Fox Professing
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials



The Reagan Administration's Policy
On Using The Family
To Advance Capitalism

Dennis R. Fox


Paper presented at the annual convention of the Law and Society Association, Vail, Colorado

This is one version of a paper I wrote for a 1988 Law and Society conference. I never got it published, but it did elicit some chuckles at the conference, particularly the Reagan policy's line about "lovingly packed lunchboxes."

The Executive Order described in the paper was rescinded by President Clinton on April 21, 1997, in a new Executive Order: Protection Of Children From Environmental Health Risks And Safety Risks.


Public policies affecting families are hotly debated. Use of the "pro-family" label is often part of an effort to attract public support for a wide variety of public policies actually desired on other, often ideological, grounds. An example from the Reagan Administration was the 1986 report The Family: Preserving America's Future. The report detailed the conservative values meant to be enhanced by a Reagan Executive Order mandating family impact statements, criticized liberal and radical critiques and programs, and enshrined the nuclear family in a position of superiority over other kinds of families as well as over both the individual and the larger community. More surprisingly, in contrast to more traditional public pronouncements on the family, the report's clear statement that strong families are important in order to maintain the further expansion of "democratic capitalism" seemingly placed a higher priority on the capitalist economy than on the family as an institution worth preserving on its own merits.


Executive Order 12606, signed by President Ronald Reagan on September 2, 1987, provides that "federal agencies must assess [the] impact on [the] family when formulating and implementing policies and regulations" (Appendix). In essence, the President calls for formal "family impact statements," similar to the environmental impact statements required for activities affecting the environment, and orders department and agency heads to certify in writing that proposed regulations and statutes have been assessed in accordance with their impact on "family formation, maintenance, and general well-being." The order lists seven criteria to guide assessments:

(a) Does this action by government strengthen or erode the stability of the family and, particularly, the marital commitment?

(b) Does this action strengthen or erode the authority and rights of parents in the education, nurture, and supervision of their children?

(c) Does this action help the family perform its functions, or does it substitute governmental activity for the function?

(d) Does this action by government increase or decrease family earnings? Do the proposed benefits of this action justify the impact on the family budget?

(e) Can this activity be carried out by a lower level of government or by the family itself?

(f) What message, intended or otherwise, does this program send to the public concerning the status of the family?

(g) What message does it send to young people concerning the relationship between their behavior, their personal responsibility, and the norms of our society?

On its face, the Executive Order reveals both the general thrust of the Reagan Administration's "pro-family" agenda and the inherent ambiguity of that agenda. Carried to the logical extreme, there is little governmental action that would not be subjected to the Administration's family well-being criteria. The order itself does not define explicitly the kind of family that is to be strengthened, and it gives no rationale for its provisions. Thus, any effort by government administrators to put the Executive Order into effect would lead to inherently subjective interpretations as well as to varying degrees of conformity to political pressures designed to advance a single approved view of the family.


The Administration's Family Policy

The details of the Reagan Administration's approved view can be found not in the Executive Order itself but in the 1986 document upon which it is based--The Family: Preserving America's Future--a 66-page report written by a 22-person interagency Working Group on the Family under the direction of Under Secretary of Education Gary L. Bauer, currently the President's Domestic Policy Advisor. The Bauer Report provides a fascinating, if somewhat disconcerting, look at what the Administration hopes to achieve with its particular brand of family policy. The dozens of quotes from conservative scholars clash somewhat with the breathless tone, italicized paragraphs, and bland, matter-of-fact allusions to the "emerging national consensus" (p. 7), but the Report is worth looking at nonetheless.

Much of the Report's contents will not surprise critics of the Reagan Administration. It parallels--with one crucial exception--other Administration statements on family policy (e.g., Bennett, 1987), and reflects the President's long-time effort to link a wide range of issues to the presumed deterioration of the American family (Moynihan, 1987). Its primary thrust is to monopolize the pro-family political ground by critiquing and ridiculing a broad range of "abrasive experiments of two liberal decades" (Working Group, 1986, p. 9). Targets range from day care and no-fault divorce to sex education, values clarification in the public schools, and assorted other evils that conservatives often ascribe to the influence of secular humanism. The Report extols individualism, parental rights, respect for authority, discipline, loyalty, fidelity, church-going, and other "traditional" values. It argues that


It is time to reaffirm some "home truths" and to restate the obvious. Intact families are good. Families who choose to have children are making a desirable decision. Mothers and fathers who then decide to spend a good deal of time raising those children themselves rather than leaving it to others are demonstrably doing a good thing for those children. . . . Public policy and the culture in general must support and reaffirm these decisions--not undermine and be hostile to them or send a message that we are neutral. (Working Group, 1986, p. 6)


