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Family: Quayle’s ‘Murphy Brown’ speech was on target (Scripps Howard News Service) November 30, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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When you gather with loved ones for the holiday season, be aware that politicians and public policy experts are more interested in your family than ever before. One of the hottest topics in Washington this year is the politics of the family.

Although he was ridiculed at the time, former Vice President Dan Quayle helped launch this wave of public attention to family issues with his famous “Murphy Brown” speech in 1992. There is now a surprising consensus that Quayle was on the right track and that the family is an essential item on the public policy agenda.

On the 10th anniversary of Quayle’s controversial speech, consider again his main points. In an address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco following the Los Angeles riots, Quayle argued that the breakdown of the family was the root cause of America’s most serious social problems, and that things were getting worse, and not better. He pointed to government policy and the culture — including TV programs like “Murphy Brown” that he thought trivialized fatherhood — as part of the problem.

Today that speech sounds almost bipartisan. Seemingly everywhere, public policy academics and political leaders are on the family bandwagon, agreeing that something must be done about the family if America is to solve its domestic and even economic problems. Of course they do not agree on precisely what should be done or what role the government should play.

The big item on the family political agenda is welfare reform in Congress. Recognizing the link between broken families and poverty, President Bush has proposed spending $300 million from the welfare budget for programs to strengthen families. Although that may seem like a lot, in the context of $150 billion in welfare expenditures for broken families, it is really more in the nature of a limited experiment.

People have also begun to question legal policy as it relates to the breakup of marriages. No-fault divorces make it easier to break up a family than it is to dissolve a business partnership. Most no-fault divorces reflect the desire of only one of the partners, while the other would like to make the marriage work. The children, of course, are the ultimate victims. Pope John Paul II correctly included judges and lawyers as part of the problem in his strongly worded statement against divorce earlier this year.

Perhaps as significant as these several family policy efforts are the new programs and studies that underlie them. Just this month, for example, PBS’s “Frontline” featured efforts to strengthen marriage and the family, both by churches and nonprofits as well as by government. The Family Research Council recently released a detailed study, “The Family Portrait.” Both of these underscored an alarming drop in marriages and dramatic increases in divorce and single-parent families.

Public policy professor James Q. Wilson has studied values in our society for years. This year he published “The Marriage Problem,” arguing that America has become two nations, one committed to marriage and family, and the other raising children outside the preferable two-parent family structure. The implications for society are, as Wilson demonstrates, enormous.

In the end, one wonders how much government can really do about marriage and the family. As scholar and former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once commented, “if you expect a government program to change families, you know more about government than I do.” The problems of marriage and the family are far deeper than mere politics or public policy. They have become ingrained in a culture that does not see the need for marriage. Perhaps it is in areas like this that President Bush’s reliance on “faith-based organizations” and private sector initiatives will be most useful.

Besides the stirring of politicians about the family, there are some other hopeful signs. The fact that social scientists widely agree on the value of two-parent families raising children is itself progress from where we were 10 years ago. With several popular movements in support, marriage and fatherhood are now in favor. And surveys of college students indicate that they are more highly committed to the family than previous generations.

Who would have thought that Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown would still be with us 10 years later?

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