Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What really kills family values

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
April 30, 2012 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
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
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
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.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
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
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
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.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
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.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
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.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
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.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
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.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT