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The Free-Market Family:

How the Market Crushed the American Dream

(and How It Can Be Restored)

Oxford University Press (January 2020)

US families have been pushed to the wall. At the bottom of the economic ladder, poor and working-class adults aren't forming stable relationships and can't give their kids the start they need because of low wages and uncertain job prospects. Toward the top, professional parents' lives have become a grinding slog of long hours of paid work. Meanwhile their kids are overstressed by pressure to succeed and get into good colleges. In this provocative book, Maxine Eichner argues that these very different struggles might seem unconnected, but they share the same root cause: the increasingly large toll that economic inequality and insecurity are taking on families.

It's government rather than families that's to blame, Eichner persuasively contends. Since the 1970s, politicians have sold families out to the wrongheaded notion that the free market alone best supports them. In five decades of "free-market family policy," they've scrapped government programs and gutted market regulations that had helped families thrive. The consequence is the steady drumbeat of bad news we hear about our country today: the opioid epidemic, skyrocketing suicide and mental illness rates, "deaths of despair," and mediocre student achievement scores. Meanwhile, politicians just keep telling families to work a little harder.

The Free-Market Family documents US families' impossible plight, showing how much worse they fare than families in other countries. It then demonstrates how politicians' free-market illusions steered our nation wildly off course. Finally, it shows how, using commonsense measures, we can restructure the economy to work for families, rather than the reverse. Doing so would invest in our children's futures, increase our wellbeing, reknit our social fabric, and allow our country to reclaim the American Dream.


"The real problem is not that American families are failing. It's that our government is failing American families. Maxine Eichner's powerful new book shows how a policy approach grounded in free-market fantasies has made it harder to raise kids than in almost any rich nation – and how that can and must change."


-Jacob S. Hacker, Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science, Yale University, and author of The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream

"The United States imagines itself to be deeply pro-family. But Maxine Eichner demonstrates just how far our reality falls short of that aspiration, outlining what real pro-family policies would look like. Above all, she offers a compelling version of the American dream, focusing not on GDP but on GHP – the growth of human potential – of every American."

-Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America

"Provocative, beautifully written, and illuminating-and directly addressed to some of the most important issues of our time. Highly recommended!"

-Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University, and author of On Freedom

"This book is an absolute must read. Packed with rigorous data and compelling stories of how American families are stretched to the breaking point, Maxine Eichner makes a convincing case that, far from a nation that values families, our free market approach stacks the deck against them - to the detriment of us all. To those who say we can't afford to support American families, Eichner shows that we can't afford not to, and that nothing is more crucial to the future of this country and the reinvigoration of the American Dream."

-Brigid Schulte, award-winning journalist, author of the New York Times bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One has the Time, and director of The Better Life Lab at New America

"No families suffer more under our 'free-market family policy,' Eichner shows, than the poor, disproportionately African American families who, in spite of their best efforts, face powerful, intersectional, racial, gendered, and economic obstacles to providing what their families need. This book is a vivid account of the way our current social order is falling far short and therefore squandering the potential of our most vulnerable children, subjecting their parents to harrowing lives, and rending our social fabric in ways that will make it very difficult to repair."

-Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Dean and Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law

The Supportive State: 

Families, Government, and America's Political Ideals

Oxford University Press (October 2010)

Broad agreement exists among politicians and policymakers that the family is a critical institution of American life. Yet the role that the state should play with respect to family ties among citizens remains deeply contested. This controversy over the state's role undergirds a broad range of public policy debates: Does the state have a responsibility to help resolve conflicts between work and family? Should same-sex marriage be permitted? Should parents who receive welfare benefits be required to work? Yet while these individual policy issues are endlessly debated, the underlying theoretical question of the stance that the state should take with families remains largely unexplored.

In The Supportive State, Maxine Eichner argues that government must take an active role in supporting families. She contends that the respect for human dignity at the root of America's liberal democratic understanding of itself requires that the state not only support individual freedom and equality – the goods generally considered as grounds for state action in liberal accounts. It must also support families, because it is through families that the caretaking and human development needs which must be satisfied in any flourishing society are largely met. Families' capacity to satisfy these needs, she demonstrates, is critically affected by the framework of societal institutions in which they function. In the "supportive state" model she develops, the state bears the responsibility for structuring societal institutions to support families in performing their caretaking and human development functions. Although not all family forms will further the important functions that warrant state support, she argues that a broad range will.

Eichner's vigorous defense of the state's responsibility to enhance families' capacity for caretaking and human development stands as a sharp rejoinder to the widespread conservative belief that the state's role in family life must be diminished in order for families to flourish.


"The Supportive State rethink[s] liberal theory from the ground up, incorporating dependence and families rather than pushing them aside. It is a careful, beautifully written renegotiation of the social contract on behalf of real people, rather than the idealized, autonomous-yet-isolated rights-bearers who are the subjects of traditional liberalism. The result is an important contribution both to liberalism and to feminist theory."

-Jennifer Hendricks, Michigan Law Review

"In this wonderful book, Maxine Eichner argues that the neglect of families under liberal democratic theory has contributed to laws and policies in this country that fail to support family dependency needs and perpetuate gender inequality. Eichner's theory of the supportive state provides a framework for analyzing the liberal state's obligations to families and promises to influence contemporary debates about issues as wide-ranging as same-sex marriage, teen age abortion, children's rights and the future of the child welfare system. This book is a must-read for family law scholars, policy makers and family advocates-and for anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of what society owes families."

-Elizabeth Scott, Harold R. Medina Professor of Law, Columbia Law School

"Finally – a broad structural blueprint for 'family values' designed to cross political and ideological divides, not inflame them."

- Katharine T. Bartlett, A. Kenneth Pye Professor of Law, Duke University 

"In The Supportive State, Maxine Eichner provide[s] a stunningly original revisioning of the relationship between the family and the state. This is a transformative work that should be read by anyone who cares about the well-being of children and families and the future of democracy."

-Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights

"Maxine Eichner takes seriously the liberal democratic commitment to individual responsibility and autonomy. In this worthwhile, nuanced and intelligent book, she shows that even these starting assumptions can justify some forms of state support for families."

-Joan Tronto, Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

"The Supportive State is a groundbreaking analysis of how to rethink the relationship between the state and the family. Maxine Eichner carefully examines a series of issues, ranging from marriage to foster care to teen abortion to children's rights, as she develops her theory of the supportive state. The book makes a significant contribution to liberal political theory and to our understandings of the family, while also offering concrete suggestions on how the state should promote family flourishing."

-Naomi Cahn, Professor of Law, The George Washington University Law School and co-author of Red Families v. Blue Families

"The Supportive State makes a splendid contribution to contemporary discussions of families and public policy. She argues rigorously for state support of caregiving relationships (involving children, family members, the elderly, the disabled, and others). In the course of her discussion, Maxine Eichner offers stimulating reflections on same-sex marriage, welfare reform, parental and community control over school curricula, and other pressing concerns involving families and the state. Eichner's compelling vision and clear writing invite readers to examine their own views about public responsibility for the caregiving that sustains both families and civil society."

-Mary Shanley, Professor of Political Science, Vassar College

"Debates over marriage, the family, and family values have been a staple feature of political rhetoric for the last several decades, and show no sign of ceasing. As patterns of family life in the United States have undergone dramatic change, family law continues to undergo dramatic evolution. Legal and political theory--as well as public policy--are slowly beginning to address the family as a vital political and social institution. It is important that these debates and this evolution be informed by concern for the relevant political goods and principles that Maxine Eichner elaborates in The Supportive State."

-Linda C. McClain, Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law

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