The Privatized American Family

53 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2017 Last revised: 5 Nov 2017

See all articles by Maxine Eichner

Maxine Eichner

University of North Carolina School of Law

Date Written: October 27, 2017


U.S. law once buffered families from market forces through subsidizing mothers to stay home and care for children, as well as through absorbing financial costs and risks that could threaten families’ wellbeing. In the last decades, though, the law has increasingly “privatized” families, expecting them to negotiate these responsibilities individually. This Article demonstrates the serious toll that the privatized-family system takes on the wellbeing of U.S. families, and sets out a plan for reform.

Part I examines the privatized system’s impact on U.S. families by integrating comparative research on welfare-state regimes with updated empirical data on families. The harms imposed are certainly more severe for families in the lower-income strata, where market forces reduce adults’ chances to achieve stable partnerships and raise children in two-parent families. Yet well-to-do families also struggle increasingly with balancing rising work hours with family demands. Further, the privatized-family system impedes optimal development of children from all income levels, although it inflicts the most damage on poor children.

Part II considers the privatized-family model in historical context. In stark contrast to the current model, the twentieth-century welfare state was grounded on the view that government had an integral role in regulating markets to support families. In carrying out this function, this regulation assumed a male-breadwinner/female-caretaker distribution of labor. Beginning in the 1970s, as women began to enter paid work, this regulation came under fire for its sexist assumptions. Although other wealthy democracies continued to buffer families from market forces while jettisoning sexist preconceptions, the United States became an outlier among its peers in eliminating its buffers entirely.

Part III calls for replacing the privatized-family system with a model that I call “buffered-spheres” regulation. This model returns us to the view that supporting the conditions necessary for sound families is a basic responsibility of government, but without outdated gender-role assumptions. Buffered-spheres regulation would ensure that workers have adequate time in the domestic realm, that parents have the time and support to build strong bonds with children, and that all children have sound conditions for human development regardless of their parents’ income.

Suggested Citation

Eichner, Maxine, The Privatized American Family (October 27, 2017). UNC Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Maxine Eichner (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

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