*This post was published earlier on Jeb’s blog, but we both thought it needed greater exposure.*
Real-life “Hunger Games” — Jeb Kinnison
Social capital, what’s that? The built-up support networks of families and individuals that help maintain and order their lives. Family ties, community ties — with organizations like churches, schools, and voluntary associations that once were more common parts of everyone’s lives. The mutual assistance of friends and neighbors. Reputation, status, and the regard of others which motivated good behavior, honesty in dealing, and charitable assistance, which maintained and strengthened those ties, and helped those in need with both assistance and the strings of obligation to repay that assistance by being useful members of the community.
In a small town, the impulse to assist the poor and disorganized was direct, and the people being helped were known to everyone. Big cities with their concentrated slums of poor immigrants led to social service agencies, funded at first by churches and cities, and then by state and federal governments. As the source of the assistance became impersonal, so did the aid — and the direct contact between those assisting and those assisted declined. Instead of the local church matrons with their bourgeois ideas of proper behavior and work, harassed social workers with enormous caseloads processed cases quickly, and the ideology of government assistance changed so that any behavioral expectation of the client population was viewed as an affront to their dignity.
In time, the government assistance ethos spread to every corner of the country and crowded out the local community services. Meanwhile, locally-controlled schools were gradually taken over by higher levels of government and distant union bureaucracies so that the influence of local parents was minimized. This was viewed as “progressive,” since distant elites thought local school boards and parents were too parochial and backward to be entrusted with decisions, and would get in the way of teaching the correct materials.
The incorrect application of emotions of sympathy and support to faceless categories of people like “the poor” and “the undocumented” removes any possibility of understanding the real situations of each of the category’s members. A hazy idealized poor family is envisioned, then a response that would be appropriate if that family lived next door (help them!) leads to voting for politicians that offer new programs to help “people like that.” By misapplying family and community feelings to higher levels of government, voters put into place a bureaucracy that misses most of the social signalling features of local groups and takes tax money to grow itself, crowding out local groups (and the valuable social signals that maintained bourgeois standards.)
Progressives generally are sentimentally supportive of direct local politics — they especially favor the ideals of the New England town meeting, where everyone who showed up had a say. The reason why this form of local government was generally abandoned is that it is simply too time-consuming for larger communities, and allows the motivated minority to capture control. Election of representatives was an advance which allowed voters to go about their own lives most of the time while exerting control through their representative, who had time to understand the issues thoroughly and vote in council in the best interests of the voters. Being in the 1% of local voters who cares deeply enough about an item to show up at a public meeting about it does not mean your feelings about it are more important than the views of those who didn’t show up; the once-every-few-years election is more likely to reflect what most voters want.
What have been the effects of progressive, centralized control of education, healthcare, and social services? It is true that the backwards practices of a few local school boards have been reformed, but the loss of a rich layer of church and private charity social services has impoverished local social capital. While today’s mass communication and the Internet removed one of the impulses to community (“I’m bored. Let’s go into town and hang out!”), a lot of the loss is due to the crowding out by a monopoly government, which had deep pockets and would use them to continue failed policies, as Microsoft in the 80s used the profits from its near-monopoly OS business to keep creating mediocre applications software until the innovators in applications were destroyed.
Very wealthy people have always been freer than others from the stifling social controls and judgments of bourgeois community standards. The elite of Paris and London in the 1800s often kept mistresses and dabbled in drug use without having their lives destroyed. The lower classes did not have the wealth to recover from errors, and those who did not hew to bourgeois social norms were isolated and damaged.
As the upper middle classes in the US grew as wealthy as the elite had been in the previous century after WWII, the sexual revolution and War on Poverty bestowed more social freedom on everyone — the middle and upper classes got birth control, sexual freedom, and women in the workplace, while the poor got programs to “uplift” them from poverty (a term which exposes the condescension involved). Social workers in vast numbers were hired to distribute assistance, free of any obligation — except for unmarried mothers, who were told their assistance would be cut if they married a working man.
Over the course of several generations, the well-off used their freedoms and came out relatively unscathed — families were still largely intact, children were still trained in the arts of civilization and followed the path of university and marriage into professional careers. But the artificial assistance to the poor, with its lack of community obligations and support and its immediate withdrawal in the event of marriage and better work, removed the social incentives that keep healthy communities healthy. Intact families grew less common. Crime and social pathologies became the norm in poor inner-city communities. As conditions worsened, the motivated and organized left for more civilized neighborhoods with better schools. The segregation of cities and even whole regions by income increased. Whole generations of children were poorly raised, poorly schooled, and left to drift without purpose or guidance from now-absent fathers, who were in prison or adrift themselves.
