Last night I finally watched an entire episode of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the redneck minstrel show on TLC. It was awful, but I enjoyed it in an Ignatius-at-the-Prytania way. I won’t be watching it again. My mother stopped by while it was on, and mentioned that my father won’t let the show be watched in his house. I know why, too: because it offends him that the show sets up working-class Southern people like him for ridicule. He doesn’t for a second live like the Honey Boo Boos, or esteem their values. In fact, just the opposite. Back in his day, there was a strong taboo among working-class white people against that kind of behavior. But it’s fast leaving: what used to be stigmatized among white people of all classes as “white trash” behavior is becoming normalized.
Mama June, the matriarch, is 33 years old, and has four children by four different men, none of whom she married (Honey Boo Boo’s daddy, an ex con they call Sugar Bear, is shacking with them now). She has reportedly been in the welfare system all her life. What struck me most about this, from a sociological point of view, is this model of family formation — a strong matriarchy, fatherless children, men minimally involved in their children’s lives, the family supported in part by welfare – has long been a black thing. But as Charles Murray documented so persuasively in “Coming Apart,” this is increasingly the new normal for lower-income white Americans. Long post follows, below the jump, if you’re interested.
Out-of-wedlock childbearing for white working class women was 6 percent of all births in that demographic in 1970; in 2008, it was 44 percent. For college-educated white women, the number today is less than 5 percent, up from 1 percent in 1970. David Brooks wrote about this phenomenon:
Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.
Which brings me to a recent conversation with N., a white Southern liberal friend. It’s been on my mind lately. N. voted Obama last time, and is voting Obama this time. Her family isn’t rich, but they make enough to employ a cleaning lady. The cleaning lady is black, and lives in her Southern town.
N. and I were talking about Mitt Romney and the 47 percent. I mentioned that I thought lots of conservatives hear “47 percent” and think “shiftless minorities,” when in fact many working and middle class whites depend on some form of government assistance too. N., naturally, agreed, saying that a just society provides a baseline of security for all its members. I agreed with that, telling her that I know people — white people — who are barely scraping by, and who would be in a world of trouble if not for whatever they were able to get from the government. I don’t begrudge them that.
Then N. said something interesting. She said that her cleaning lady is constantly desperate for money. N. said she gives her extra when she can, but the cleaning lady’s dilemma is what you might call a systemic one. The cleaning lady is not married, and had a number of children outside of wedlock, as is the cultural norm where they live (where I live too). N. said there’s no way that the woman, hard as she works, will ever get out of poverty with so many kids, and no husband. N. said the woman’s life is such a mess, and is a mess in large part because of bad choices she has made, and continues to make.
“When conservatives hear ’47 percent,’ they think of people like her,” I said. “It’s not the whole story by a long shot, but that woman is real. You can’t deny it.”
“Sure she’s real,” my friend said. “You really can’t deny it.”
By “you can’t deny it,” we both meant that the cleaning lady is a person who lives, and has lived, in a way that is irresponsible. But this woman was formed in a culture in which the things that keep her life impoverished and chaotic were normative. Another friend of mine, a middle-class white woman who taught in an all-black public high school in a poor part of Louisiana, said that what struck her the most about the kids in her class was how they didn’t expect to do better. They were passive and fatalistic. All of them, she said, seemed to assume that they were either going to get pregnant, or get someone pregnant, and be involved with the welfare system. And this mentality is spreading rapidly among working-class whites — which is to say, it’s ceasing to be a racial thing at all.
There’s what I’d call the implicit conservative view, which is that poor people are not so much lacking in money, as lacking in the self-discipline to spend their money wisely. This view is reinforced by the fact that a lot of immigrants do arrive here with even less than the native poor, often don’t qualify for supplemental benefits that cushion the deprivation of the native poor, and nonetheless after a generation or two end up quite prosperous. This Bryan Caplan post is a fairly strong version of that argument.
I think it’s hard to disagree that the poor could stop being poor–at least as the US currently defines poverty–if they behaved differently; it’s basically numerically impossible to fall under the poverty line if you finish high school, wait to have children until you get married, and both work full time. On the other hand, as I wrote a while back, I think this ignores the evidence that when you are poor–”which is to say”, noted George Orwell of unemployed coal miners, “when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable”–it is actually much harder to make those choices than Bryan seems to imagine. Which is why the poor of Orwell’s England also struggled with things like obesity and dental decay from consuming too much sugar and not enough vegetables; it is hard to get interested in dieting if a sugar high is the nicest thing that ever happens to you.
You look at the Honey Boo Boo family, and you think: My tax dollars are subsidizing that bulls**t?! The point is, I think many people who get some form of government assistance don’t oppose it in principle, but make a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. There is no shame in getting help from the government when you’re flat on your back. Someone like Mama June, though, is by any reasonable standard undeserving. And she recently became a grandmother, at 33, when her teenage daughter gave birth to an out-of-wedlock daughter. And on it goes, and will go: a way of life as a dependent on the state.
