Monday, April 21, 2014

No Family, No Chance

Whenever I hear someone say that the solution to our social problems is a return to strong families, I cringe. Don’t get me wrong, I think families are important. I'd have nothing to write about in this blog if it weren't for my family. And there is no question that a good family, one with the emotional and financial resources, and the time, to support one another, gives a child an important head start. Such a family doesn't guarantee success for its offspring, but it certainly doesn't guarantee failure.

That's the problem with a bad family: it almost seems to guarantee failure. If you're abused or neglected and malnourished, if there is no one to help you when you need it, to show you the way when you stray, the odds are you aren't going to have such a good life. You're more likely to end up in prison than college, more likely to pursue drugs than dreams, more likely to engage in risky behaviors that lead to teen crime and pregnancy and effectively end your adult life before it begins.

We have a notion of family as a kind of Platonic ideal: we bear our children and look after them; with every generation the cycle repeats and humans flourish. Maybe that ideal was reflected in reality in some long-ago time, but no one can read Hugo or Dickens and not realize that, especially among the poor, it hasn't been that way for a long while.

There seems to be something in our nature that wants failure to be a choice. If someone is fat, he just doesn't have the willpower to push away from the table; if someone is out of work, she isn't looking hard enough; if a child goes hungry, his parents are lazy or negligent, or both. I suspect the psychological underpinning of this is in part our understandable desire to preserve the illusion that we are in control of our own fates--that bad stuff won't happen to me. But I fear that another part of the reason may be to absolve us from responsibility for doing anything about the adversity that befalls others--that's their problem, it's up to them to solve it. This enables us to feel sympathy, to reassure ourselves that our hearts are in the right place, without having to open our checkbooks.

Let's start with children. Surely no one thinks it's a newborn's fault that he was born with drugs in his system. Surely no one thinks a toddler should be responsible for finding her own food, or that a six-year old should teach herself to read, that a twelve year old should be forced to learn math by intuition. Kids need nurture and education. Can we all agree on that? And if they don't get it, not only are their lives the worse for the lack, society as a whole bears the inevitable cost. We not only lose their productivity, we pay for their prisons, for their medical care later in life, even their burial. And what do we or they get for those societal expenditures? Nothing.

Judith Warner had a good column in today's NYT in which she urged more employer support for families, more generous paid family leave, more flexible work schedules to accommodate family emergencies and needs. Higher level employees already have many of these benefits, but those down the salary scale have few. And it’s those lower-paid employees, the ones without the flexibility of greater financial resources, who most need the benefits. If we want the family to take responsibility for itself, we may have to give it a little help.

As hard as it is in today's political environment to get food stamps and day care for kids, it's even more difficult to get help for their parents. The relentless drumbeat to reduce unemployment benefits is just one example. The feeling seems to be that grownups are not children, and they can damn well look after themselves.

The problem is that many of them can't. Many are young men and women raised in poverty without the education to make much of their lives. Many others are older and have lived in poverty all their lives; as far as they can see, there is no way out. And yet we--not all of us, but too many--we who have ourselves benefited from good families look upon these unfortunates in the same way some look down upon people who are obese: those folks need to get a grip, try harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps. While that may be a Puritanically satisfying plan of action, it's not going to happen.

Let's talk about obesity. Why has it increased so much in the last fifty years? Did we all just get lazy and fat? Did we all loose our willpower? I don't think so. I think we all started eating refined and processed foods that gave us more sugar, salt and fat, and in bigger doses, than our bodies were evolved to handle. Too many calories equals too much body-fat. Is that our own fault? Yes and no. It's sort of like smoking and cancer: we just didn't realize what these new foods and eating habits were doing to us until it was too late. Now we know, but were hooked. Nothing is harder than quitting smoking, except maybe quitting eating stuff that's bad for you.

The point is that we're not always fully responsible for what happens to us. Humans are good at many things, but changing established patters of behavior isn't one of them. And when those mass behaviors create widespread damage, it has to be the job of all of us to clean up the mess. No one person, no one unit of social organization--like the family--can do that. It's too hard. We have to work together. We have to fill in the gaps. We have to take care of those who aren't being taken care of.

I don't think many disagree with those broad principles. Maybe a few hardcore libertarians, but not many. The problem is that we haven't yet developed remediation systems that we all agree make sense. People worry that the government wastes taxpayers' money with inefficient programs that are riddled with fraud. Private charity hardly makes a dent. Workplace reforms come slowly, because capitalism is a jealous mistress who punishes the unprofitable. In the absence of solutions in which we all have confidence, we’re having a hard time mustering support--within companies, communities and governments--for specific programs.

Okay, so we're just going to go slowly, as we always do. We're going to grope our way. We're going to get better and better over time, but maybe over a long time. While we're on that long journey, though, I think we should be singing "We Shall Overcome" and not "Get a Job."


  1. Food stamp expenditure in 2000: 17 billion per year.
    Food stamp expenditure in 2013: 80 billion per year.

    1. The piece was meant to be about the senselessness of vilifying the poor for the breakdown in the family. What I was hoping to do was stimulate new thinking about to how to give more people the better shot at success that those of us lucky enough to be born into good families have.

      In any event, is the dramatic increase in food stamp spending evidence that we are doing more to help or that the problem is getting worse? The recession caused most of the spike in SNAP spending. The last few decades have given us greater income inequality; most of the economic benefit of the recovery has gone to the rich. SNAP doesn't create poverty, it merely attempts to ameliorate it. Here are the facts on SNAP spending and participation from the CBO:

  2. Max unemployment benefit 2000: 26 weeks
    Max unemployment benefit 2013: 99 weeks