Vox Politic: Babies & the Politics of Population & Poverty

    icon Mar 29, 2012
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“There was an old woman, who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children; she didn’t know what to do”

Through work, play, politics and pure chance, I get the opportunity to meet a wide variety of people. Because I have a personality that was once described as akin to the Welsh “sin eater,” I also tend to take real interest in those caught within the most dire predicaments. While I can recognize the difference between those with unabashed bad luck versus those with more self-inflicted conditions, I don’t always differentiate in my reaction to the circumstances I encounter. Good fortune or bad, it is all part of the human condition and, to the degree that we still form a society, we are unable to separate our collective fates. A couple of recent experiences highlighted this theorem in a very real way.

Babies B It

I was on my way to Saginaw with a campaign volunteer when he asked if it would be OK if we stopped by his sister’s house, as she needed money for gas. Clearly it was no issue, as we would be in the area anyway. In fact, I had a few extra bucks if she really needed help.

What was unusual is that he then proceeded to apologize for his sister in advance of our arrival at her house. I can’t say I’ve experienced anything else like it. He kept saying, “She’s nothing like me. I can’t stand the way she lives.”

The neighborhood we pulled into was decent enough, though his sister’s house probably did a number on the property values for the rest of the block. I never went inside, but if it is possible for grass to look dirty, this was it. It was a rumpled canvas for the real tragedy being painted on these premises.

When my friend’s sister came out no less than five children all under the age of 7 followed her. Given her relatively young age, I assumed these included some children she was simply caring for. I later found out that she not only had these five, but two had been taken from her for neglect when she was a teenager. While seven children before the age of 30 might have made a mighty fine farm family 100 years ago, it turns a head these days, especially with the lack of prosperity that was apparent at this place.

When you interacted with the children, you realized they spoke a very fractured version of English. They learned it from their mom. As one little boy looked up at me with a runny nose and a look far too forlorn for a toddler, all I could think was “Little boy, you don’t have a chance.”

As we drove away, I quizzed my friend a little about the situation. This is when I found out about the first two children. I learned a little bit about their collective story, which was marked by abuse, general neglect and a complete lack of parental responsibility. I also learned that his sister’s seven children have five different fathers. And she is now living with a sixth guy with whom she does not yet have a child.

Would anyone like to guess where this is heading?

What the Heck Is Happening Here?

Many of the biggest public policy issues of our day are related to population. The Boomers finally got old and are leaving the workforce and the retirements we promised them are going to be expensive. In Michigan the Census indicates we’ve lost population over the last decade and with it a large chunk of our tax base. Unfortunately, many of the people that left the State were some of our best, brightest and highest earners. It is borne out in statistics from newspaper polls to the census that, in the population that is left, people who will not work, cannot work, or have not worked in quite a while are overrepresented in

our communities. For instance, it will not surprise you to find out that my friend’s sister has never held a job. (Admittedly, if she had it would have consisted almost solely of maternity leave.)

There is a pretty common theory that people in her circumstances are simply milking the entitlement system, especially in programs aimed at aiding children. I run into people that believe that there is a large population of women that will decide to have more children, just to increase the benefits for which the kids are entitled. To people who make up the mainstream of society – where most families can’t wait for their 1.7 children to grow up and get on with their lives – that sounds like the most reasonable motivation. Why else would you have all those kids and all those “relationships?”

I am not sociologist, but I grew up in low-income housing projects and have seen more than a few of these situations first hand. Quite often my take was quite different than the more common image of an “entitlement queen.”

First, I am regularly surprised how many people in dire personal circumstances are completely unfamiliar with the assistance that is available not only to them, but to citizens in general. As one example, I had one person stare at me in complete disbelief over the idea of financial aid for to attend school. He was even more stunned when he was approved and accepted to start Delta College this Spring.

I recently assisted someone who had not had potable water in her rental house for three months. She was completely unaware that one phone call to report the situation would get it cleared up in 24 hours and it’s one of many services we can get from housing authorities or public health. For every one person who gets a free cellphone, I will just about guarantee you there are three people living in an illegal, unsafe or substandard dwellings, often because a landlord can’t be bothered to follow code or pay for required maintenance. Realize that sometimes poverty and domestic chaos are the chicken and egg in this situation.

