Starvation manifests itself by a number of symptoms: dry, cracked skin, muscle loss, heart failure, apathy, irritability, impaired immune system, and extreme fatigue. It would be easy to diagnose and treat these symptoms individually, such as using lotion to treat dry, cracked skin, but such a treatment would not really solve the problem or improve the person’s health. A starving person needs yams, not caffeine.
As a social worker in Detroit, I have a first-person view of a “starving” city. Considered “the most impoverished major city in America” with 39.3 percent of people living below the poverty line, Detroit struggles with a host of social problems: unemployment, crime, poor performing schools, widespread obesity, and teen pregnancy.
In Detroit (and in most big cities), this package of symptoms has been tackled through a host of treatments—everything from housing assistance and addiction hotlines to charter schools and public jazz festivals. But these “lotion” treatments fail to address the true cause of the city’s malaise and thus rarely yield long-term improvement.
So what is the cause of social decay? The data is so overwhelming, and the answer is so obvious, and yet we seem to have missed it: virtually every social problem can be traced back to family distress and dissolution. For example, marital distress is associated with increased rates of psychological disorders, and single mothers have poverty rates six times higher than two-parent families. Children of cohabitating couples experience more poverty and are at a higher risk for abuse, and poorer educational outcomes than children of married couples. Similarly, children with parents who divorce or have high levels of conflict fare worse than their peers in virtually every way, from health outcomes to teen academic performance and social adjustment. Conversely, research has also identified that across cultures, being in a happy, satisfying marriage is one of the strongest factors predicting life satisfaction for adults. The secret weapon to solving many of today’s social problems is fixing families.
Fixing families may sound like a daunting task, but it really only requires a shift in focus. Instead of programs aimed toward individuals, a family-focused intervention (“FFI”) addresses social problems by concentrating on family units. As such, FFIs may include greater inclusion of fathers in family education programs, bringing extended family into child welfare meetings, or including translators for non-English speaking family members. FFI policies might include avoiding marriage penalties in government welfare programs, continuing to provide government recognition and tax privileges for married couples, and allowing community-based support for families, not just mothers and children. Whether attacking poverty, illiteracy, or crime, the question that guides our discussion should be—what is keeping families from being able to address this issue, and how can we help them?
The secret weapon to solving many of today’s social problems is fixing families.
Historically, we generally overlook family-focused interventions, opting instead for individual interventions, especially with children (such as the woefully ineffective D.A.R.E. program), or we take the lifeboat approach of “women and children first.” Fathers and husbands are usually left out of the equation. And yet, ignoring the influence of the family robs interventions of their effectiveness. Efforts to empower children outside of the context of family, for example, create unfair and unrealistic expectations. Resilience in children should be applauded but not relied on! And yet, how often are programs and resources directed toward building this resilience in children, as though their family was already a lost cause?
Furthermore, evidence for family-focused interventions is considerable. FFIs have demonstrated much higher rates of success than youth-only focused interventions when addressing youth delinquency, school failure, alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse, even though they continue to be used less frequently.1 FFIs have also been shown to be more effective in reducing juvenile delinquency, child obesity rates, poor school performance, and even improving outcomes for patients with HIV/AIDS.
In my own experience as a social worker, most clients involved in parenting education and therapy tend to be mothers, stepmothers, and grandmothers. Including fathers is sometimes difficult due to conflicting schedules or strained relationships between the parents, and for some of my peers, that’s enough of a reason to not bother with it. However, in one program evaluation, I found that outcomes for both parents and children improved significantly when fathers were included in treatment.
It is simply unfair to expect miracles in the classroom and not expect stability in the home.
FFIs are often easier to implement than institutional solutions, and cheaper. This was clearly understood in the mid-1900s as the United States gradually transitioned from funding orphanages to foster families. Raising a child in a family setting not only costs less than a government institution but also tends to result in better outcomes for children.
Political science professor Neal A. Maxwell described it in this way:
The sum of our political, educational, and economic institutions is usually not sufficient to offset the deficits in the home…Only when homes are full of truth, warmth, and trust, can our other institutions perform their tasks…If we are really concerned about the most economical way of achieving happiness for ourselves and/or our fellowmen and about those skills that are needed in successful human enterprises, then we should seek these gains through the family.
While every teacher agrees that even the best schools are not enough to “offset deficits in the home,” as Maxwell puts it, FFIs continue to be generally unexplored and unimplemented. We are much more comfortable discussing teacher-training than family strengthening initiatives, as though our survival as a society depends less on simply stable homes and more on our ability to recreate Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers in every failing classroom. It is simply unfair to expect miracles in the classroom and not expect stability in the home.
Part of the problem may be our inability to agree on the definition of family or to define family responsibilities. Different researchers have identified different characteristics of positive functioning families2 because of a lack of consensus on what a functional family looks like, or what a family should be expected to do.3 Perhaps we also disregard family-oriented approaches because it feels intrusive or value-laden, or because for many of us, our experiences with family have so often been negative.
Whether or not we want to address such issues, the data should compel us to pay closer attention. Not every FFI is going to be effective, but continuing to direct our efforts toward families instead of individuals is likely to yield more and more effective strategies. Let’s focus on fixing the family, regardless of how competent or comfortable we feel trying to do it. Fix the family and the kids will follow. Fix the family and society will follow, too.
Kindra Heilpern has a Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in parenting education and has taught as an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University since 2013.
1. Muck, R., Zempolich, K.A., Titue, J., & Fishman, M.(2001). “An overview of the effectiveness of adolescent substance abuse treatment models.” Youth and Society, 33(2), 143-168.
2. See Buehler, C. (2001). Adjustment. In J. Touliatos, B. F. Perlmutter, & M. A. Straus (Eds.), Handbook of family measurement techniques (Vol. 1, pp. 247–259). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. And Grotevant, H. D., & Carlson, C. I. (with Koranek, M.). (1989). Self-report measures of whole-family functioning. In H. D. Grotevant & C. I. Carlson (Eds.), Family assessment: A guide to methods.
3. Carlson, C. (2001). “Family measurement overview.” In J. Touliatos, B. F. Perlmutter, & G. W. Holden (Eds.), Handbook of family measurement techniques (Vol. 2, pp. 1–9). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.