The Report focuses repeatedly on the degree to which intrusive government activity has hurt American families, directly and indirectly. As an example:


Our courts, our legislation, and even the rhetoric of our leaders send signals to the American family. Those who pushed instant no-fault divorce laws through 49 State legislatures did not intend to facilitate the abandonment to poverty of millions of women and children. But clearly these laws have contributed to the historically high divorce rates and lower financial settlements for women and children. Our judges probably did not intend to touch off an explosion of illegitimacy when they minimized the power of the States to legislate on that subject. But it happened, and today our society wonders how to get the genie of personal indulgence back into the bottle of legal restraints. (Working Group, 1986, p. 7)


Despite the focus on the damage already done,


There is great reason for hope. No trend is irreversible. Most of America's families are pulling through, and our institutions are rallying to assist those in trouble. . . .

For most Americans, life is not a matter of legislative battles, judicial decrees, and executive decisions. It is a fabric of helping hands and good neighbors, bedtime stories and shared prayers, lovingly packed lunchboxes and household budget-balancing, tears wiped away, a precious heritage passed along. It is hard work and a little put away for the future. (p. 9, italics in original)


By repeatedly invoking powerful images such as "lovingly packed lunchboxes," by ascribing divorce, crime, drug use, lowered SAT scores, poverty, and other societal ills to liberal policies that disrupted families, and by linking the solution to these problems to the enshrinement of the nuclear family, the Bauer Report lays out a broad program of regressive social change. As might be expected, it has attracted criticism. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1987), for example, pointing out a number of its incorrect factual and legal assumptions about the welfare system, referred to the Report as "less a policy statement than a tantrum" (p. 203). Similarly, Arthur Johnson (1987) noted that "research findings are selectively brought into the argument and blended with long-standing stereotypes," leading to "broad assertions and . . . simplistic cure-alls" (p. 282). For Johnson, "the internal inconsistencies, ideological rhetoric, and inattention to the complexity of the problems addressed make for frustrating reading" (p. 283).

up to top

The Instrumental Link Between the Family and Capitalism

Neither the Report's general thrust nor the tone of the responses is particularly surprising. What is somewhat surprising, however, and unexpectedly revealing, is the way in which the Report briefly departs from the usual Reagan defense of traditional family values and explicitly links family policy to the survival of "the essence of democratic capitalism" (Working Group, 1986, p. 13). Such an explicit instrumental linkage to capitalism is absent, of course, in the Executive Order as well as in most other Administration statements that pay homage to the traditional family as idyllic in and of itself. Interestingly, neither Moynihan (1987) nor Johnson (1987) refer to this linkage in their own critiques.

With some ambiguity, but also with enough repetition to make the point unmistakable, a short two-page section of the Report subtitled "Family Economics" leaves little doubt that the Administration's ultimate goal lies beyond the family. Seven paragraphs detail how "strong families make economic progress possible by passing on the values central to a free economy" (Working Group, 1986, p. 13); the subsequent four paragraphs tie the family-capitalism theme to the notion that "only strong families can build a society strong enough to make representative democracy secure" (p. 14). Representative democracy and capitalism are presented as an inseparable unit, both tied to the fate of the nuclear family. Such families not only save money, making possible economic expansion, but "they teach children the values upon which savings are built--delaying gratification now for some future goal" (p. 13):


Attitudes toward work are formed in the family. Families which teach that effort results in gain prepare skilled and energetic workers who are the engine for democratic capitalism. In contrast, if children are taught that effort is to no avail--that "the deck is stacked"--nothing is more likely to undercut achievement. Without employees, investors, and entrepreneurs nurtured in families and instilled with the work ethic, democratic capitalism fails." (p. 14, italics in original)


The Report notes for the record that "some contend that the consumer ethic of capitalism undermines family values" (p. 13), but dismisses that notion with the assertion that "it is more true that neither the modern family nor the free enterprise system would long survive without the other" (p. 13). It might be interesting to speculate about what kind of evidence the Administration might accept on the subject of capitalism's effects on family values, and about how the Administration's rhetoric might be forced to change if it turned out that a different form of family life would actually be "better" for capitalism or, more likely, that a different socioeconomic system would be better for real people in real families.


