Last month, the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) released a brief report, “The way we still never were,” to coincide with the new, revised, and updated 2016 version of Stephanie Coontz’s classic book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. As a result, journalists identified many trends they saw as positive:
- All mothers—single, married, and working—are spending more time with their kids than stay-at-home mothers did in 1965. Even fathers are doing three times the amount of childcare that they used to.
- Since the 1990s, juvenile crime, sexual assaults, and intimate partner violence have declined by over 60 percent. And in the 1990s, domestic violence and child abuse rates were still lower than in the 1950s.
- Americans are becoming more accepting of cohabitation.
- Teenage pregnancy rates are lower than they have ever been.
- Close to 60 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage.
- Divorce rates are decreasing.
- Couples who have egalitarian relationships have better sex and happier marriages than those who have a more “traditionally” gendered division of labor, which was not the case in the past.
Along with these good-news stories, media covered some persistent problems, including the 17 percent child poverty rate and increasing economic inequality facing American families. Even that narrative has a curious positive spin: We’re so late to the game that other countries have provided a blueprint for how to fix these age-old problems. They have done so, according to Coontz, because “political leaders in those countries try to deal with present-day realities instead of blaming their citizens for abandoning a largely mythical Gold Age of family life.” Several Scandinavian countries, for instance, have child poverty rates at one third of America’s at the same time that they have more diverse families than in America.
Mary Sanchez of the Kansas City Star considered this good news about diverse American families in the context of the upcoming election:
“You can’t make America great ‘again,’ a la Donald Trump, if you are clueless to what work life really looked like for most of the 20th century… You can’t restore traditional family values, a la Ted Cruz, if you start with an interpretation of family that never existed in America… And you certainly won’t resonate as a ceiling crasher for women, a la Hillary Clinton, if you continue to encourage policies and business structures that promote inequality between men and women and high- and low-wage workers.”
America’s increasingly diverse families have been incredibly resilient even though family policies still cater to the mythical “traditional” family. So instead of being blind to the progress that families have made in the past few decades, why not recognize the benefits of America’s diversifying families and support policies that build on the trajectory illustrated in Coontz’s brief report and her new, revised book? The coverage of Coontz’s new work points in that direction, and her brief report and book provide even more material to stoke imaginations and policy.