See this post and its links for more discussion of the black community specifically.
Meaning well is no defense.
We have a large number of people trained in academia who think their impulses to control other people’s lives indirectly through election of technocrats are just as virtuous, and a replacement for, the individual impulse to assist someone near you. They are horribly, hopelessly wrong, but convinced they are right and that only troglodytes and racists would oppose their “help.” They live in a bubble with other Virtuous People and feel superior to people who work in trades or live away from the elite coastal cities. Their lives are rich with experiences and status goods, and they can handle sexual and social freedoms well (mostly) because of their deep reserves of cash and connections — “rehab” is an option, and being late to work because of a bender or hookup won’t get them fired.
But for the poor, the “assistance” of government bureaucracies has gradually destroyed their families, their jobs, their communities, and their social capital.
The Hunger Games is an entertainment, but part of its attraction is the funhouse-mirror view of the societal and geographic divisions we see today in the US. The country is divided between the rich and frivolous Capital District, distracted by the spectacles of the Games and government-provided entertainments, and the poorer Districts where laborers (generally of the grubby, lower-class kind) toil generation after generation to support the imperial Capitol.
The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, grows up impoverished in the coal mining district, but with a strong and resourceful spirit takes on the system as a focal point for rebellion. The economics of the government are far from clear (why does an empire with high technology still have manual labor as its foundation?), but its oppressive nature and manipulation of the educated and refined white collar workers of the Capitol are clear.
Charles Murray fearlessly dares to be politically incorrect in his Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010:
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray explores the formation of American classes that are different in kind from anything we have ever known, focusing on whites as a way of driving home the fact that the trends he describes do not break along lines of race or ethnicity.
Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinshipÑdivergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.
The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.
His point in focusing on the white class structure is that black communities have been the canaries in the coal mine — more fragile and more urban, and therefore the first to be effected by the social welfare bureaucracies. Now the social pathologies that destroyed inner-city black communities are spreading to the rural and suburban lower classes — marriage rates dropping, children brought up poorly, gangs and the drug war creating social chaos. Progressive whites could pretend the black community was in trouble because not enough was being done, and racism — but when the rot spreads to every city and town, it’s impossible to explain it as the result of racism.
The more progressives elect politicians purporting to care about income inequality, the worse the life of the poor. The phenomenal damage caused by the Drug War to inner city communities and families, the prison-industrial complex that has helped destroy the black family and the lives of millions of young men, the hair-trigger police SWAT teams raiding the innocent by mistake and killing dogs and people in the hundreds — these are all the effects of a government elected by “caring” people who want to control the lives of others from a distance. And now the damage is going mainstream.
The Economist this week has a great story about the Hunger Games-like divide in the US:
SHANA, a bright and chirpy 12-year-old, goes to ballet classes four nights a week, plus Hebrew school on Wednesday night and Sunday morning. Her mother Susan, a high-flying civil servant, played her Baby Einstein videos as an infant, read to her constantly, sent her to excellent schools and was scrupulous about handwashing.
Susan is, in short, a very conscientious mother. But she worries that she is not. She says she thinks about parenting Òall the timeÓ. But, asked how many hours she spends with Shana, she says: ÒProbably not enoughÓ. Then she looks tearful, and describes the guilt she feels whenever she is not nurturing her daughter.
Susan lives in Bethesda, an azalea-garlanded suburb of Washington, DC packed with lawyers, diplomats and other brainy types. The median household income, at $142,000, is nearly three times the American average. Some 84% of residents over the age of 25 are college graduates, compared with a national norm of 32%. Couples who both have advanced degrees are like well-tended lawnsÑubiquitous.
Bethesda moms and dads take parenting seriously. Angie Zeidenberg, the director of a local nursery, estimates that 95% of the parents she deals with read parenting books. Nearly all visit parenting websites or attend parenting classes, she says.
Bethesda children are constantly stimulated. Natalia, a local four-year-old, watches her three older siblings study and wants to join in. ÒShe pretends to have homework,Ó says her mother, Veronica; she sits next to them and practises her letters.
Veronica is an accountant; her husband is an engineer. Their children Òall know that school doesnÕt end at 18,Ó says Veronica. ÒThey assume theyÕll go to college and do a masterÕs.Ó Asked how often she checks her various childrenÕs progress on Edline, the local schoolsÕ website that shows grades in real time, she admits: ÒMore than I should, probably.Ó
In ÒComing ApartÓ, Charles Murray, a social scientist, ranked American zip codes by income and educational attainment. Bethesda is in the top 1%. Kids raised in such ÒsuperzipsÓ tend to learn a lot while young and earn a lot as adults. Those raised in not-so-super zips are not so lucky.
