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Honey Boo Boo Nation

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 [1] (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 [2] 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: [3]

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.

Megan McArdle wrote the other day [4]:

 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 [5].

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: [6]

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 [7]” 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 [8]).  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 [9]:

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 [10].

Kuo added on “60 Minutes” [11] 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.

115 Comments (Open | Close)

115 Comments To "Honey Boo Boo Nation"

#1 Comment By Lagibby On September 24, 2012 @ 11:16 am

I am struck by the assumption in the discussion between the writer and his friend “N” that N’s maid’s biggest mistakes were having several children. The real question is not whether the parents were married when the child was conceived, it’s whether every child born in America has a chance to grow up healthy and contributing to the Common Good.
The two middle class folks felt so superior to poor folks who have children, regardless of the marital status of the parents. The complex problem of poverty in this land of extreme wealth will never be addressed as long as the people in power feel no responsibility for ALL THE CHILDREN in society. Many cultures in history have considered that parents having children were doing the society a very big favor, conceiving, bearing and raising children. But all the slams against the “welfare state” have at their base the idea that the poor should not have children and the non-poor have no interest in the welfare of children other than those in their nuclear family.

#2 Comment By L. Legault On September 24, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

‘From Andrew Sullivan: “A new study by economists Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney suggests that income inequality is a major cause of teenage pregnancy. Yglesias summarizes: ‘Where poor people can see that hard work and “playing by the rules” will reward them, they’re pretty likely to do just that. Where the system looks stacked against them, they’re more likely to abandon mainstream norms…’”

Unfortunately, the only way communities of poor people have *ever* managed to pull themselves out of poverty has been by rejecting this kind of despair and sticking with a disciplined program of self-reform that could then help them to work towards political reform. The idea that discipline is essential to reform is true at the political as well as the personal level.

No working class movement ever succeeded when run by feckless and irresponsible leaders. The English working-classes had Methodism and the evangelical movement. The French working classes got nothing out of the French Revolution because, ignorant and disoragnized, they were crushed by the greater discipline of the bourgeois classes, and lost more than they gained as a result of 1789. The Russian working classes, still a minority in 1917, needed a Lenin to organize and activate them, unfortunately for them and for the world.

Those of you moaning here about how these honey booboos need something – charity, government assistance, leadership – to help them into less chaotic lives are putting the cart before the horse. I’m no social darwinist and don’t object in practise to providing for the poor via charity or government grants, but these won’t effect much change unless the people are themselves energized by some new movement, religious or political.

Meanwhile, the more glamorous side of popular culture does not help by flaunting female promiscuity and out-of-wedlock childbearing. As a woman, I’m very much aware of how the behavior of the most attractive and charismatic women influences other members of my sex.

#3 Comment By Squid On September 25, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

…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.

Perhaps if you thought about the problem in terms of “how can I break the cycle of poverty, dependency, and dysfunction in my neighborhood,” you and N would not have so much trouble getting your minds wrapped around the problem.

In my neighborhood, the first things to change would be the terrible public education monopoly, and the overbearing City codes that make it so difficult to start and maintain a small business in the neighborhood. Give the next generation a decent education and a shot at starting or working at a local business with their friends and neighbors, and you’ve got some momentum in the right direction. Couple it with local charitable programs that link assistance with real efforts at self-reliance and responsibility, as opposed to State entitlements which encourage the opposite, and you have the foundation for substantial improvements.

#4 Comment By Naldort On September 25, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

This is a great article, and I say that as a democrat. I agree that both parties are at fault in this problem. We place scoring a “win” versus the opposing party above helping all Americans.

I think something that would go a long way to helping this situation, is much more investment and emphasis on education. It’s hard to change your life when it’s all you’ve ever know. I think there needs to be a serious effort to reform the school system so we can teach these children that there is more to life.

