From our family to yours: rethinking the "beneficial family" and marriage-centric corporate benefit programs.

Author:Ponte, Lucille M.
 
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In his Father Knows Best world, Jim Anderson was accustomed to clarity. Each week the show conveyed the message that the Andersons had found the most beneficial social formation in which to live: one comprised of a breadwinner father and homemaker mother in a nuclear family, living in a middle-class, suburban dwelling. (1) The Andersons inhabited a 1950s television world filled with upper-class, white-collar fathers, stay-at-home wives, and two or three children, and offered a comforting unified vision of the American family. (2) Given his title character status as the "father who knows best," Jim Anderson would expect that the way he lived would be accepted by the majority of Americans as the most advantageous way to do so. (3) Corporations registered their approval of the consumeristic suburban way of life that the Andersons and their "beneficial family" model represented by sponsoring 1950s television sitcoms about such consumeristic nuclear families. (4)

Long after these 1950s television programs have stopped being part of networks' scheduled programming, corporations continue to reward nuclear families that fit the narrow "beneficial family" (5) mold in their benefits programs, largely dismissing nonnuclear family structures as nontraditional outliers undeserving of recognition and protection. (6) This preference prevails regardless of the fact that the "beneficial family" model, comprised of a consumeristic nuclear family, is not the predominant family model. (7) Despite media images to the contrary, the nuclear family is only one of many different and valuable family models found throughout the United States and the world. (8) Nonnuclear family units such as extended family, kinship networks, and friends-as-family are often wrongheadedly referred to as "nontraditional," despite centuries of enduring existence. (9)

This Article traces the history of how corporations have propagated cultural messages about the benefits of a monolithic conception of the ideal American family unit. (10) In relation to this dissemination, the Article focuses in particular on the implications of corporate sponsorship of programming at the 1939 World's Fair (11) and on 1940s and 1950s radio and television. (12) Given their role in standardizing the "beneficial family" ideal, 1950s family television shows and the particular programming and sponsorship choices that produced the dominance of the suburban family sitcom will be analyzed alongside the earlier programming and sponsorship choices that made the 1939 World's Fair a testing ground for the dissemination of this ideal. This discussion establishes that during the mid-twentieth century, the corporate order underwrote a version of consumer citizenship, branding the ideal American social and consumer unit as a white, middle-class, nuclear family, independent of and isolated from extended family and other social support mechanisms. (13) Through their sponsorship of these television shows and fair displays, corporations conveyed the message that, in contrast to other existing family models, nuclear family formations were the most beneficial to individual family members as well as to the nation as a whole. (14) Corporations in the 1950s adopted this kind of "beneficial family" rhetoric to represent themselves as caring providers of the best products and jobs. (15)

After exploring this cultural context, the Article examines the ongoing role of law in extending and sustaining privileges to the nuclear family. (16) Today, legal protections and their attendant economic benefits continue to be aimed at propping up the "beneficial family" model at the expense of the growing numbers of nonnuclear household units made up of traditional extended family and kinship networks, as well as blended families, life partners, and friends-as-family. (17) Consequently, few corporate benefits programs truly meet the needs of many of their employees, as these policies still premise the allocation of resources on an idealized nuclear family model, (18) a family type that more closely resembles the fictional 1950s television family than the diversity of households that actually characterizes the country today. (19)

This Article also charts how some employers have instituted domestic partner programs as a partial response to the changing face of the family in recent years. These progressive policies, however, continue to reward only couple-centered family relationships that replicate the structure of the idealized "beneficial family." (20) A handful of companies have recently broken away from the pack, offering benefits to other adult dependents (OAD) within a household; these individuals are not necessarily part of a nuclear family, and may not be related by blood, marriage, or adoption. These OAD plans go beyond marriage- or couple-centric strategies to recognize and protect a broader range of nonnuclear family households. (21) This Article examines these new OAD programs and discusses the advantages and limitations of OAD policies in meeting the needs of American households today. (22)

