Family Values became a popular and political term in the late twentieth century. While it has entailed subjective meanings throughout U.S. history and contemporary usage, it can be described as a set of beliefs or morals that help provide for family unity and social interaction as well as providing for a societal view for childhood development. These beliefs have encompassed such topics as the roles of marriage, divorce, childbearing, gender roles, and sexual activity and have shaped not only the family's interaction with society, but also legislative policy.
In November 2001 the Institute for Social Research produced a report ("Four Decades of Trends in Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States") that combined the research of five separate studies tracking family attitudes and values back to the 1960s. The study concluded that there was increased tolerance for diversity in values and behavior outside of traditional family relationships. The values discussed included attitudes towards sex roles, divorce, cohabitation without marriage, extramarital sex, and childbearing.
The results indicated an increasingly positive attitude regarding the equality of women in family relations and the decision-making process as well as the involvement of women in previously traditional male roles. The study found that paradoxically while there was a higher level of acceptance for divorce, the majority of Americans believed that marriages should be a lifetime commitment and not ended except under extreme circumstances. While unmarried cohabitation was somewhat novel in the 1960s, the study concluded it was no longer the societal stigma it once was. Americans tended to accentuate fidelity in a relationship as a desired value and extramarital sex was one moral choice that seems to have become less tolerant among the U.S. populace in the late twentieth century. While the concept that marriages "ought" to produce children had diminished considerably, most of the people interviewed believed parenthood was fulfilling.
Studies such as these have led scholars to different conclusions regarding the family and their values. Some, such as David Popenoe, indicated a decline in family values because of a weakening in parental influence of the child and the child's well-being with the loss of power to institutions such as the workplace, schools, and the state. He maintained that the seeming desirability of self-fulfillment and egalitarianism helped reduce the values of the family. Other scholars, like Stephanie Coontz, stated that "traditional families" are something of a myth and that values depended on a supportive economic and social environment.
In May 1992 Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California regarding the strengthening of the family. The speech became famous for its attack on the television show Murphy Brown and the main character's decision to have a child out of wedlock. The Republican Party touted a return to "traditional family values" that propelled the discussion onto the national level in that year's presidential race. Democrats used the issue to introduce legislation that would support family leave from work in times of need. The debate from that year helped bring about several federal laws in the following years.
Previous federal laws have been passed that either directly affected the morality of the family or specifically mention the family. The Comstock Act of 1873 prohibited the mailing of information related to contraception or abortion. The Social Security Act of 1935 had in mind as one of its goals the preserving and strengthening of the family. The late twentieth century saw a profusion of federal legislation claiming to promote the well being of the family. Among the laws passed during this period were the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 (a federal crime to willfully fail to pay past-due child support); the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (allowance of up to 12 work weeks' unpaid leave to care for family member); the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (a federal crime to cross interstate lines to kill, injure, or harass a spouse or intimate partner); the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (a spouse is defined as the legal union between one man and one woman); the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (welfare reform); and the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998 (allowing the withholding of wages for child support). These laws have been enacted because of a perceived deterioration of family values that contributed to the necessity of increased governmental assistance.
The concept of family values has changed dramatically from colonial times, when the emphasis was on the notion of a household, with very few values attributed directly to families but rather to the community at large. By the twenty-first century, this evolved to values instigated and nurtured by the family in order to integrate their children into society. While there has been an increase in tolerance of once frowned-upon subjects such as divorce, single-parent families, and gender roles, idealistic reflections of family values have led to its use as a political stratagem and a sometimes scapegoat for perceived societal problems.