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How Do You Measure a Family?

The family has a measurement problem.


It is semi-fashionable to explicitly contradict the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; it is very fashionable to do so implicitly. Indeed our whole culture seems built on a rejection of the observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Every family being different, unique—some nuclear, some chosen, some extended, straight, gay, polyamourous—must be happy in its own way; surely it is the toxicities and the power dynamics and regressive cultural mores that make some families so unhappy which are all the same. So goes the thinking. But even this thinking cannot in its objection get away from definition, from normativity, which is the essence of Tolstoy’s truth: that the family, being a distinct and living thing, has some set of virtues, or excellences, or goods, conducive to its health, its ends, its happiness. 

The family presents a problem for contemporary policymakers. The modern bureaucratic state treats people as aggregates. We call our culture individualistic, but really it would be better to say it is quantitative, unit-based. You are a person; I am a person: together, we the people. In this way, at least, liberal democracies treat their citizens almost as collectively—as a mass, a subject of social scientific control—as does communist China; the ends are different, equality vs. the greatness of the state, but the technological mindset is the same. The family, however, confounds such predictability or denumerability. It is an institution prior to the state, an organic whole prior to the individual, uncountable, though made up of at least three. The economist can put a dollar value on a person, and does, and so relates her to the GDP. But the family as a thing of bonds, both of biology and affections, represents too many kinds of value to count it with a number.  


The family has a measurement problem. And so American family policy has a measurement problem. As part of a broader realignment away from market fundamentalism, Republicans are talking about public policy as family policy. Some Republicans have had a change of heart; some always thought this way; some just don’t want to leave a winning set of issues to the Democrats. The family policy bucket is a big one—for the genuine conservative there are few ends to which policy could ever really be aimed other than happy families—but these days when the GOP is talking about it they mean stuff like child tax credits, paid family leave, or parental rights in schools. It is an inarticulate effort to recognize that the health of the country is dependent on the health of the families that make it up. 

I say inarticulate because few politicians want to define the natural family: father, mother, their children. Even fewer want to define the legal family: father, mother, married, their children, rights of paternity and inheritance secured. It would be mean, they think, unpopular; there are so many unhappy families. The law—whether tax law or criminal law or property law—teaches. Every law assumes and so encourages some subject. If there is not a definition in mind it does not mean there is no definition, just not one any lawmaker advanced on purpose. Our legal code has made a hash of families, with marriage penalties one place and benefits another, and so taught for years that the nuclear family is a thing for the financially secure. Americans have listened. Family policy makers are family makers, their policies necessarily articulate some account of the family itself.   

This is most clear in benefits-based policy interventions. If the state is to give money to families, it must pick to whom that money will attach. This too is often de facto rather than de jure, but it is reality nonetheless. Democrats love to support working women—family doesn’t even get a mention—and some checks pay a mother for a kid, the context is irrelevant, the man disposable. But when you attach a lump of money to a child you necessarily have to pick adults to hand it to: a social worker, a mother, a married couple, a head of house, a male guardian. Unless policy makers think about this explicitly they will not think about what sort of arrangements they are subsidizing, what sort of country they are making for tomorrow. 

Like all politics this side of a new creation, this is prudential. But though the family resists quantification, and still remains an elusive holdover from a human world previous to industrial and mass society and the measurements of social science, we have a few numbers to which our wonks and economists can attend. How many marriages of a man and a woman are there, each month, each year, every decade? How many residences are bought by a married couple? How many babies are born? How to measure family policy, how to arrange policies such that they both address unhappy realities and promote familial happiness, this must be considered case by case with the knowledge that exceptions prove the rule, and cannot become it.