This Article concludes that corporations need to move beyond the marriage- and couple-centric paradigms of the 1950s "beneficial family" to better meet the needs of America's diverse workforce. The Article recommends that corporations, in their caretaker roles, embrace in their benefits programs household units that function as a family, thereby fulfilling their proclaimed commitments to social caretaking and diversity awareness. Various changes to the law that affect employer-sponsored benefits programs are suggested to allow for greater recognition and protection of household units that function as a family but are not necessarily bound by ties of blood, marriage, or adoption. (23)

  1. CHANGING ISSUES IN CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF MEDIA IMAGES OF THE IDEALIZED "BENEFICIAL FAMILY"

    1. The Nonnuclear Family as the "Traditional" Model in 1940s Radio Programs

      Although many in the United States refer to the nuclear family found in 1950s sitcoms as the "traditional" model, it is important to recognize that many family models exist in the world. (24) Historically, in global cultures, the term "family" referred to a household made up not only of blood relatives, but also a host of extended family members, nonrelative boarders, and slaves living in a common residence. (25) The household members pooled together their economic resources, their individual skills, and their emotional support to promote the well-being of the household unit. (26) In the 1940s, anthropologist George Peter Murdock determined in his review of two hundred-fifty ethnographic reports that the extended family network outnumbered polygamous family and nuclear family units two to one in the cultures analyzed. (27)

      Similarly, extended family, kinship networks, and friends-as-family, all of which are often erroneously referred to today as "nontraditional" families, overwhelmingly characterized the ethnic urban working and middle classes in the United States prior to the 1950s. (28) Media images initially reflected the city-dwelling, ethnic extended families and their neighbors in 1940s radio programs and early television programs. (29) Originally successful as radio programs, sitcoms like The Goldbergs and Life with Luigi feature nonnuclear relatives and extended "families" of nonrelatives as part of their depiction of ethnic Americans living in cities such as New York and Chicago. (30) The Goldbergs, premiering in 1929 on the radio and in 1949 on television, focused on a Jewish family living in the Bronx and had as its central character the family matriarch Molly Goldberg. While the show included Molly's husband and two children, it most often revolved around Molly's interactions with both her brother David, who lived with her family, and the other occupants of the Bronx apartment building. (31) The show emphasized a female network of mutual care and concern rather than centering only on nuclear family relations. Its signature image was of Molly leaning out of her window to check in with a neighbor who, just a few feet away, was leaning out of her window. In this world, neighbors and relatives were often as close as a shout out of the alley window. (32) In such an environment, mutual aid was not only provided, it was expected from an extended "family," regardless of whether or not one was an actual blood relative. (33)

      When the show came to television after almost two decades on the radio (as The Rise of the Goldbergs on NBC radio 1929-34; as The Goldbergs on CBS radio 1936-46), it originally maintained these features. Yet, as a 1950s television program in competition with the "suburban WASP-coms," it focused more on the nuclear family and less on the network of women in the urban apartment building. (34) After NBC cancelled the show in the 1953-54 season, (35) Gertrude Berg, the show's star and creator, made one more attempt to tailor her show to the new suburban standard, creating Molly for first-run syndication, which aired in 1954-55 on the Dumont network. (36) The renamed show relocated the Goldberg family to Haverville, a New York suburb, but the show lasted only one season. (37) "From a commercial standpoint," Vincent Brook argues, "Molly Goldberg had always been an anachronism, a slice of kosher nostalgia." (38) Patronizing kosher butcher shops, celebrating Passover and Yom Kippur, (39) and sharing and exchanging goods with neighbors, the Goldbergs were not very effective marketing tools for sponsors trying to represent the benefits of a consumeristic lifestyle to a generic mass market audience. The show's new setting was an attempt to make it more commercially viable. Brook claims that the transplantation did not take, as "Molly's Yiddishisms, neighborly chats, and gefilte fish seemed out of place in the WASPish enclave, and banished completely were her window monologues delivered in direct address to the television...

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