Sunday, July 13, 2008

What Does Family Mean to You?

Americans believe they have one of the best, if not the best, standard of living in the world. Indeed, some Americans have a fantastic standard of living, while millions of others live in near third world conditions. Many people who are poor, infirm, elderly or sick will turn to their family or community for aid and support in times of need. When that is not available they will turn to the government for help. The public welfare tradition of government support is a relatively new tradition, started in full force during the great depression of the 1930's through the recognition of government as a positive force for social change. Since that time, there has been a continuous dialectic between supporters of government as a basic safety net and detractors of government who feel that family is the basic social unit of society, and that government interference weakens the family and diminishes America.

What does family mean to you? On June 15th, 2008 California became the second state in the nation to grant gays and lesbians the right to legally marry. After nearly thirty years of struggle some fundamental rights are finally being granted to same sex couples who are committed to loving and caring for each other in every way similar to those of us who have always taken those rights for granted. For some, this is a step backwards, towards a dissolution of the traditional family unit and the basic moral framework of this country. For others, it is a step forward towards a more liberal and open minded society, throwing off the shackles of an oppressive framework and moving towards a more humanistic and egalitarian vision of community.

Regardless of what family means to you, the law still places strong limitations on what a family is and can do. That is why I propose we take a step further, even beyond gay marriage and beyond traditional welfare standards in our consideration of what family means. In recent history, a family meant a mother and a father, living in a house, with dependent minor children. This basic family unit was the classic definition of postwar American culture. The reality is that this is a very new definition of family and a recent cultural construction. This definition, however, has permeated all aspects of law and public policy and has become the framework of political dialogue.

A more historical, and therefore more traditional definition of family is people who live together in a 'household.' What that means practically is that a 'household' is a group of people living together and taking care of each other. Sometimes that is a heterosexual couple and their children. Sometimes it is a grandmother and her grandchildren. Sometimes it is two men or two women and their natural or adopted children. Sometimes it is a man and his mother and her nieces. Sometimes it is a group of people who have chosen to live together intentionally. The point is that love makes a family. Whoever lives in a household together and takes care of each other out of mutual love, respect and desire is a family.

This means that public welfare policy and law need to catch up with the times. The cost to the American taxpayers and the loss of productivity and income due to the limitation of benefits is enormous and a real burden on the public treasury. Take the following case as an example of how the current framework of social policy limits who can receive benefits and the burdens that it places on individuals: A man is living with his wife and they find it is time to bring home his mother to take care of her. At the same time, his sister is caught up in a lifestyle of drug addiction and is living on the streets so she gives her daughter to that same family to take care of. The working man and his wife cannot put either the niece or mother on their insurance. In order to do so they will need to file mountains of legal paperwork as guardians, power of attorney and adoption just to be able to participate in their medical care and help them.

In this hypothetical example everyone is related and still they cannot claim these persons as dependents for matters of insurance and other public policy issues. So the only institution to turn to is the government. That is what government is for, but in this case is it really necessary? If we have universal health care and other universal social care policies then perhaps this point would not need to be made. But currently the reality is that we live in a mixed tradition of public and private institutional support with regard to matters of insurance and medical care, not to mention issues of legal responsibility, social visitation and other public policy issues which are part of the current dialogue concerning definitions of family.

A family consists of people who love each other and have made a commitment to caring for each other. I believe it is time for our legislators and public policy administrators to acknowledge this simple truth. Families helping each other out is the most responsible agenda our society can promote. Narrowing the definition of family and excluding some means that the government must then bear the burden or even worse it means that some family members will not get any support or aid in their times of need. This is especially ironic at a time when we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a war in Iraq which is using public dollars to destroy an entire infrastructure and government. Our actions in that country have resulted in the dissolution and separation of hundreds of thousands of families, some temporarily and some permanently through death.

That is why I believe it is time to reframe our definition of what a family means. A 'household' should be redefined to mean any individual who lives in a common dwelling or property and is actively participating in the caregiving of one or more individuals in that dwelling or property or is the recipient of such care, living in said dwelling or property. This reframework should permeate all levels of public policy from the granting of insurance to the bestowing of rights of visitation to the administration of the ceremony of marriage. We must mandate that employers and insurers offer all family members coverage, and that hospitals and legal authorities recognize the rights of family members to participate in all aspects of their common lives.

Common law family support should be the expectation and the societal norm. Regardless of what our religious tradition may be or lack thereof, the expectation of society should be kindness, charity, love and support. Giving to one another and nurturing is the normal, human thing to do. That is why it is time for our legislators in Washington DC to catch up with the reality of how people are living now and enact laws and public policy recommendations to relieve the burden on families who are already overburdened. As a candidate for federal office, I support the framework and intention of expanding the definition of what it means to be a family and will work to see that such legislation is brought into the public dialogue and made visible to the American people.

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