A Man-Made Problem

I heard a speaker once say, “Poverty is largely a feminine problem, most often of masculine making.” At the risk of alienating half the readers, from what I have witnessed, this is often a fair assessment.

When you meet many of the women who utilize social programs to subsidize their household income, “entitled” is the last word that would come to mind. More often the right words would be closer to scared. Or beat down. Or completely overwhelmed. Or lacking in basic self-esteem. It’s the kind of condition that is often acquired through long years of neglect, abuse and sorrow. You don’t always seek help if you don’t believe you deserve it.

In international business there is a school of thought that classifies business cultures as “masculine” or “feminine” based on their priorities, how decisions are made and how people are valued. I think it would be fair to say that many families that live in abject poverty are living in very masculine dominated environments. Men make many of the decisions – often through their inaction or absence. It’s a less balanced situation that in a “traditional, middle class” family, where decision-making is more evenly distributed between the genders. I actually had someone tell me once that he offered a new girlfriend the opportunity to make “little decisions or none.” And when told she chose “none,” he gleamed at me like he had met the perfect woman. It wasn’t just that, but we aren’t friends anymore.

And, let’s face it; we can see some very public displays of masculine decision-making. For instance, the big wheels on the car in the parking lot at FIA; my guess is mom didn’t pick them out. She probably didn’t have anything to do with the subwoofers, either. And, while she might know how to get help with the electricity bill when things are tight, she’s probably not the one that bought 4000 watts of grow lights in an effort to become an “entrepreneur.”

Decisions, Decisions

Yes, when men make most of the decisions, you can almost be assured of a suboptimal outcome. I have introduced this to my own girls as the “Boys Are Dumb” theory. You can explain a lot of things with it. (Why do we go to war over oil? Because boys are dumb. See how easily that works?)

This brings us back to all those kids in the first part of this column. In more polite times we might discuss the “masculine culture” of poverty and its impact on family planning. Operating under the umbrella of the absurd created by pundits like Limbaugh and Stewart, we can now actually analyze these situations in a little more frank fashion.

Basically, unlike demographics with more empowered women, men in this world get a lot more input on how often the couples have sex. And, being men, the answer is “often.” With any lapse in birth control practice – the kind that is inevitable in the chaos of poverty – here come the kids. And with them, some dribble of benefits that don’t reflect anywhere near the cost of raising neither them nor their long term cost to society as they enter a cycle that is likely to repeat itself.

Often I use this space to offer up solutions or talk about those that have good ideas. I am going to admit to you that I am a little bit at a loss on this one. The “sin eater” in me wants to dive in and help, personally grabbing these people by the scruff of the neck and showing them the doors they need to open to help themselves. The liberal in me feels like we need to better organize resources to help these people address the needs of this population in a sustainable fashion, with training and compassion and mentors and money. And then there is the pragmatist. The one that says, “Hey, in a population of 300 – 400 million people, some of them are going to be useless. Let’s pay them to stay out of the way.”

But it is not that simple. This is indeed a generational problem, passed down from parent to child. While our most productive citizens are scaling back the size of their families, we have an exploding number of children being born into a cycle of poverty that – American Dream mythology aside – they will likely never escape.

What we have cultivated is a quagmire of calamity where civil liberties can’t find a way to break a tie with common sense. It informs so many of our most difficult social debates today – from publicly funded birth control to drug testing for those who receive government assistance. In one lively debate on the whole topic, I heard a perfectly reasonable person actually sum it up by saying “You have to be careful, because all the ideas on population and poverty quickly start sounding like Hitler.” And we know how that “master race” idea worked out.

Many of the key issues of the coming year are going to be about our social contract – the haves versus the have nots, producers versus consumers, baby boomers versus baby daddies. I know those aren’t the most brilliant of observations, as I am sure you can see most of what is coming, too.

So, in the absence of astute analysis, I’ll just leave you with a couple of pieces of advice. First, don’t be part of the problem: Wrap that rascal. And, even more than that, be careful when you vote.

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