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The Government’s Role in Supporting Families 2.0

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Families have changed since the 1960's, but our policies surrounding families have not changed since then

You don’t need to be a demographic expert to know that the stereotypical nuclear family is no longer the norm; in fact, it is an artifact of a bygone era. Since 1960, the percentage of American households with a married couple raising their own children has dropped from 37 to 16 percent, while fewer than half of children today are living with heterosexual parents in their first marriage.

“Families are changing,” said Liza Mundy, the director of New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program, and “will continue to change” in ways that reflect a greater sense of social and cultural freedom of choice. Meanwhile, however, “our social policies are still rooted in the ideas of 1960s.” Institutions of government need to evolve “to acknowledge the changes that have taken place in the family and to update and coordinate the social policies that serve families,” said Mundy at a recent New America event.

In other words, there’s a disconnect between today’s lived experience and today’s policies. So, she asked, how can government build effective social policy across a range of issues facing real-life multi-generational families—rather than cookie-cutter caricatures from the 1960s?

President Obama has attempted to answer that question with his recently released 2016 Budget, which aims to “help America’s hard-working families get ahead in a time of relentless economic and technological change.” Now, the question on the table for Mundy and her fellow discussants is: will the proposal – which includes efforts to expand access to childcare and early learning, workforce training, and tax credits – achieve that lofty goal?

One facet of the budget stood out for most of the panelists, and made them optimistic: its focus on collaboration across federal, state and local government agencies and institutions.

Johan Uvin, Acting Assistant Secretary in the Office of Career Technical and Adult Education in the Department of Education , singled out the Performance Partnership Pilot—in which tribal, city, state governments can pool resources to create holistic strategy to reach out to disconnected youth—as well as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which contains what he described as a “number of specific changes that I believe will lead to more holistic policy-making at the state and local levels.” Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst for New America’s Higher Education Initiative, echoed Uvin’s optimism about programs in Obama’s budget that call for greater cooperation between the federal government and municipal or state governments.

Pointing specifically to three proposals from the Obama Budget—the Department of Education’s America’s College Promise program, the Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeship programs, and the Department of Commerce’s National Network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes—McCarthy emphasized their collaborative nature. She praised the President’s budget proposal overall for posing this question: “Who else needs to be part of this conversation outside the federal government to build family-centered social policy?”

According to McCarthy, everyone needs to be at the table—workers, employers, and government. The National Network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, for example, is “building partnerships among businesses, educational institutions and local government agencies to support development of advanced manufacturing hubs” in cities where the “erosion of the manufacturing sector…has put a strain on families.” Having all these stakeholders in the conversation about social policy, said McCarthy, would reflect the interconnectedness of what real families need: affordable higher education, secure and predictable pathways into employment, and more good jobs.

These holistic approaches to policy resonated with Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of New America’s Early Education Initiative, who pointed to the President’s proposed expansion of Head Start, with its “whole-child focus,” and federal Pre-School Development Grants, which contain provisions that encourage states to provide full-day kindergarten as well. She also cited the Promise Neighborhoods, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, in which the Department of Education supports partnerships with local organizations and nonprofits to provide services and specifically seeks to “break down agency ‘silos’” to implement solutions to community challenges.

Justin King, policy director of the Asset Building Program, agreed that inter-agency cooperation is key to pushing forward the aspects of the President’s budget proposal that promote financial stability for families while modernizing government’s understanding of what a family is: “There’s a critical role for government to play in supporting household economic stability and supporting the ability [for families] to save across the big picture.” That role, said King, must include support—such as the Automatic IRA proposal—for low-income families to save money for emergencies and retirement. When it comes to giving families help to save, said King, “the effort is there, the will is there, the resources are there, but it’s just not always applied with care. And it’s not always targeted to the families that need the most help, that are striving for a better life.”

President Obama’s budget proposal may be fruitful fodder for discussion, but it’s still only a blueprint for the future. As Uvin put it, this budget is “an important vehicle for advancing ideas,” but “there are other things that we can do and need to do and that we have done.” He concluded that it’s “essential” for government to create “flexible” policies for families and to “engage external stakeholders from the get-go, so that the continuation of critical policy innovations is not exclusively dependent on whether there is the political leadership that is present to advance them.”

Having opened with a question, Mundy concluded with one as well: how do you make policy without privileging one kind of family? By focusing attention where the “opportunity gaps are greatest,” said Uvin, “from cradle to career.”

Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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