Another thing that could go a long way in helping is much more in depth sexual education. This has long been a sticking point between both parties, but we need to accept that children need to learn this information. Because becoming pregnant as a teen has such an enormous effect on whether someone can lift themselves out of poverty, we need to teach children about contraceptives. There is so much misinformation that is spread. Schools don’t teach sex ed, so kids make their own assumptions then spread this incorrect ideas among themselves.

If children can learn the value of contraceptive and just how much your life can be affected we might go a long way to seeing a reduction in teen pregnancy and poverty.

#5 Comment By Tubba On September 26, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

Our “society” is an idealist mess which has achieved little but tenebrous results. The statistics in this article back it up- more pregnant teen baby mamas now than back then. Yet, back then, social assistance was not the same kind of sprawling machine as it is today.

Face it, we’ve become a society that enables poor life choices, and we won’t learn any better because the government is there to catch our fall. The rosy days of the welfare state are long over- people live in big cities, and there are hundreds of millions of people all over this country, and it is hardly in the public mentality to “care” about each other. I think we’re more interested in trying to take as much as we can off each other instead of trying to contribute.

“Honey Boo Boo” is another example of the trashy lifestyle we have come to embrace in postmodern America; their life is just as significant, if not, even more so, than a scholar at Yale. What’s even more heinous is how people WANT to live that kind of life, since it is lauded on TV.

I shake my head in despair.

#6 Comment By Sally Linda On September 27, 2012 @ 11:57 am

As a left leaning democrat, I believe this in excellent article. I do take issue with Dreher’s assertion that “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”. I do not believe these types of lifestyles have been embraced exclsively by African Americans. Many in the white lower class have embraced destructive lifestyles just as long as other minority groups. Society has just recognized these groups of people as set apart from minority groups.
I strongly believe better education is always a better alternative than throwing money at people who embrace the entitlement lifestyle.

#7 Comment By ski jump On September 27, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

Fact: Honey Boo-Boo Child is PHOTOGENIC. That face could launch ships.
Fact: Honey Boo-boo has a New York publicist. She is so upwardly mobile that the space shuttle was moved out of HER way.
Fact: Mama has birthed some beautiful daughters with peaches and cream skin and they seem to be the picture of health.
Fact: Ain’t gonna be no mo food stamps for a while, doncha know, honey chile??? lolololol

#8 Comment By Cheyenne On September 28, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

The more I read out these people the more I am glad I don’t watch this show.The mom has been asserted,Jessica dad is crazy,and they milking the system for benefits.Hy do watch this trash. TLC needed a family without so trash in the background.This women has 4 kids by four different men.

#9 Comment By Jim Houghton On September 28, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

Keep in mind, “the 47%” are not all people who receive direct government assistance. They are the people who pay no federal income tax. Ain’t the same thing, there, Jethro!

#10 Comment By Tony On October 1, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

Lagibby: I feel the good intentions behind your statement, but I tend to disagree. The problem cannot be solved by politicians at “the top” caring about all the children of this nation. I would go as far as to say that a good majority of the politicians in the country do not want to hurt or harm any children at all, but would like to see these children prosper and grow into responsible adults. However, the problem is that the children, in many cases, are being birthed, taught, and raised by IRRESPONSIBLE ADULTS. There is little hope for a child being raised by individuals that cannot teach them proper values and self-reliance. I’ve worked with many kids in this situation first-hand (as a youth pastor). The children flourish when they are able to spend time with adults that have a disciplined routine and a morally sound foundation to teach them. Kids love discipline. It makes life simple for them. Honestly, do you think “Mama June” is teaching her kids how to balance a checkbook or the dangers of premarital sex? I seriously doubt it. In my opinion, since I’ve dealt often with individuals who are fourth and fifth generation dependent on the Federal and State governments for sustenance, housing, and most other needs, the best thing that can be done for them is to tell it to them exactly how it is. Sooner or later, these people have to face reality. Start by cutting off any further aid from the government. “Mama June, you have at this moment what aid you’re going to get. If you have any more kids, they will not be covered and your aid will not increase.” This seems harsh, but I know personally at least 4 women that have children and then allow their children to have children in order to receive more aid from the government. One of them is actually going to appointments at this time to see about getting her tubes untied in order to have another child with her current “boyfriend” because he is also on full government disability (mental issues), and that guarantees her a support check from the government. That’s kid number 4, by the way. She’s making over $4000 a month with no degree, no job, and no prospects. That’s from our tax dollars, folks. One of the others had three girls by two different men, and then the two older girls were both mothers by 15. None of them were working. She (the mother) was bringing in well over $5000 a month with all utilities and over $500 a month in food stamps, all without even graduating from high school. And, let me clear something up before it becomes an issue: This is not a racial problem. These cases I’m describing are made up of both white and black. And, make no mistake. I give no quarter to the irresponsible men that are fathering these children without a second thought. They should be held accountable, though it seems many are not (thinking of the genius in TN with something like 30 children by 11 or 12 different women. Very smart). You can’t convince me that’s OK. Also, Naldort: We already throw more money per child at government schools today than we ever have in the past, and the education system continues to suffer. When do we, as the citizens that elect our officials, realize that the majority of programs run by government are inferior? My child is in a private school where she is taught morals, life-skills, and Christian principles. Of course, most other families cannot afford it. However, the reason they can’t afford it is because the government is already taking huge amounts of taxes from their incomes in order to corner the market. Give the families their money, and make the market competitive. Private schools will become cheaper in order to compete. What does it say when the numbers tell the story? The average government school student costs over $13000 a year, when my child receives a MUCH better education for around $8000 a year? The problem isn’t the money. The problem is the program. And, more sex education in school? That isn’t going to help at all, and the reason is because the children aren’t getting the support and backing in the household. Learning sex education at school doesn’t help a lot when the children see mom or dad acting with promiscuous intentions at home. The problem is the family environment.

I know I seem a little harsh, but I’ve been around this my whole life, watching people waste away because the government enables their riotous and bad behavior. That is what needs to change. The behavior. And there’s no need to change it if it is still a profitable venture.

#11 Comment By Paul M On October 4, 2012 @ 7:32 am

America does not have a race problem. Not really. It has a class problem, which has been obscured by the fact that the under classes historically have been racial minorities.

#12 Comment By anonymous On October 12, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

That’s a stupid cop out ending Rod.

The problem is really simple.

#13 Comment By lizzy On December 29, 2012 @ 8:23 am

Right on Tony. I work on an expensive psychic network. Many of my calls are from poor women hoping they are pregnant. Some tell me how government rich they are from having kids. The big issue is that the girls are so desperate for love that they will put up with their abusive, cheating boyfriend who doesn’t love but will flaunt his manhood with his sexual drive, guns and drugs. I don’t have any control of who calls me but when I try to advice a woman to take control and improve her life I get hung up on and a negative review. They want to hear that the cheating boyfriend is going to change and suddenly be a loving faithful man and father. Doesn’t seem to happen.
I think birthcontrol, vasectomies, tubal ligation incentives should be offered. I don’t understand the fanatics that don’t want birthcontrol let alone welfare. When you have too many children you let go and let them raise themselves. When you have 1-2 then you might have the energy to raise them. Whether you are ghetto or country trash the media has given a lot of incentive to be so bad that you might get famous. The guy that has 30 kids, you can’t believe how many guys are trying to top that number because he is famous now. Let them have sex, drugs, junkfood and electronic addiction, just somehow take away their ability to have too many children.

#14 Comment By Z On October 26, 2014 @ 7:05 am

You do realize that there are more white people on government assistance than black people? So no,Mathis type of behavior is not and has not always been a “black” thing.

#15 Comment By mary On October 29, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

i am so glad this show is off the air children are rude and act with no sence like the mother