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  • Giving Care Its Place
  • Mary Lyndon (Molly) Shanley (bio)

Linda McClain's thoughtful book, The Place of Families, significantly advances the discussion of several of the most contentious issues currently confronting family policy. McClain makes a strong case for government responsibility for families, and for the policies that she sees as consonant with the principles she has set forth. The notion that government bears responsibility for supporting family life is a "hard sell" in contemporary US society, permeated as it is by laissez-faire notions of freedom and individual responsibility. In such an intellectual and political climate it is a boon that McClain has turned her formidable powers of analysis to these issues; her discussions of both principles and specific policies are insightful and sophisticated—and correct. But the obstacles to realizing McClain's goals are formidable. I suggest that another way to address these obstacles is to insist upon both children's rights and adults' rights to family relationships, and that there is a public responsibility to support these relational rights. But both McClain's elegant combination of civic republicanism and liberalism and my support of rights to familial and caregiving relationships face the formidable obstacles not only of traditional legal and political theory, but also of the neo-liberal political culture of our day. To realize McClain's vision of public provision for family caregiving activity will require confronting—in both theory and in political action—the limitations of capitalism and the market to produce either justice or human well-being.

McClain's argument that the public bears some responsibility for family well-being has two significant dimensions. One is that care work—especially, but not solely, nurturing the next generation—is essential to the wellbeing and continuation of society, and this justifies public support of such work. There is "an affirmative governmental responsibility to support care as a component of social reproduction" (90). The other is that since families provide much care giving, the state must provide the conditions in which family relationships can thrive. This means that the state owes support not simply to individuals, but to the family relationships that shape, nurture, and sustain those individuals.

One sees immediately how McClain's view differs from the majority view that the state has a responsibility to care for the vulnerable, but only when families fail to protect or nurture, whether because of natural disaster (fire, flood, death) or parental fault (abuse, neglect, abandonment). By contrast, McClain insists that the notion that the state should step in only after parents and other family members have failed is far too limited. Like legal scholar Martha Fineman and economist Nancy Folbre, she argues that the state has a responsibility to support families under normal—indeed even the best of—circumstances (Fineman 2004; Folbre 2002). Because society cannot survive unless its young survive and are socialized to be productive workers and citizens, those who perform that work provide a service not only to the young but also to society. Drawing on the work of John Rawls, McClain argues in addition that because members of a well-ordered society must possess certain basic capacities for democratic and personal self-government "a just society has a responsibility to provide the basic, or primary, goods necessary to develop those capacities" (90). The state shares the responsibility for care work with families from the beginning; its role is not simply to pick up the pieces or step in as a supplemental source of support when families falter.

A second important feature of McClain's argument is her insistence that not only can individuals per se make claims on the state to provide certain benefits, goods, and services, but people who are in familial relationships have a claim that the state support (and certainly not disrupt) those relationships. It has been a challenge for scholars working within the tradition of Western political theory and law to deal with family issues and family policy, because liberal theory focuses so strongly on individuals (Nedelsky 1989 and 1990; McClain 1992; Minow and Shanley 1996). But as McClain recognizes, "relationships in families and other parts of civil a formative role in shaping a person's identity and...


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pp. 61-63
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