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 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT