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Emory scholars call for radical changes in social policy to protect children
By Elaine Justice | Emory Law | May 31, 2016 12:05:00 PM

The problem with society is not that marriage is in trouble; the real crisis is that we expect marriage to compensate for the inequality created by and within our other institutions, according to Martha A. Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law, and a renowned expert in family law and feminist theory.

"Beginning with an insistence that the marriage of their parents will cure many if not most of the disadvantages children suffer, and pandering to a conservative ideology, politicians resort to the traditional family as a panacea," said Fineman.

The reality, Fineman points out, is that married couples living with their biological children represented less than a quarter of the family units described in the most recent census data. "We are surrounded by new, different types of family, many of them raising children. For those concerned with children in today's world the question should be not how we can resuscitate marriage and thus save society and the family, but how we can support all individuals who create intimate, family relationship regardless of their form, " she said.

Fineman made her comments at the Family Forum Series session, "Who Cares for the Children?" sponsored by Emory's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion's (CISR). Fineman serves as a senior fellow of the CISR.

Martin E. Marty, renowned church historian and author, is the featured host of the Family Forum Series. He is serving at Emory during the 2003-2004 academic year as the CISR Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Religious Studies.

The focus on marriage, which Fineman describes as an "exclusionary institution" that comes with patterns of privilege, takes focus away from social and economic forces that are destructive to families and to children within families. "There is little attention to how changes in non-family societal institutions, particularly the market and global capitalism, have affected the family or civic health in general. The irresponsibility of the state in not regulating or mediating the excesses of market activities is at least as devastating to a child as the irresponsibility of any unwed or divorced parent," said Fineman.

Fineman offers these examples:

ï¿¿ The United States has a 21.5 percent child poverty rate, nearly double that of Western Europe; 
ï¿¿ The U.S. poverty rate is rising, from 7.7 percent in 1977 to 11.4 percent in 1993; nearly one in four New York City residents had incomes below the poverty threshold at the end of the 20th century; 
ï¿¿ One in five American children has lived in a family with an income below the poverty line; and, 
ï¿¿ The United States is the only Western industrialized that does not have some form of universal cash benefit for families raising children.

"Is it economic policy - a lack of social policy - regarding poverty that is responsible for the problems seen in today's families? I suggest that two solutions - guaranteed child support and child allowances for every family - would produce better results in fighting child poverty in the United States," she said.

Don S. Browning, a world-class religious scholar, presented the idea of "critical familism" as alternative solution to solving the "crisis" of the family.

"Critical familism is built around the ideal of the equal-regard, mother-father marriage. It aims to achieve what the religious and legal tradition has called the unitive or affectional satisfactions of marriage, but it is equally interested in safeguarding the other essential goods of marriage, especially the best possible environment for the good of children," said Browning, CISR Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Study of Religion, 2001-2003.

Like Fineman, Browning agreed that radical social reform is required to truly solve the problem. While many modern developments may be seen as worldwide threats to contemporary families, these same forces also have helped open the public world of employment and politics to women and mothers, he said. "These modernizing trends constitute opportunities for the deeper realization in history of certain ancient visions of the equal-regard family and marriage.

" Browning described the "equal-regard covenant" as a state of marriage whereby the couple is committed to equal respect and dedicated to actively work for each other's good, both in the private and public sphere of their lives.

"Love as equal regardï¿¿draws on the Golden Rule, the principle of neighbor love," he said.

Browning pointed to the institutions of civil society - voluntary organizations, religion, media - as responsible for preparing individuals to practice the equal-regard covenant. "But both law and public policy should be partners in this cultural work, at the least by doing nothing to undermine it," he said. "But they should also show respect for the religious background concepts which often made marriage as equal regard actually work."

All Family Forum Series programs are sponsored by the CISR and take place in Tull Auditorium, Gambrell Hall, Emory University School of Law. They are free and open to the public. Upcoming sessions:

October 14: "What Happens to Children in Peril?" 
Presenters: President Jimmy Carter and Martin E. Marty 
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.

October 27: "Children: Will We Ever Get It Right?" 
Presenter: William H. Foege, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control 
Respondent: Martin E. Marty 
Time: Noon-1:00 p.m. (reception at 11:30) 
Sponsors: Emory's Law and Religion Program, the CISR, the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic, the Task Force for Child Survival and Development, and the Emory University School of Law

February 17: "Where Do the Children Live?" 
Presenters: Millard Fuller, Founder and President of Habitat for Humanity International and Martin E. Marty 
Moderator: Frank Alexander, Professor of Law, Emory University Time: 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.

The Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion is one of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Centers of Excellence. It brings together diverse academic perspectives to explore the influence of religious traditions on law, politics, society, and culture. Established in the fall of 2000 with funds from Emory and a five-year $3.2 million grant from Pew, the center is housed at the Emory University School of Law