The Plight of the Poor in the U.S.

In the comments on my last post, Robert C made an important point based on his own experience that “the poor in the U.S. experience a high degree of social, emotional, and psychological stress in comparison to the lack of such stress among the relatively rich in other countries.” My interest in economics and data is largely about providing proper context and analysis, but sometimes it can make me look like a cold-blooded bastard.

Robert is right though. The working class in America does face major problems. The experiences of those growing up in working-class neighborhoods are often traumatic and these experiences have negative effects on economic outcomes (let alone well-being). David Lapp, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, had a powerful reply to a couple recent articles blasting the American white working class. As Lapp tells it,

No true calamity or awful disaster has befallen the white working class?

Try telling that to [the boy] whose own mother abused him and whose parents left him. Try telling that to the girl molested by her mother’s boyfriend, or the little girl whose mom and boyfriend passed out in the McDonald’s parking lot because of a heroin overdose, or the 10-year-old boy who walked into his parents’ bedroom to find his dad having sex with a stranger. (Those are just some of the typical stories we heard in our interviews with members of the working class in Ohio.) As one young man told me, “Besides killing a small child I would say that divorce is the second-worst thing that can ever happen. Because divorce is the symbol of violently breaking apart. Like in my case, my dad and my mom separating, it tore the family apart, literally. It was the symbol of breaking apart and shards went everywhere.”

I understand the point that Williamson and French are trying to make: when we speak of divorce and abuse and heroin and father absence, we are not talking about the factory that left, but acts perpetrated by adults with moral responsibilities. But that is no solace to the young victims—yes, we must speak of victims—of those traumatic events.

Because the divorce culture is a true calamity for generations of young people growing up in the aftermath. Nor should we imagine that just because a cause is cultural or familial, and not economic, that it involves no victims. As Rod Dreher writes in a response to Williamson’s post, “Children are not empty receptacles into which we can insert knowledge. If they live in homes filled with noise, chaos, violence, and contempt, it doesn’t matter what race they are, they are going to be very lucky to make it.”

Families are in trouble, but people aren’t making bad decisions in isolation. The family is in trouble because marriage is a social institution, and many young people have seen their own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents divorce (sometimes two, three, and four times). Whatever the reasons for divorce that the pioneers of the divorce revolution had, the young people walking into marriage today—or looking bewilderingly at it from the outside—are left feeling broken. That raises serious questions.

…We can always point to some people who grew up in troubled families and nevertheless succeed. We admire their courage and perseverance. Still, isn’t it self-evident that a child who suffers his parents’ divorce, or the absence of his father, or parental abuse, is much less likely to form good and lasting relationships as an adult? More likely to despair and resort to Oxycontin and heroin? And shouldn’t that fact matter for how we think and talk about the problems that confront the poor and working class, many of whom suffer these traumas?

Lapp recognizes that narratives about the poor often fall into two extreme categories and that he could easily adopt one of these extremes in telling of the story of those he’s interviewed. One extreme highlights external factors and lack of resources (typically the political left), but this largely ignores the poor’s “own words about how things could have been different if they had made different choices.” The other extreme focuses “almost exclusively on these young adults’ own moral responsibilities, and downplay the cultural and economic forces and trauma clearly impinging on their lives” (typically the political right). “The true story,” Lapp says, “…is one that shows how cultural and economic forces and trauma intersect with people’s own free decisions.” To “scold the “downscale” people about their sins and “entitlement” and their communities “that deserve to die”” is to assume that “a person suffering from years of trauma and deprived of good models of family life could just snap out of it with a few good rebukes.” When we do this, we fail “to look squarely at not just “the problem,” but the person in front of us.”

The complexities of poverty demonstrate the need for strong communities, families, churches, charities, and yes, even government programs. I still think economic growth does far more to lift the poor out of poverty than anything else. But when traumatic home life retards your emotional, psychological, educational, and economic development, this is not something that should be shamed. It’s something that should be dealt with through integration into a supportive social network.

And this–to borrow language from one of the recent critiques of the working class–requires us to “get off our asses” and help them out.

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