Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What really kills family values

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon April 30, 2012
Cast members of
Cast members of "Death of a Salesman" take a curtain call at their Broadway opening on March 15 in New York City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Too often family values are viewed as separate from economics
  • He says 'Death of a Salesman' shows how families can be undermined by money woes
  • Some politicians argue that family values are about sexuality and pop culture, Zelizer says
  • He says government must preserve programs that support families

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and of the new book "Governing America" (Princeton University Press).

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Seen from the perspective of 2012, the stunning Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" offers a powerful reminder that economic policy and family values go hand-in-hand.

Although many current politicians like to separate these two issues, the economic foundation of the family is central to its long-term health. In this classic play by Arthur Miller, premiered in 1949 to mesmerized audiences that had lived through the Great Depression, the protagonist is salesman Willy Loman, who is mentally broken down from his constant travel and struggle to make ends meet.

"A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man," says Loman's wife, Linda. Loman's son Biff is unable to find a job and fulfill his father's hopes. Biff and his brother, Happy, are worried about their father's mental health, which is rapidly deteriorating.

When Willy tries to find a job where he can stay in town to take better care of himself and his family, he ends up losing his job. The story disintegrates from there, culminating with Willy tragically committing suicide with the hope that Biff will use the life insurance money to start his own business.

Too often, politicians ignore the kinds of strains that economic problems cause for families.

As the historian Matt Lassiter argued in an essay in "Rightward Bound," a book I co-edited, the rhetoric about family values is rooted in conservative politics in the 1970s when political activists on the right and popular culture blamed sexuality and feminism, rather than unemployment and inflation, for problems at home.

The rhetoric from the 1970s has stuck.

Many conservative Republicans such as former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum still define "family values" as having to do with matters of popular culture, abortion or sexuality. When the Republican primaries were still being actively contested, it was common to hear pundits argue that Mitt Romney represented the "economic conservative" in the contest and Santorum was the champion of "family values."

Indeed Republicans often attack Democrats as having little interest in family values while many Democrats shy away from too much talk about the family for fear of looking as if they are trying to appease the right.

But as Willy Loman's story makes clear, family values are as much about economics as culture.

Today, we're living with economic problems that have a direct correlation on our ability to nurture strong families. The first and most obvious is job growth.

The current sluggish recovery has left more than 8% of the work force without jobs, and millions of other Americans feeling that their futures are not secure.

When the men and women who run households don't feel that their jobs are stable, or they don't have jobs, tensions quickly mount over basic issues such as paying the rent or mortgage and buying food. According to a Rasmussen poll in 2011, 67% of Americans said that the economy was causing strains on their family.

The second economic source of instability comes from taking care of the old. Many Americans are struggling to deal with the generational squeeze of taking care of their younger children while helping their elderly parents as well.

These pressures are greatly affected by the health of Social Security and Medicare, two programs that play a vital role for middle-class families. While these policies are often discussed as programs for the "elderly," they have always been conceived as programs to help working families by providing them some relief from the basic costs faced by older members of their families.

In coming years, there will be a very big debate over the costs of these programs and the need for reform. It will be essential that policymakers in both parties do what is necessary to protect and strengthen the programs.

The third source of economic strain on the family comes from health care. Health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs have been a continually rising burden on family income that few people talk about.

If President Barack Obama's health care reform stands, then it will be essential that policymakers figure out how to make it successful. Central will be the need for the states to set up strong and functional health exchange systems and to make sure that the regulatory provisions in the bill are containing costs. If the program is deemed unconstitutional, policymakers in both parties need to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to improve the system.

Finally, there is education. Families are been run ragged by the challenges of higher education. The costs continue to rise even as income stagnates. Millions of Americans feel that the costs of higher education make college degrees impossible to earn. In this economy, a college education is vital to economic success.

Public policy most keep the interest rates on student loans at a reasonable level to make sure that families are not crushed by the pressures to finance college costs. The federal government must also make sure that states are financially healthy enough to support state colleges and universities.

Americans who are in their 20s and 30s struggling to pay off massive college loans are at a major disadvantage when it comes to setting up their own households. This is one area where Obama and Mitt Romney seem to be in agreement, with both parties promising that they won't allow the rates on student loans to increase on July 1.

During the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt always understood that family security could only result from economic security. This was a central theme of his presidency. As Roosevelt said upon signing Social Security in 1935: "We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age."

But over the past few decades, we've lost sight of Roosevelt's words. It's time to rethink the notion of family values and remember, as the story of Willy Loman reminds us, that a strong family starts with a strong economy.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion  

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT