December is the time many of us look forward to an end-of-year pause where we gather with family and friends to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. But, as with most things in 2020, we’re figuring out how to meet this desire in the midst of a pandemic. The tenacity with which we pursue connection, despite COVID-induced hurdles, indicates our relationships with others are fundamental to how we understand ourselves. In families we have rich bonds—and we share material resources. Families are core social units, providing both emotional and material sustenance. So philosophers, theologians, politicians, policy professionals, media analysts, and social scientists, like me, focus on families.
We live inextricably interconnected to one another.
Both liberals and conservatives seek to foster thriving families, though this may not be evident in our political discourse. The tension lies in how “the left” and “the right” view families’ capacity to act independent of society as a whole.
Liberals highlight how social processes, particularly those enacted by markets and governments, shape families’ ability to meet their material needs. Left-leaning thinkers point out that regardless of the care and concern family members offer each other, all families need a decent income to survive, let alone thrive, which generally means at least one person must be employed outside of the home. What happens when jobs are scarce and low paying? What happens when rent rises faster than paychecks? What happens when schools close and/or deliver instruction in ways that do not accommodate families’ constraints? The assumptions on the left predict that if families have material resources, their emotional bonds are free to drive decision making and that they will pursue stable family arrangements where adults and children feel loved and secure. In other words, sound government policies and market practices create conditions where families can flourish.
Conservatives emphasize the importance of adults in families making responsible decisions on behalf of the unit, irrespective of circumstances. Certainly, all people exert agency, and individuals’ decisions influence life outcomes. But asymmetries of power and a long history of whose interests have been advanced in U.S. society means that families have different choice sets (see my prior piece on racialized capitalism). Today, the poverty level for a family of four is about $26,000. $26,000! Regardless of cost of living and access to ameliorating government programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and the Earned Income Tax Credit, families near, at, or below the poverty line struggle to make ends meet. Indeed, most poor families have someone working. Yet returns for their labor are insufficient for maintaining a high quality of life.
Another point many conservatives make is the importance of marriage. In his famous (or infamous) report in 1965, sociologist and U.S. Labor Department official Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared that Black communities were economically disadvantaged because 40 percent of Black children were born to non-wed parents. According to the 2018 National Vital Statistics Report, about 30 percent of White children, and 70 percent of Black children, were born to non-wed parents. What’s changed? The economic conditions Black families were facing in the 1960s have now hit White Americans. In all this time, however, the love of family, people’s love and affection for one another, has not waned.
Families are not cloistered. We live inextricably interconnected to one another. Hoarding by the few, leads to deprivation for the many. Jesus admonished us, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19, NIV).
During our current season of Advent, we anticipate the birth of Christ, our Emmanuel (“God with us”), born in a stable to two economically distressed parents, Mary and Joseph. Let us remember that Jesus arrived in conditions signaling where He was ultimately headed, the cross, God’s final remedy for delivering us from oppression. And yet Jesus came that we might live abundant lives now. He said as much on His way to Calvary—and we are well-served to heed His words as we reach for the salvation His death and resurrection offers…
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:3-12, NIV