Consider the children of Cabin Creek, West Virginia. The scenery they see from their front porches is more spectacular than anything Bethesda has to offer: the Appalachian Mountains rather than the tree-lined back streets of suburbia. But the local economy is in poor shape, as the coal industry declines. The median household income is $26,000, half the national average. Only 6% of adults have college degrees. On Mr MurrayÕs scale, Cabin Creek is in the bottom 10%.
Melissa, a local parent, says that her son often comes home from school and announces that he has no homework. She does not believe him, but she cannot stop him from heading straight out across the creek to play with his friends in the woods.
She has other things to worry about. The father of her first three children died. The father of her baby is not around. Her baby suffers from a rare nutritional disorder. And Melissa has to get by on $420 a month in government benefits. Small wonder that she struggles to enforce homework. And small wonder the gap between haves and have-nots in America is so hard to close.
In a study in 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas found that children in professional families heard on average 2,100 words an hour. Working-class kids heard 1,200; those whose families lived on welfare heard only 600. By the age of three, a doctorÕs or lawyerÕs child has probably heard 30m more words than a poor child has.
Well-off parents talk to their school-age children for three more hours each week than low-income parents, according to Meredith Phillips of the University of California, Los Angeles. They put their toddlers and babies in stimulating places such as parks and churches for four-and-a-half more hours. And highly educated mothers are better at giving their children the right kind of stimulation for their age, according to Ariel Kalil of the University of Chicago. To simplify, they play with their toddlers more and organise their teenagers.
The Adventures of Supermom
ÒI talk to him constantly,Ó says Lacey, another Bethesda mother, of her two-year-old son. ÒAs we go through the day, I talk about what weÕre doing. I try to make the regular tasks interesting and fun, like going to the grocery store.Ó Her older son, who is five, devours maths apps and asks his mother questions about arithmetic. At the weekend the family might go to the American History Museum or the Washington Zoo or a park.
Cabin Creek parents love their children just as much as Bethesda parents do, but they read to them less. It doesnÕt help that they are much more likely to be raising their children alone, like Melissa. Only 9% of American women with college degrees who gave birth in the past year are unmarried; for those who failed to finish high school the figure is 61%. Two parents have more time between them than one.
And even two-parent families in Cabin Creek tend to be more stretched than those in Bethesda. Sarah, another Cabin Creek mom, has a sick mother and a husband who was injured in a coal mine. Her three boys, two of whom make it a point of pride to be on the naughty kids list at school, exhaust her. She helps them with their homework and reads to them fairly regularly, but often just lets them watch television. ÒDora the ExplorerÓ is somewhat educational, she says: ÒItÕs got Spanish in it.Ó
Children with at least one parent with a graduate degree score roughly 400 points higher (out of 2,400) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (a test used for college entrance) than children whose parents did not finish high school. This is a huge gap. It is hard to say how much it owes to nurture and how much to nature. Both usually push in the same direction. Brainy parents pass on their genes, including the ones that predispose their children to be intelligent. They also create an environment at home that helps that intelligence to blossom, and they buy houses near good schools.
The two aspects of parenting that seem to matter most are intellectual stimulation (eg, talking, reading, answering Òwhy?Ó questions) and emotional support (eg, bonding with infants so that they grow up confident and secure). Mr Reeves and his Brookings colleague Kimberly Howard take a composite measure of these things called the HOME scale (Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment) and relate it to how well children do in later life, using data from a big federal survey of those born in the 1980s and 1990s.
The results are striking. Some 43% of mothers who dropped out of high school were ranked among the bottom 25% of parents, as were 44% of single mothers. The gap between high- and middle-income parents was small, but the gap between the middle and the bottom was large: 48% of parents in the lowest income quintile were also among the weakest parents, compared with 16% of the parents in the middle and 5% in the richest (see chart 2).
Likewise, the difference between high-school dropouts and the rest was far greater than the gap between high-school and college graduates. Mr Reeves and Ms Howard estimate that if moms in the bottom fifth were averagely effective parents, 9% more of their kids would graduate from high school, 6% fewer would become teen parents and 3% fewer would be convicted of a crime by the age of 19.
Read the whole thing here. The story goes on at length about suggestions for improving the lives of children brought up in social and financial poverty. Some of these are just more of the same failed top-down ideas (universal pre-school, more social workers.) But the most useful strategy of all is to allow the laws of natural community organization to work again by ending the Drug War, the police war on poor citizens, the overregulation that makes it hard to start and keep a small business, and the paternalistic “assistance” that prevents natural formation of strong families.