Review of: The Way We Really Are

Judy Root Aulette, Contemporary Sociology
University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Stephanie Coontz is a scholar activist. A historian, author, and teacher, she has also jumped into the fray of public debate on families, using her considerable skills to examine contemporary families as well as historical patterns. She now brings her ideas to the most popular of the popular media, being quoted, misquoted, and interviewed by the likes of Oprah, the National Enquirer, the New York Times, CNN, and Crossfire. A founding member of the Council on Contemporary Families, Coontz offers an alternative point of view to the politically conservative "family values" advocates.

She calls on other social scientists to join her. Her foray out of the ivory tower has taught her that people are hungry for what historians and sociologists can teach them about how to understand families and solve family problems. "And," she writes, "I've come to believe that it's our responsibility to try" (p. 11).

The Way We Really Are shows us how, in a way that is engaging and accessible. Coontz presents questions about families important not just to social scientists but to nonacademics. She also describes the politically conservative "family values" advocates she has met on the media circuit and how they view the issues and their role. The debate between the two points of view "family values" advocates and more liberal scholars like Coontz parallels the classic debate in sociology between functionalists and conflict theorists. The "family values" school, like Talcott Parsons, argues that only one kind of family is valid and, furthermore, that the uniquely legitimate model of the male-dominated nuclear family is essential for a smoothly functioning society. Coontz fits this into a conflict model, asserting that many forms of families are effective and laudable, and that our values and our social institutions should be organized in ways that help them all to flourish.

The book is packed with carefully documented statistics and other empirical information, so even family studies scholars who are familiar with many of her arguments will find the detailed evidence and critical and creative insights useful. For those less acquainted with the scholarly work in this area, the book provides a valuable resource on what's new in the most recent family studies research and how the family values war is being waged.

Coontz's strategy is to describe the sociological imagination and to apply it to some of the most well-known concerns about families (such as working mothers, divorce, and marriage). She critiques the "solution" of holding on to tradition and shows it as a form of scapegoating. Coontz identifies economic issues as key to the current problematic changes occurring in our family lives, and concludes with specific proposals about what real families need.

Coontz explores one source that has been offered as a model: the "typical" family of the 1950s. She shows how our hazy and sometimes faulty images of the 1950s are better understood if we place those personal experiences into the broader picture of the economic situation of the '50s and its connection to governmental support of households. She reminds us that real wages grew faster in a year in the 1950s than in the whole decade of the 1980s. Furthermore, she describes the political "experiment" of the '50s that provided such policies as a minimum wage above poverty, a much larger proportion of federal spending on public works (schools and sewage systems), GI benefits, and home financing. With most of the experiment dismantled and poverty rates growing among every kind of family, including those headed by white men, no wonder we reminisce about the '50s.

The downside of the '50s was that a large proportion of the adult population -- mostly women -- was restricted to the domestic sphere. The steady increase of women into the paid labor force may have occurred partly in response to a need to overcome those constraints. Both women and men report working for reasons beyond the paycheck. But, perhaps more important, as the 1950s economy began to unravel, households had to increase their earnings. Women -- who had always worked but often not for pay -- revived their role as co-provider by entering the paid labor force in larger and larger numbers during the past few decades. For many families, having two adults in the workforce is essential to survival; for others it means being able to achieve at least a modest amount of upward mobility. Coontz reminds us that when family values crusaders promote nuclear households with a male breadwinner and female homemaker, they are telling us we must abandon the American dream of upward mobility and replace it with a no-growth or declining family economy. She concludes that employed married mothers are here to stay. The good news is that families with employed adults in them are better off emotionally as well as economically; women are happier, men have stronger connections to children, children do better in school, and everyone is better off financially. The bad news is that multiple-job families face new problems, like finding high-quality child care and finding enough time, especially for such emergencies as the illness of a family member.

Male-dominated nuclear families do not help solve these problems; in fact, they exacerbate them. Coontz argues that what families really need is not to try to achieve a 1950s ideal, but instead to alter our social context. In particular, we need to change the organization of businesses and government. According to Coontz, during the transition to a male breadwinner family during the early nineteenth century, government funded the transportation systems that were essential for the development of a national market. In today's transition to a coprovider family system, child care, paid parental leaves and family-friendly work policies are equally vital social and economic investments as were canals and railroads then. (p.74). Perhaps not surprisingly, Coontz notes, those who promote the 1950s model of families also promote restrictions in birth control, abortion, divorce, and welfare, and are the same people who oppose parental leaves because these inhibit the flexibility of employers.

In the middle of the book, Coontz asks a controversial question about why the economy has failed so many of us by creating not just economic hardship but also difficult emotional and social repercussions in our families. She argues that what makes the family's condition new and problematic is the simultaneous growth in the economy and the decline in the majority's living standards. Coontz argues that while some politicians would like to divert our attention to divorced parents and unmarried mothers, the crux of the problem is in the economy, the labor market, and government policy. Coontz specifically cites as agents an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth; changes in the labor market that replaced secure and relatively well-paid jobs with parttime, temporary, low-wage positions; and a government that has reduced support just when we need it the most.

Coontz argues that the current debate around families has been posed as one of values versus the economy. Those who support traditional family values argue that we need to adopt a particular set of values. Their opponents often argue that we need to change the economy. At first, Coontz seems to belong in this latter category. Her argument, however, is more sophisticated than either of these. She asserts that while we do need to restructure our economy, we also need to restructure our values. Most important, she recommends that we alter our values in ways that broaden responsibility for taking care of each other and especially taking care of children. These new values will allow us to make the necessary changes in our economy. And changes in our economy that distribute the fruits of economic growth more equitably will allow us to practice our new values of community responsibility.

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