Values. Ethics. Call them what you will, values are vital in life and in politics. Not merely buzzwords, values define what we believe, how we achieve our goals, who we really are. Choices made because of values have wide-ranging social consequences. The different ways people approach the issue of marriage is a good example.

Currently, the hottest arguments relate to same-sex marriage: Most liberals are for, while conservatives are mostly against. Some middle-of-the-roaders like civil unions but aren’t wholeheartedly sold on full marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Just as vital as the gay-marriage dilemma are attitudes toward single parents, especially mothers, and unmarried couples with children.

Much attention is focused on the fact that gays, lesbians, transvestites, and transgendered people are frequent targets of discrimination. They can be denied jobs and housing, they’re often victims of violent crime, many can’t get employee medical benefits for same-sex partners, and those who are married in states where it’s legal don’t enjoy federal rights and benefits granted to married heterosexual couples.

Unmarried heterosexuals face problems too. Despite a growing movement to grant employee benefits to live-in partners, the policy isn’t universal or equal to benefits married couples enjoy. Children living with single parents, especially mothers, have the greatest chance of living in poverty. But the conservative response is to reinforce the dangerous situation that costs society so much in money and lives.

Recently, a potential GOP candidate bemoaned the relationship between single motherhood and poverty. Rather than suggest positive solutions, he repeated the mantra that women get married, with no regard to feelings or a prospective mate’s economic potential. Judges have been known to order that “solution” too, but I think including matrimony in a plea deal gives truth to the term, “the old ball and chain.” It rarely solves the economic or social problems it’s meant to remedy. Considering the participants, it’s often likely to foreshadow more abuse and poverty.

The issues are well known, but real solutions are less understood. Even more difficult is finding a way to bring together the disparate sides so we can implement solutions. That requires logic, which is hard to come by in politics. Instead of addressing social problems according to ideology, right vs. left, we must find common ground so people from both sides can work together.

Since we’re talking about this in terms of “family values,” perhaps we can start by looking at what constitutes a family in the first place. Conservatives are stuck on the one man-one woman model. They support the rights of married heterosexual couples but balk at the idea of giving any ground when the needs of unmarried couples, single mothers, or same-sex couples are involved.

The primary argument is the religious defense: It was against the Mosaic Code, so it must be wrong now. Rather than trying to disabuse them of this belief, we must agree that the First Amendment gives people the right to believe anything they want, but that same law gives the rest of us the right to believe in our own religious values, or none at all. Those who choose not to live in accordance with fundamentalist tenets cannot be denied the basic rights granted to heterosexual married couples.

If two men or two women choose to marry in a church that sanctions their union, governments have no legitimate reason to deny them equal recognition.  If a couple, heterosexual or otherwise, chooses to live together and raise children, just like any other family, they have the same right to legal protection enjoyed by their married counterparts. And if a single person takes responsibility for a child, society has no right to put roadblocks in the way of that family’s chance to enjoy a comfortable existence.

The current policies toward nontraditional families are damaging to our society. Ignoring the needs of people who are wallowing in poverty or are victims of discrimination and violence is costing us more than we can afford.

For instance, when single mothers and their children are denied full educational benefits, they’re likely to depend on welfare and their children often run afoul of the law. Offering full educational and job opportunities, along with professional child-care services, places both mother and children on the path to economic success and saves a great deal more public money in the long run.

I’m looking forward to the day when the term “family values” actually means respecting the rights and needs of every family and its members, no matter how nontraditional the arrangement. That would be a positive step toward solving so many other problems in our society, especially poverty, high crime rates, and even war.

Debbie Jordan

Debbie Jordan