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Reviewed by:
  • All in the Family: The Private Roots of American Public Policy
  • W. Andrew Achenbaum
All in the Family: The Private Roots of American Public Policy. By Patricia Strach (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. vi +245 pp. Paper, $19.95).

Compared to historians, sociologists, and economists, political scientists have devoted remarkably little effort to writing about the "family." Political scientists have published only 72 articles on the topic in the discipline's top 28 journals over the past century. (Sociologists meanwhile have published more than 2,700 articles in their top journals.) Luminaries such as Theda Skocpol and Jacob Hacker, claims Patricia Strach, do not invoke the family in their respective theories of "polity" and the "divided welfare state;" she also finds wanting Nancy Cott's analysis of 19th century family-state relations in Public Vows (2000). No wonder All in the Family fills a big gap in the social-science, social-history literature. Strach's crisp, clear, convincingly concise exposition demonstrates how a presumably private institution became central to the rhetoric and [End Page 806] values espoused by interest groups and lawmakers as well as in benefits distributed through critical U.S. federal public policies, especially during the 20th century.

Two pivotal questions drive All in the Family: "How do policymakers employ family in the policy process? What are the consequences?" (p. 15). To answer her first question, Strach claims that "family" serves as an eligibility criterion for policymakers; as a "shadow bureaucracy," an agent through which goods and monies are distributed to family members; and as "a normative ideal that provides justification for a particular policy position" (pp. 158–159). Her examination of the Congressional Record, U.S. Code, and Federal Register reveals that many meanings have been ascribed to "family." Interestingly, given Americans' emphasis on individuality and self reliance, All in the Family argues that public policies insinuate individuals in "family" relationships that sometimes prove(d) deliberately ambiguous and anachronistic in definition and operation. And, given the frequency with which Democrats appeal to "working families" and Republicans extol "family values," Strach's observation that using "family" as a policy concept did not grow until after 1940 is arresting (p. 137).

The author's answer to her second question rests mainly on three case studies. The first case study focuses on "family criteria in immigration policy," beginning with the quotas established in 1924 that were altered substantially by amendments in 1965. Family ties have become increasingly important determinants in five aspects of immigration policy—temporary admissions, legal immigration, naturalization, refuge/asylum, and enforcement. Reworking the definitions of "children" (lowering age cutoffs from 21 to 14 and under, as well as broadening the meanings of orphans, aliens, and illegitimate children) has been central to broadening eligibility criteria.

Strach's second case study deals with Federal taxation. Duly noting that throughout most of U.S. history tariffs and excise taxes generated most of the government's revenues, she argues that since 1945 "the individual income tax has become less and less about individuals and more about the family-households of which they are a part" (p. 99). Congress, having amended the meaning of "child" five times between 1975 and 1999, did not standardize the tax code's definition of "child" until 2004. Those who wanted to reform the marriage-tax penalty seized on the 1975 precedent of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which made no distinction between single- and dual-parent families.

The "family farm" is the third case study in All in the Family. The rhetorical power of the term, according to Strach, rests on mythic notions of history and deliberate ambiguity on the part of administrators. In an era of agri-business, 90% of all corporate farms are family operated; the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies 98% of the nation's farms as family farms. A review of articles in The New York Times, party platforms, and the U.S. Code indicates that "family farm" did not blossom as a political concept until after 1940.

All in the Family is a useful reference source for social scientists and social historians interested in policy matters. Patricia Strach makes clear the breadth and limitations of her analysis...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 806-807
Launched on MUSE
2009-03-21
Open Access
No
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