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The Economics of Family & Culture

The other day, I posted something linking corruption in Europe to countries that had a more clannish social model. The idea is: the more loyal people are to family networks, the less loyal they are to society, which is to say, the common good. This, the theory goes, is why you see less corruption in the more individualistic northern European societies, and more corruption in the more clannish southern European societies.

The Wall Street Journal today reports on how in Italy, this family model has created an informal safety net during the economic crisis. Excerpt:

Family has long been the glue of Southern European society, and intergenerational help has deep historical and religious roots. Catholicism and the Muslim influences that infuse the continent’s Mediterranean rim eschew the individualistic nature of Protestant Northern European and Anglo-Saxon countries. For Americans, admitting to extensive parental help is embarrassing, while lingering at home or asking mom and dad to shoulder the burden of child care is perfectly acceptable in Italy.

The family state isn’t just cultural, says Katherine Newman, an authority on the working poor and economic mobility at Johns Hopkins University. In modern times, family ties have compensated for welfare systems that aren’t extensive or efficient enough to help needy populations. Northern European countries spend far more on social services, excluding health care, than their southern neighbors, and it is no coincidence that in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, intergenerational bonds are weaker than in Italy and Spain.

“Where there are weak welfare states, the structure of familial support is high because people have to rely on private resources,” says Ms. Newman, who studied multigenerational families across six countries for her new book “The Accordion Family.”

But there are big problems with this too, as the Journal reports. Read the whole thing. As I have written extensively in this space, I have no idea how my Louisiana family would have coped with my late sister’s devastating bout with cancer if not for an extensive network of family and friends. Realizing that I couldn’t count on something like that in a tragedy, simply because I had moved around too much over the years, and didn’t have that deep and broad root system, was part of what convinced me to move back to my hometown.

The other night, visiting old friends back East, I found myself having a conversation about the economic future. One of my pals, J., is a successful lawyer. He said the other night at a social event he met a man whose son had just been accepted to a good law school. “Tell him to defer for at least a year,” J. advised. The man was astonished by this, and wanted to know why.

“Because there are no jobs,” J. said. Better for the kid to work for a year or two if he can, and hope that the market turns around rather than graduate with lots of debt and very limited prospects.

J. said the man was ticked by this advice, and that he (J.) wished he had kept his mouth shut. But it’s true all the same, he said.

Another friend tells me she and her husband are helping support three of their four adult children, who are all working, but underemployed. “I don’t know how kids today are supposed to make it,” she said. Most families don’t have the kinds of resources my friend and her husband do to help keep their twenty and thirtysomething kids afloat. When I say “resources,” I not only mean financial, but also resources in terms of having a stable, two-parent family, and close relationships among the kids.

One has the impression that we are going to have to re-form family networks in this new age of want and austerity, especially when Boomers start their long physical decline into aging and its medical agonies, and there isn’t enough money left to pay for their medical bills. Anybody have any better ideas?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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