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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT