Here’s why the US government is really bad at helping American families

Like any political philosophy, liberalism has its blind-spots—specifically with regards to how it treats individuals and, by proxy, families. “Liberalism, particularly in its American incarnations, has largely conceived of citizens as able, autonomous adults,” says Professor Maxine Eichner in her book, The Supportive State. Liberalism’s fixation on the individual ignores how humans are, in fact, highly dependent on other individuals throughout their lives. As Eichner states, “no adult is an island.”

However, this basic human reality has been discarded by American politics, largely because it does not fit within the liberal prism. The idea that individuals are dependent on one another (or the government) seems at first to be antithetical to liberalism and our nation’s founding values. As Rick Santorum once said, “My view is the less the government can do and the more freedom and opportunity you give people, that trusting people and free people and free enterprise – that America has built the greatest country in the history of the world.”

It is easy to see liberalism’s parameters at work here. By drawing such a stark line between the people and the government, conservatives like Santorum have failed to see “the ways in which families function are always deeply and inextricably intertwined with government policy.” They can only imagine individuals as autonomous agents, who are conceived of singularly, without connection to their families, and believe the individual and the state are both better off if they keep away from one another.

As a result, America is having a really tough time dealing with family issues. Much more so than other democratic nations which were founded upon similar liberal ideals. In fact, right now America is “one of only three countries to not provide paid sick days for a worker missing 5 days of work to the flu.” What about vacation time? Or paid parental leave? Ha. Good one.

I haven’t even mentioned yet how “the United States has implemented very few policies to help families ameliorate the conflicts between work and family.” Because our wages have become so stagnant, nearly half of American families now must have two working parents. The result? “On average, US families work significantly more hours than they have in the past, and far longer hours than parents work in other industrialized countries,” says Eichner. “Meanwhile, younger children are placed in day care settings that are largely unregulated and generally not developmentally enriching. Many older children, in turn, come home to empty, unsupervised homes.” And paying for college once these children grow up? That’s a whole other issue which drastically impacts American families.

Look, there’s little denying it: our government is really bad at implementing pro-family policies. And that is because many of us still do not believe the government has a responsibility to aid human development.

In this worldview, the government’s main responsibility is to steer clear of its citizens. Yet this is a gross misinterpretation of what our government is for. From the beginning of our nation, the government has played a valuable role in assisting the development of citizens. James Madison made as much clear in Federalist No. 45 when he said “the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.” That’s why in the preamble of the Constitution our founding fathers made sure to note our government’s duty to “promote the general welfare.”

Gripped by liberalism’s idea of autonomous agents, America has forgotten about this side of governmental responsibility. Thankfully, Democratic candidates are trying to restore this promise to the American people, even as conservative groups and candidates do all they can to limit “government overreach” into the American family. Hillary Clinton is actively campaigning on early childhood education and paid leave. So too is Bernie Sanders.

They have a tall task ahead of them. To win this ideological battle, the Democrats must remind Americans that no human is an island and that our government has a duty to help American families flourish. Because America succeeds when families succeed.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.