Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Framing Family Interventions

Guest Blogger

Clare Huntington

For the book symposium on Clare Huntington, Failure to Flourish: How Law Undermines Family Relationships (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Thanks so much to Linda McClain for organizing this symposium and Jack Balkin for hosting it. I am delighted to engage in a week-long conversation about family law, which is, as I argue in my book, an under-appreciated factor contributing to inequality in the United States.

Elizabeth Scott has provided a terrific start to the symposium, raising a host of important issues. Scott has already given a brief overview of the central argument of the book—that families are essential to human flourishing but that too often family law undermines family relationships—so I will jump right into her arguments. Scott contends that although the U.S. should adopt my proposals, it is unlikely that the country will do so, at least to the extent I recommend. Scott identifies both political and pragmatic reasons for resistance. She notes the unwillingness to re-think the current distribution of wealth as well as a preference for programs that focus on tangible harms and produce positive outcomes in the near-term rather than programs that focus on diffuse harms and have either a remote or unclear payoff. She thus distinguishes teen pregnancy prevention programs (more likely to win support) from efforts to encourage co-parenting by low-income, unmarried fathers (more likely to face opposition). I agree with this view as a predictive matter, but much of what I call for in the book, even those programs that might seem to address diffuse harms with remote payoffs, can be re-framed in the way Scott suggests. 

Consider my focus on childhood development from birth to age three. As overwhelming research has established—from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study  to the research on brain development—this period is absolutely critical to healthy child development. When things go wrong during early childhood, the effects can be felt for a lifetime. Importantly, much of the potential harm stems from problems in the parent-child relationship. Of the ten ACE factors, for example, nine pertain solely to family relationships. Consistent with Scott’s insight, then, it is possible to characterize the harm from family dysfunction and efforts to remedy that harm as both concrete and immediate.

My proffered solution of improving family functioning could be understood as an effort with a remote or uncertain payoff, but here, again, it is possible to frame the intervention in the terms Scott proposes. Part of the answer is framing the intervention as an indispensable part of the solution. Some scholars prefer programs that provide benefits directly to children. Economist Janet Currie, for example, argues that it is more effective social welfare policy to supply children with in-kind benefits, such as food, medical care, and housing, than to pursue programs that try to change parental behavior and thus influence children indirectly. (The Invisible Safety Net, p. 8, although I note that she was talking about the uncertain benefits of cash welfare programs that encourage parents to work and not other parenting programs more broadly). In-kind benefits are vital, but they address only part of the problem. It is essential to improve the quality of the parent-child relationship as well, even if the benefit cannot be measured in calories provided, vaccinations administered, and housing units newly available. This orientation thus requires a more nuanced understanding of the role of relationships in child development and the irreplaceable role played by families. Nuance may not be a strong suit in American politics, but the benefit from strong families is anything but uncertain.

It is also important to remember, as Scott notes, that many efforts at immediate help—which can come across as appeals to increase the social safety net—can face political headwinds as well. By contrast, attempts to improve family functioning may appeal across partisan lines in ways that such increased support likely would not. Tax and transfer programs are an essential component of the safety net, but the American public is not going to invest substantially more money in these programs anytime soon. I agree with Scott that universal programs are more likely to win widespread support, but Scott acknowledges that it is difficult to find the funding for such programs in the current economic climate. A focus on family functioning presents an opportunity to “talk purple,” across “red” and “blue” political lines, as I suggest in the last chapter of my book. There may be a fortuitous alignment between advocates on the left, who see the connection between families and inequality, and advocates on the right, who want to address family breakdown.

Of course there is risk in this, too. In the family law context, explicit efforts to change the behavior of family members are often intrusive, judgmental programs that denigrate and marginalize low-income families and especially families of color. From sterilization efforts that continued well into the twentieth century to the modern day child welfare system, when the state seeks to change behaviors in families, too often this means pathologizing the family behavior of some families. This is a constant concern and we must remain vigilant about it, while also recognizing the need for additional state support. But with that caveat clearly in mind, I remain hopeful that strengthening families can appeal broadly.

In sum, Scott’s insights offer a roadmap for re-framing the kinds of programs that address family functioning. I am more than open to this re-framing because what I really care about is the substance—improving family relationships so that children can flourish.

Clare Huntington, Professor of Law, Fordham Law School. Professor Huntington may be reached at

Older Posts
Newer Posts