Strengthening Ties

The Case for Building a Social Policy Centered on Families
Policy Paper
April 22, 2015

Most of the social and economic policies in the U.S. do not explicitly address or take into account the growing importance of families as sources of human capital and determinants of individual success. Even the small subsets of programs that we conventionally frame as part of “family policy” are often based on long-defunct assumptions about the actual structure of modern families.

Today, New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy Initiative released its first report, calling for new frameworks to help American families navigate today’s challenges. According to the report, Strengthening Ties: The Case for Building a Social Policy Centered on Families, outdated and siloed social policies fail to help families thrive and prosper in the face of new economic, demographic, and technological changes. But the authors view the problems facing the family as matters of political economy that humans and human institutions have the power to change.

The challenge of framing effective social policy to meet the needs of families is complicated by a series of enormously important megatrends. These trends are reshaping how families live together, participate in the economy, and interact with the the world around them:

  • Changing role of women —and men — in the workplace

  • Rise of single parenthood

  • Rising cost of living for families

  • Generational downward mobility

  • Decline in the number and quality of jobs

  • Decline in family business

  • Pressures of digital technologies

In designing and implementing social programs, policymakers often fail to account for the enduring impact of the family, its fast-changing composition, or the pressures created by economic and technological change. Policy “silos” prevent the strategic coordination of support systems and social programs, which range from child care to early and higher education to workforce and small business development to ensuring access to digital technologies.

It is time to correct this failure to adapt—to think of innovative ways to strengthen families and help them thrive and prosper. In response to the new set of realities and large-scale trends, policymakers must develop new ways to support families across generations. To do so effectively will require bringing together expertise from many policy realms. We need new frameworks for analyzing the increasingly critical role of the family in modern America, examining the influence of technology on families and social networks, and exploring ideas for policies and programs that will more effectively support the modern American family in all its diversity. This initial report makes the case for rethinking social policy and explains New America’s approach to building a new family-centered policy framework.