When you look over the domestic policy landscape, you see all these different people in different policy silos with different budgets: in health care, education, crime, poverty, social mobility and labor force issues. But, in their disjointed ways, they are all dealing with the same problem — that across vast stretches of America, economic, social and family breakdowns are producing enormous amounts of stress and unregulated behavior, which dulls motivation, undermines self-control and distorts lives.
I said to a friend the other day, in a conversation about the Honey Boo Boo show, that some of the worst problems we have today can’t be fixed by politics. Show me the domestic policy that can repair the damage, real and potential, done to the children of that woman by family breakdown?
Longtime readers will remember my story about the black Dallas pastor who moved to the city to take over a church in a poor part of town. He and his wife opened their home after school so children from the church would have a safe, quiet place to do their homework after school. They found the kids would come over not to do homework, but to sleep. Puzzled by this, the pastor and his wife investigated, and learned that those children lived lives of such domestic chaos — no stable family, no regular hours at home, no structure, no expectations — that they were barely sleeping at home. And these were the children of churchgoers!
Sharon Astyk, who fosters children in upstate New York, wrote this long reflection on fostering, and what it has taught her about what is so broken about our country. Excerpt:
We live in a society that has professionalized, externalized, commercialized and industrialized pretty much everything that was once domestic, local, part of a commons or private space. Dinner? Available at thousands of locations near you. Caring for grandma? A host of assisted living options at your finger tips. Breastfeeding? Formula is just as good – and far more profitable. Self-provisioning? Outdated, just shop – there’s plenty of food at the store. None of the things that the domestic sphere have historically provided remains outside the realm of the industrial – except this one.
The single and only thing that has resisted full industrialization is the family as a space for the raising of children. It has been partly externalized – daycare centers, preschools, schools and creches create public and for-profit spaces that share the basic role of childcare. But while there’s a lot of debate about how much good or bad daycare is, what isn’t debatable is that children MUST have a family to go home to in order to be successful. Attachment to a few primary adults in your life as an infant and young child is critical to both neurological development and the ability to have normal human relationships. No children’s house, no orphanage, no other institution has ever been able to take the place of the family at this level. The destructive cost of not having this to society is so clear and so great (you can begin looking at research from Eastern European orphanages to start with this, but even kibbutz child houses ultimately went the way of the dodo) that we MUST provide families for children who cannot live in their families of origin.
I rail against the system that doesn’t value domestic labor, but I wonder sometimes – would I really want to live in a society that managed to fully professionalize what I do? I don’t mind losing money, although it is a struggle sometimes – but I don’t make money on my bio kids, so why would I expect to on other kids? Moreover, the fact that this one kind of work I do can’t be replaced – not by paid caregivers, not by robots, not by certified pros – because the reality is that no matter how awesomely trained and certified you are, the fundamental coin of family life is not money and it is not training – it is family-ness. It is a thing you can’t buy or sell, coin or organize, collectivize or privatize – it is the reality of you are mine and I am yours and I’ll jump in front of a bus to protect you if I have to or more realistically, figure out a way to make the paycheck stretch a little further so that we can go do something fun on Thursday. It isn’t necessarily done best by the smartest guys in the room or the most savvy (although smart savvy people make awesome parents and foster parents too), but by the most ordinary people. And it cannot be replaced, unless you are willing tolerate unbearable harm to children.
Now that I have children of my own, I see clearly that the best thing my mother and father gave me was the blessing of a household where things were solid, secure, stable, and loving. Not perfect, but good. We didn’t have a lot of money, but I’ve known kids who grew up in homes that had a lot more money than we did, but who weren’t as rich as we were in this way. The government can print money, but it cannot create that kind of treasure.
Earlier this year, Brooks wrote something that challenges the narrative of the left (that the chronic problems of the poor are the fault of material lack) and the right (that the chronic problems of the poor can be overcome through individual initiative alone). Excerpt:
Over the past 25 years, though, a new body of research has emerged, which should lead to new theories. This research tends to support a few common themes. First, no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next.
Second, it’s not true that people in disorganized neighborhoods have bad values. Their goals are not different from everybody else’s. It’s that they lack the social capital to enact those values.
Third, while individuals are to be held responsible for their behavior, social context is more powerful than we thought. If any of us grew up in a neighborhood where a third of the men dropped out of school, we’d be much worse off, too.
The recent research details how disruption breeds disruption. This research includes the thousands of studies on attachment theory, which show that children who can’t form secure attachments by 18 months face a much worse set of chances for the rest of their lives because they find it harder to build stable relationships.
Brooks was writing in context of the release of Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart,” about the social collapse of the white working class in many communities. He concludes:
The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them. It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities.
This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
I’m all for that, at least in theory. I don’t think we as a society can look at the falling apart of the family, and in turn the unraveling of the social fabric, and satisfy ourselves with either the left-wing alternative (more social programs and redistribution) or the right-wing alternative, a libertarian-ish approach that sees the family as more or less a market institution, subject to market ideals (i.e., if it fails to produce healthy, stable, productive members of the next generation, then that’s just the price of freedom). The thing is, I don’t know what “bourgeois paternalism” would look like. Do you?