Towards an Explicit Family Policy

A decade ago, Kamerman and Kahn (1978) pointed out that, unlike France, Hungary, Sweden, and other countries with an explicit national family policy designed to affect families in specified ways, the United States was among a group of nations without such an explicit policy. Instead, the United States's policy was implicit: Governmental actions designed to address a wide range of social issues had indirect, and often unplanned, consequences for families, with the effects on families generally not considered by policymakers. With the Bauer Report, the Reagan Executive Order, and the President's call, in his 1988 State of the Union address, for Congress to include a family impact statement "at the beginning of every piece of legislation," the United States is moving toward its own explicit policy.

The development of an explicit policy is not necessarily alarming. Calls for such a development have been heard at least since the mid-1960s (Moynihan, 1987), and there can be little argument with the Bauer Report's insistence that government policies affect families and that such effects should be taken into account by policymakers. The specifics of the Reagan approach, however, raise at least three general issues: (a) the Administration's conception of ultimate goals for the family; (b) the significance of ulterior motives; and (c) the relationship between process and symbolism.

Ultimate Goals

The key issue revolves around who controls the direction of family policy. By enshrining the traditional nuclear family, with the father at work and the mother at home, as the primary recipient of government attention, the Bauer Report and the Executive Order give governmental approval to only one of many different kinds of families. The Administration seeks to bring legal and financial pressures to bear to force more people to remain in "intact" families, and expresses little sympathy, for example, for women forced to leave abusive relationships, and even less for people who simply decide that a marriage is not working and should be dissolved, or even for married women who want or need to work. Although some lip service is given to the virtues of working mothers ("They are nothing short of heroic"--Working Group, p. 44, italics in original) and to the notion that policy "must be sensitive to the perception of favoring one type of family arrangement over another (e.g., two parent families with dual earners vs. a single earner)" (p. 45), more typical of the underlying tone is the statement that "unlike Sweden . . . the mothers of America have managed to avoid becoming just so many more cogs in the wheels of commerce" (p. 44).

The question of ultimate goals goes beyond defining the kind of family to be protected. A primary focus on family policy elevates the family, in any of its guises, over both the individual and the local community as the most appropriate target of government attention. This elevation of the family to center stage raises challenges to both liberals and radicals about the basic organizational structure of society. Kamerman and Kahn (1978) noted the importance of distinguishing the interests of the familiy as a unit from the interests of the individuals who comprise it, and pointed out that the "interest in helping children per se appears to be of less importance in generating family policy exploration" (p. 13). The Administration's family focus is at odds with generally liberal child advocates whose primary concern is with children's rights or well-being, and who have called for the use of child impact statements (Melton, 1987) or for the development of political structures to institutionalize a focus on children (Melton, 1987; Zigler & Muenchow, 1985). Parents and children often have competing interests, as do wives and husbands; such differences are obscured rather than resolved by looking at the family as a single unit. Of course, individuals who are not members of families are also disadvantaged by a family-first policy.

Child impact statements and family impact statements represent two very different levels of concern. A third level is represented by the community impact statement. Community psychologists, for example, have been active in the area of social impact assessment (Meissen & Cipriani, 1984; Wolf, 1975), many of them influenced by Seymour Sarason's conception of a psychological sense of community (Sarason, 1974). Community impact statements are no less value-laden and controversial than are family impact statements, reflecting competing interests and a general paucity of reliable data (Meissen & Cipriani, 1984). However, they at least have the potential of directing attention to a host of issues related to community well-being, which includes, but goes well beyond, the well-being of isolated families. In the Bauer Report, the community rarely receives attention in its own right. Instead, it is generally seen simply as "the neighborhood," as a source of voluntary charity for families in need, or as "local government." Such a limited conception of community is at odds with radical visions of the small, face-to-face community as the central structural component of a revitalized, humanized society capable of meeting human needs (Fox, 1985, 1986).

Ulterior Motives

Making family policy explicit does not always mean that the family itself is the ultimate object of concern. The Bauer Report's implication that the traditional family is worthy of support because it is the best way to safeguard capitalism falls within a wide range of explicit instrumental policies:


Family policy then becomes the rubric covering these policies promoting or influencing such [desired family] behavior. Indeed, there are those who would claim that family policy is always an instrument, whether overt or covert--that it is, essentially, a means to implement social control. As such, family policy may also be defined as a "rationale" (or rationalization), providing an acceptable reason for achieving latent, perhaps even unacceptable, objectives. (Kamerman & Kahn, 1978, p. 6, italics in original)


According to Kamerman and Kahn, the most significant worldwide example of using the family instrumentally is in connection with providing incentives and disincentives to regulate the number of women in the work force. The Bauer Report's emphasis on keeping mothers and children at home seems to fit into this approach, as does the general discussion of the family as a training ground for capitalist work habits. That the government may have ulterior motives will not surprise most critics, but even Administration supporters who approve both of conservative family policies and of the advancement of capitalism may reject the notion that the former should be relegated to a lower priority than the latter. The conservative forces in this country are not a monolithic bloc, and greater awareness of the Administration's explicit instrumental approach to traditional values may lead some supporters to question the motives behind future pro-family rhetoric.