At what point does the government say, on behalf of taxpayers, Enough?
And yet, who among us would see children born into such families suffer deprivation, through no fault of their own, simply because their mothers and fathers have failed them? Not me. I’m mostly with Michael Gerson on this:
Whatever the economic and cultural causes, the current problem is dysfunctional institutions, which routinely betray children and young adults. Restoring a semblance of equal opportunity — promoting family commitment, educational attainment and economic advancement — will take tremendous effort and creative policy.
Yet a Republican ideology pitting the “makers” against the “takers” offers nothing. No sympathy for our fellow citizens. No insight into our social challenge. No hope of change. This approach involves a relentless reductionism. Human worth is reduced to economic production. Social problems are reduced to personal vices. Politics is reduced to class warfare on behalf of the upper class.
A few libertarians have wanted this fight ever since they read “Atlas Shrugged” as pimply adolescents. Given Romney’s background, record and faith, I don’t believe that he holds this view. I do believe that Republicans often parrot it, because they lack familiarity with other forms of conservatism that include a conception of the common good.
But there really is no excuse. Republican politicians could turn to Burkean conservatism, with its emphasis on the “little platoons” of civil society. They could reflect on the Catholic tradition of subsidiarity, and solidarity with the poor. They could draw inspiration from Tory evangelical social reformers such as William Wilberforce or Lord Shaftesbury. Or they could just read Abraham Lincoln, who stood for “an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
Instead they mouth libertarian nonsense, unable to even describe some of the largest challenges of our time.
I say “mostly,” because I don’t actually think that government can do much to deal effectively with poverty caused in large part by the collapse of a traditional sexual ethic and the resulting collapse of family structure. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things that might be done. Megan McArdle, from that same essay I linked to above, says the worst part of being poor is living around other poor people, with all the chaos, substance abuse, and violence of their lives. In other words, it’s hard to lift yourself out of a dysfunctional culture if all you see around you is dysfunction, and you think that’s normal life. It becomes, as she put it, harder to make wiser choices. McArdle:
Pumping more cash into poor households would give them much greater ability to buy things like electronics and food and clothing. It would not create more housing slots in safer neighborhoods, nor educational slots in better schools, nor reduce crime. (The causal link between crime and the lack of remunerative employment is surprisingly weak). The extra cash would show up in the government statistics, so that nominal “poverty” would decrease. But the very worst parts of the lived experience of the poor would not necessarily change much.
That doesn’t mean that I think there is nothing to be done. Rather, that a big part of what we should be doing is thinking about how to ease the economic segregation which makes the lives of the poor so much harder than they have to be–however you think they became poor in the first place.
Wasn’t “compassionate conservatism” supposed to be addressing this stuff? Whatever happened to that? Let’s ask David Kuo, who worked on this stuff in the White House during the first G.W. Bush administration. In 2005, he wrote:
The moment the president announced the faith-based effort, Democratic opposition was frenzied. Hackneyed church-state scare rhetoric made the rounds; this was “radical” and “dangerous” and merely an “attempt to fund Bob Jones University.” One Democratic African-American congressman came to the White House to back the president but was threatened by influential liberal groups that they would withhold funding if he didn’t denounce the President. The next day he was forced to retract his statement. All of this came despite the fact that former Vice President Al Gore had endorsed virtually identical faith-based measures during the 2000 campaign.
Congressional Republicans matched Democratic hostility with snoring indifference. Sen. Rick Santorum spent endless hours alone lobbying Senate Leadership to give some floor time, any floor time to get a bill to help charities and the poor – even after 9/11 when charities were going out of business because of a decline in giving. He was stiff-armed by his own party.
At the end of the day, both parties played to stereotype — Republicans were indifferent to the poor and the Democrats were allergic to faith.
Kuo added on “60 Minutes” that the senior White House people weren’t committed to this stuff, and it got squeezed out. Plus, the Religious Right wasn’t much interested in the poor either, he says, and didn’t make compassionate conservatism a priority.
Anyway, all of this is to say that the national pseudo-conversation on politics and poverty seems particularly fruitless. The Republicans don’t seem to be able to deal with questions about poverty and culture in a way that grapples with the complexities of the thing — and neither, of course, do the Democrats. Both sides seem to be all about affirming the preferred narratives of their donor base and voting base.
You will not be surprised to learn that my liberal friend and I didn’t solve the issue either. We both ended up concluding, more or less, that both our sides lie to themselves about the nature of the problem, because the problem is so damn big and complex that it’s hard to figure out a solution, or even the start of one.