JP Observer: Getting beyond ‘family’ values

During his debate with Sarah Palin in 2008, now Vice President Joe Biden made a correction to his word choice that should have made everyone interested in accuracy and inclusiveness happy, especially Jamaica Plain residents.

Criticizing presidential candidate John McCain’s tax proposal for not giving middle-class tax breaks, Biden said, “One hundred million families, middle-class families…” Then he looked down, paused, looked up and said, “Households, to be precise…”

Although the word “family” is used frequently in conversation, advertising and public policy discussions to describe people who live together under the same roof, the truth is, many groups that share kitchens are not families.

In Jamaica Plain, more than 41 percent of residents do not live with family, according to estimates from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey (ACS), Boston Redevelopment Authority Research Analysis. (The stats have an error margin up to 5 percent.) In those households, either one person lives alone, or the people who share the living space are not related to one another by birth, marriage or adoption—the definition of family.

Nationally, nearly 30 percent of households as of 2005-2009 were not composed of families, according to the U.S. Census.

A commentator on “CBS Sunday Morning” Aug. 14 said four corporations in the US together hold more than a trillion dollars in cash right now. His statement, “That’s enough to give every family in America more than $10,000,” sounded dramatic. But it’s factually meaningless, even funny, because of that word “family.” We can only guess he meant to say “every household.”

The problem with assuming everyone lives in families goes deeper than inaccuracy. Millions of people who live alone or with others, including thousands in JP, get left out of the public conversation—virtually disenfranchised—every time an announcer, nonprofit staffer or lawmaker uses the word “family” instead of “household.”

A TV commercial for a reality show where someone moved in with relatives repeated this message this summer: “Well, let’s face it, without family, were nothing. That’s what it’s all about.”

So, are nearly half of JP residents and nearly one-third of the country “nothing?” Certainly not. But that’s what we’re often led to believe.

Compounding the misunderstandings that come from using “family” instead of “household” is that the first word—though it has a precise, objective meaning—has come to feel emotionally warm, while the second sounds cold. For that reason, some people use “family” instead of “household” in an attempt to manipulate listeners or readers. In the 1980s, Republican leaders popularized the term “family values” to label certain behaviors and beliefs of which they approved.

There is nothing inherently “good” about family. Using the word as shorthand to mean a “nurturing, cooperative, loving group of people” isn’t correct, according to the dictionary or reality. Some families and family members are the polar opposite, as social workers and law enforcement personnel can attest.

What’s more, households that are not families, including many in Jamaica Plain, can also be composed of people who have genuine, positive impacts on one another and the community around them.






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