book review

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Promises to Keep by David Popenoe and others


Like third world debts and mass murder in Sierra Leone, child and family policies bore the media, especially in a society entranced with the alleged scourge of cancer from cell phones. Not that the media is entirely to blame, almost everyone has a predisposition to find family policies boring. Interesting, popular or constantly repeatedly ideas are, supposedly, the important ideas.


Many arguments in Promises to Keep imply that without strong families other institutions and organizations die. Unfortunately, the results of the Popenoe Commission suggest little clue how to produce stronger families, stronger individuals and a better society. Much herein is a morass of nurture assumptions. Promises includes an overview of family policy by Janet Z. Giele, overview meaning all the usual suspects get covered. Moira Eastman attempts to set the marriage facts straight. Exploring marriage laws is Carl E. Schneider. William Galston gives a semi-background on policy. Maggie Gallager generously donates an excerpt from her book, as does Popenoe. Barbara Defoe Whitehead uses lots of paper to say that teenage goals changed little, at least conscious goals and those they admit to pollsters.


Many recommendations herein are toothless--for example, encouraging psychologists to support marriage--and the remainder horribly flawed. They recommend "an average age at time of marriage in the late twenties or early thirties... at older ages... the 'biological clock' becomes a growing problem," The early thirties, however, are too late. We should not stuff marriage and family into a narrow window of opportunity. According to French fertility studies reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, 39 percent of women aged 31 to 35 attempting to become pregnant are not able to do so after a year of efforts, compared with 26 percent of women under the age of 31, and 46 percent of those over 35. Research by William Master and William Pratt at the National Center for Health Statistics suggests 13 percent of women 25 to 34 and 21 percent of women 35 to 44 have impaired fecundity, compared with four percent of women under the age of 24. Young adults should be encouraged to be adults rather than inadvertently encouraged to spend decades as adolescents. The largest contributors to 26-year-olds acting similar to 16-year-olds are cultural.


The authors recommend an increase in “the value of the personal income tax exemption [dependent exemption on federal income taxes] by a factor of three or four, restoring the value lost to inflation during the years 1960-1990.” The tax structure, however, radically changed since 1960. Taxes shifted since 1960 to payroll, state and local taxes. The dependent's exemption dose not apply to those three taxes. For 74 percent of families, payroll taxes are the largest tax. Payroll taxes take 15.3 percent of earned income. Earned income means work. Stocks, burglary and all other sources of non-work income are exempt from payroll taxes. Work gets taxed and income from less socially beneficial activities gets exempted.


If the dependent exemption on federal income taxes increases to $8,000 dollars, wealthy families get about $3,100 in reduced taxes per child. Working families below the median would get little or nothing. Most family policy books would probably be recognized as notoriously terrible at recommendations, except that books in other policy areas are even worse. Not recommended. Book review by JT Fournier, last updated July 12, 2009.


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