nearly always tilt toward employers. Western European nations, influenced by both pro-family Christian Democrats and pro-labor Social Democrats, have done far more to make work compatible with family life.

Conservatives often say that tax policies should be more helpful to families raising children. I agree. But this can’t be yet another excuse for cutting taxes on the wealthy. New tax benefits for families with kids have to be concentrated on those in the middle and the bottom of the income structure, where modest amounts additional relief could go a long way.

The impact of the single-parent family on the well-being of children has sometimes been an explosive matter because it is often discussed in relation to the African-American community. Obama himself has made this explicit link. And young black men do face a crisis. Rather than avoid the issue (a temptation for liberals) or pretend that public policy can do little about it (a temptation for conservatives), we need to make their plight a high national priority. Scholars such as Harry Holzer and Peter Edelman have suggested a variety of work and education policies that could improve the economic situation of young men who are poor. This, in turn, could enhance the chances of family formation, which has been deteriorating among poorer whites as well.

It does not demean the heroic work of dedicated single mothers to say that two-parent families have a better shot at prosperity. So I’m glad Santorum brought up the issue. But let’s focus on practical ways to make the family stronger. Using pro-family slogans to divide us against each other won’t do much for any sort of family.


E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Chester Field, October 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Charlie Sheen’s parents have been married since 1961. 

Barack Obama was raised by his mother and her parents only seeing his father a couple of times before Barack Obama, Sr., was killed in car accident in Kenya.

Okay, Rick, your turn.

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By Payson, October 17, 2011 at 2:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How ironic that Santorum uses Greek word definitions in an argument against
homosexuality. 
He worries that if gay marriage is legalized it will lead to gay marriage as the
norm?  Gay marriage is not the norm for gays and lesbians in states where it is
legal and I doubt it would become the norm if federal rights were ever granted. 
Most people who don’t pine for a mythical 1950’s-era hetero-utopia don’t
believe that a decision not to marry will lead to the destruction of humanity. 
Legal protections are a significant, though secular, benefit of qualifying for a
marriage license. That license is no insurance against bad parenting, divorce,
abuse, career failure, financial problems, etc.  Two people, gay or straight, can
create a nurturing environment for themselves and/or children without legal
protections, but they have to fight for what should be considered a basic civil
right.
Like all homophobes, Santorum ignores any rational discussion of civil rights
and carries on with lies, histrionics and absurd speculation.  If those techniques
are not enough, he reduces the fight for gay civil rights to gay sex, as if gay sex
were not already legal.  He seems to refuse to realize that this isn’t about sex
and I am always surprised at how often talk of gay sex comes up in his
speeches.  Curious.

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By Blue Diva, October 17, 2011 at 10:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dionne and Santorum both touched on the real issue in
single parent homes….income.  When women only make
83% of what men make in wages then of course there’s
a disparity.  Also a two- parent home NOW means 2
incomes.  Also two people to distribute
responsibility.

The other issue is the anti-family policies in this
country.  European socialist countries have free day
care, parental leave up to two years with 80% income,
and the real clincher HEALTH CARE.  The lack of these
services and policies together with the income
disparity is what make single parenting so difficult
in this country.

These policies also encourage divorced parents to haggle over who picks up the coverage on these services and discourages harmonious parenting relationships..

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By sharonsj, October 17, 2011 at 8:04 am Link to this comment

It’s interesting to me that the folks most complaining about the state of the family today are also the same folks responsible for destroying the traditional family.

When I was a kid, we could live comfortably on what my father earned (and we were lower middle class).  Attending a city college cost about $1000 a year. Now you need both parents working and there still isn’t enough money coming in to pay all the bills and send the kids to school too.  The stress is often what breaks up a family.

What Republicans do best is distraction.  If you scream about abortion and gay marriage then maybe enough people won’t notice or don’t care they are going broke.

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By Pancake Rankin, October 17, 2011 at 7:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Bachmann took in kids from the county to get the
checks. To her it was just another business venture.
The foster care system in the USA remains Dickensian.
(pun intended.)

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, October 17, 2011 at 5:25 am Link to this comment

That is the problem with most Republican (and far too many Democratic) politicians. They take a problem which has a basis in fact and then distort the solution so much it looks like a satanic pretzel. Children grow up healthy in a HEALTHY family, no matter what type of family that is. Many single parent families somehow produce well adjusted children and many two parent (one of each sex) families produce absolute monsters. It has more to do with the chemistry of the family ... not the composition. I have no way of knowing how Bachmann’s kids and fosters turned out but I can’t help imagine that family must have been a nightmare with that nutcase running things.

The only thing I would say is these conservative Republicans shouldn’t be advising anyone about family life ... most of them are crazy by definition and would probably produce kids of equal nuttiness. And when religion comes along, it only gets worse. Thank God I insisted my kids be raised “around” but not in the Catholic religion. They both took one look at that lunatic asylum and said “no thanks”.

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By Inherit The Wind, October 17, 2011 at 4:51 am Link to this comment

There’s a reason that a certain unpleasant combination of fluids is named “santorum” by the Urban Dictionary: It’s named for a man who studiously avoids the REAL cause of problems to blame the sexual orientation of a maligned minority, whom he maligns further.

Many single mothers successfully raise children.  Many don’t. Too many don’t.  And any idiot knows that a healthy two-parent family is better for children—emphasis on HEALTHY.  An unhealthy relationship is even worse than single-hood.

But same-sex marriage is TOTALLY IRRELEVANT to the problem.  At worst, allowing it MAY make the problem better, assuming that same-sex couples with children stick together better than their two-sex counterparts (which fail at a 50% rate).  Further, same-sex marriage has NOTHING to do with out-of-wedlock pregnancy….BIG DUHHHHHHH, SANTORUM! (biology just don’t work that way….)

There’s a true meanness to Rick Santorum, a meanness that only Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain share of the crew of GOP clowns (There’s a few nobody can remember—I think my town’s mayor gets more votes than they do).  Even crazy Michelle Bachmann took in foster children, a sign that crazy as she is, she still has something resembling a heart.

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