Monday, October 03, 2011

The Crying Shame

I've been reading Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. The Anthropological parts are really thought provoking and fun and make me proud of my field. The basic insight of the Chapter on the Origin of Money is that Credit precedes money and barter--that "credit" in the form of promises to share, work, give, acquire, and donate long precede the existence of governments and of money. And Credit, in this form, is at the heart of every social interaction. I'd add, though the book doesn't, that you can conceive of the smallest family interaction: the relationship between parent and child and between child and parent as the Ur form that credit takes in the family economy. Those relations need little "government" to make them function. But if they are to function they can't be renegotiated on the fly, or renegotiated at every generation. If the baby had to negotiate being breastfed with promises to repay it couldn't do it. And if the Grand Parent generation has to rely on the "promissory note" of the children, generally speaking, they lose out long term. That's why all societies put into their cultural code religious or social and economic structures that force the generations to cooperate, to share, and to repay over time. Sometimes its your religious duty to care for the elderly, sometimes its self interest because they own the means of production, sometimes its a mixture of both. That's what Culture is: the rules that make it possible for one generation to pick up where the previous generation left off without having to create the entire system de novo. When a society gets big enough, and chaotic enough, to enter the period of the State it generally relies both on culture and on law to enforce these norms. When there is a State the State often has to step in to prevent parents from abandoning their children or their elderly. In Ulrich's The Midwife's Tale she describes all of the ways the early American State/Community stepped in to deal with anomalous family situations: bastard children and neglected elders.

Which is another way of saying that the "Social Contract" isn't a contract between two people, constantly negotiated and easily broken and renewed. The Social Contract is better understood of as an enduring web of connections, debts, credits, gestures, gifts--all of these have to pre-exist the individual and have to survive the individual and be paid forward. When links start to get broken the entire thing ceases to function as a net, or a web, or even as a communicative structure. Over at Dealing With the In Laws and Family Of Origin, a website devoted to helping women navigate the American Nightmare known as "family" you can see what happens when everything starts to break down at once. These are perfectly ordinary women--modern, working women and mothers. They routinely refuse the responsibility of dealing with sick, elderly, or mentally ill relatives. They will not share their (limited) funds. They will not loan out objects without an explicit offer to repay. They will sometimes take in children but they will never take in adults. But their descriptions of their families reveal a high number of economic, medical, and social crises which leave lots of their family members at risk for homelessness. They aren't refusing to help because they are terrible people. They are refusing to help because the pressures to help are overwhelming, and the cost of helping too high. They always phrase it in terms of a family unit that "ended" before their began--duties from parent to child are seen as one way. You pay it forward but you don't pay it back. In addition, they are all very hot on personal responsibility. Everyone else in the system "had their chance" and if they blew it "that's their own fault" and "can't be helped."

Our insistence on treating foreclosures and job loss as a singular, personal, contractual event is not as bizarre as Atrios thinks. Its actually just the economic face of an American ethnotheory of the autonomy of the nuclear family. But just as the Nuclear family is only autonomous if you imagine it existing outside of time, space, and debt/credit relations with previous and future generations so the foreclosure of a single house doesn't exist autonomously but in the context of the entire family and neighborhood and larger society. The cultural blindness of our Journalistic and Pundit class is putting our entire society in jeapardy. Way below in this post Yellow Dog pointed us to an article in the Herald which described three elderly people--a 70 year old man with a colostomy bag, a woman in a wheelchair, and a recently released mental patient each of whom were dropped off by some relative who was refusing or unable to help them any longer.

In every case its easy to understand what is going on. There are no healthy, financially sound, safe, family units anymore. People are barely hanging on to their homes or have lost their homes. That means no extra bedroom for Grandpa any more. People are fighting for survival economically--that means no extra time to care for Grandma in a wheelchair or crazy and abusive Mother-in-Law. Families used to club together to help one another but the stress of doing this for extended periods of time always frayed some bonds. Mr. Aimai's Maternal Grand Father abandoned his family after bringing the over from the old country. My Paternal Great Grandmother was bipolar and depressive before those terms were known. Her family used to have to take her across town on a long public bus ride to admit her into a public sanitarium periodically.

What happens when there is no rising tide? When people who were doing pretty well--these are people who owned their own homes--can no longer afford the energy, time, space, and money to care for their elders or the elderly can no longer afford to care for their children and children's children? We are about to find out. Unfortunately, the press and the government continue to think this is all somehow about personal choice and, as Atrios says, some kind of pyschological aberration. This article (h/t Atrios) is a brief break in the pattern:

Foreclosure is not just a metaphorical epidemic, but a bona fide public health crisis. When breadwinners become ill, they miss work, lose their jobs, face daunting medical bills — and have trouble making mortgage payments as a result.

But that is only part of the story. A growing body of research shows that foreclosure itself harms the health of families and communities. In our 2008 survey of 250 people undergoing foreclosure in the Philadelphia area, 32 percent reported missing doctor’s appointments and 48 percent said they let prescriptions go unfilled, significantly higher rates than others in their community. A paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that people living in high-foreclosure areas in New Jersey, Arizona, California and Florida were significantly more likely than those in less hard-hit neighborhoods to be hospitalized for conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart failure.

More than one-third of homeowners in our study had symptoms of major depression. The N.B.E.R. study found significantly more suicide attempts in high-foreclosure neighborhoods. For every 100 foreclosures, it found a 12 percent increase in anxiety-related emergency-room visits and hospitalizations by adults under 50. Losing a home disrupts social ties to neighbors, schools, jobs and health care providers — ties that under better circumstances promote good health. Neighborhoods suffer, not just homeowners.

Its not surprising that actual actors don't have too much insight into the social structures that are making this happen. But its a crying shame that Sociologists and Psychologists and Anthropologists, who ought to grasp that social realities precede individual acts--we've known that ever since Durkheim's groundbreaking study of Suicide--aren't stepping forward and advocating for the dispossesed. People are falling, one by one by one, but they are going to take the entire society down with them if we don't intervene at a higher level with support and care. But I'd say the rot has gone all the way to the bottom since the conviction that whatever happens to people is some kind of just reward for their previous actions--economic Calvinism--has infected even family relations.

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