Process and Symbol

The Executive Order provides for agency heads to "certify in writing" how proposed policies measure up to the seven family-related criteria (see Appendix). The certification goes to the Office of Management and Budget, which is charged with ensuring that the criteria are followed. The Office of Policy Development assesses "policies and regulations," reports to OMB and the Domestic Policy Council, advises the President, and provides an annual report. The several sections of the order are somewhat confusing and contradictory--for example, Section 1 calls for agencies and departments to assess policies and regulations "that may have significant impact on family formation, maintenance, and general well-being," but Section 2 calls on the same departments and agencies to identify provisions "that may have significant potential negative impact on the family well-being" (italics added). Whether only negative impacts need to be identified is unclear, as is the degree to which family "formation," "maintenance," and "well-being" are somehow considered to be identical. As suggested by Steven Willborn, it is doubtful that such distinctions were intended: "The careless drafting, then, may lead one to believe that the E.O. was promulgated more out of ideological concerns than out of a sincere desire to direct and control administrative action" (Steven L. Willborn, personal communication, February 2, 1988).

Despite all this assessing and reporting, and despite the urgent tone of saving the family, the Executive Order ends with the caution that "this order is intended to improve the internal management of the Executive branch and is not intended to create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law." Since the order explicitly denies judicially enforceable rights, just what substantive effects are intended, and how likely they are to be achieved, is unclear.

The primary goal of the Executive Order, thus, may not be specific policy decisions so much as general guidance to agencies to consider "the family" as they make decisions and, perhaps even more importantly, as they publicly justify those decisions. Public endorsement of family values conveys powerful, readily understood symbols. This is clearly acknowledged within the Executive Order itself: Two of the seven criteria direct agencies to consider the "message" that government programs send to the public in general and to young people in particular. Legal policies affecting children and families may provide especially clear examples of the way in which the law acts not only as a system of rewards and punishments but also as a symbolic affirmation of acceptable values. "Law teaches the moral and social norms of the community and, in a sense, announces, reiterates, and indeed ritualizes the myths and themes of the culture" (Melton & Saks, 1985, p. 251).

Controlling the way in which the ideal family is portrayed can have broad long-term significance in and of itself. The ability to link evocative family symbols to particular policies, regardless of those policies' actual goals, can be equally significant. The danger here is that conservative family policy advocates will succeed in both these tasks. The challenge is to bring to light the empirical and moral fallacies of the conservative agenda, as well as to point out the generally unstated way in which the pro-family agenda is being used for ulterior purposes, as is made unusually explicit in the Report of the Working Group on the Family.

up to top


Bennett, W. J. (1987). The role of the family in the nurture and protection of the young. American Psychologist, 42, 246-250.

Fox, D. R. (1985). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commons. American Psychologist, 40, 48-58.

Fox, D. R. (1986). Beyond individualism and centralization. American Psychologist, 41, 231-232.

Johnson, A. T. (1987). The family: The need for sound policy, not rhetoric and ideology [Review of The family: Preserving America's Future]. Public Administration Review, 47, 280-284.

Kamerman, S. B., & Kahn, A. J. (Eds.). (1978). Family policy: Government and families in fourteen countries. New York: Columbia University Press.

Meissen, G. J., & Cipriani, J. A. (1984). Community psychology and social impact assessment: An action model. American Journal of Community Psychology, 12, 369-386.

Melton, G. B. (1987). Children, politics, and morality: The ethics of child advocacy. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 16, 357-367.

Melton, G. B., & Saks, M. J. (1985). The law as an instrument of socialization and social structure. In G. B. Melton (Ed.), The law as a behavioral instrument (pp. 235-277). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Moynihan, D. P. (1987). Family and nation. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Sarason, S. B. (1974). The psychological sense of community: Prospects for a community psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wolf, C. P. (Ed.). (1975). Social impact assessment [Special issue]. Environment and Behavior, 7(3).

Working Group on the Family. (1986, November). The family: Preserving America's future. Washington, DC: Domestic Policy Council, Executive Office of the President.

Zigler, E., & Muenchow, S. (1985). A room of their own: A proposal to renovate the Children's Bureau. American Psychologist, 40, 953-959.

Related Material


Reading Suggestions


up to top

personal/political observations
Academic Papers Opinion Columns Personal Essays Course Materials
some political, most not


Page updated August 5, 2009