Posts Tagged ‘403’

Who’s Left to Love?

February 15th, 2010 No comments

This depressing article in today Philadelphia Inquirer relates a familiar tale: The poor are being vilified for taking government money, blamed for having made bad choices, called “breeders” for having kids they can’t support (with an icky overlay of moral disapproval for having many of these children out of wedlock). As the story points out, much of the anger is diffused and untroubled by facts: welfare rolls have been slashed mercilessly since the so-called Welfare Reform Act of 1996; the payments are so meager that no one would seek this as a viable means of support (and it lasts five years, max, anyway); most of those receiving assistance are children.

The anger is sometimes startling, as when South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer recently compared the poor to “stray animals who breed,” or when pandering, no-nothing politicians make symbolic shows of making life even more humiliating for people who can’t get by:

Pennsylvania State Rep. Garth Everett (R., Lycoming) has tried for a year to pass a law that would have [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] recipients drug-tested and fingerprinted, a practice in some states. “People’s wallets are tighter these days, and they don’t want funds going to folks with drug problems,” he said.

Asked to back up his claims, Everett said, “I don’t have evidence that people are using it [TANF money] to buy drugs. I do get feedback from a significant part of my constituency that they have the feeling that folks on welfare are using drugs.” He added that his proposed bill “is not going anywhere” because Democrats oppose it.

His constituents “have the feeling” that folks are using money — some of the very generous $403, per month, for a mother and two kids — to buy drugs. That’s enough for Everett, who can make a political show of his solidarity with the angriest elements of his constituency without having to deal with the consequences. Among them is the likelihood that the money spent on drug testing and fingerprinting would far outweigh any cost savings from denying benefits to those using drugs, and thereby end up costing the state more money. As a bonus, it would feed into the discredited view that  drug addiction is a matter of choice and not a medical, public health issue that requires complex intervention.

Given that the poor take such a tiny percentage of the state’s money, the anger isn’t really about the money. It’s more the product of a deep and justifiable frustration by the broad swath of the increasingly left-behind middle class that they’ve done everything right, but can’t get ahead. Like a tire skidding endlessly on ice during our tundra-like winter here in the Mid-Atlantic, they work harder and harder and fall further and further behind. So to them, anyone who gets anything for “nothing” is bound to be the target of some vitriol. But would they change places with those they condemn?

No, they’d rather change places with the Wall Street bankers and financiers whose complex machinations were a significant contributing factor in the national and global meltdown that continues apace. But they know that’s not possible, and they’re too beaten down — and realistic — to think that people as well-connected as these modern-day robber barons (there! I said it! let the angry responses begin) will be brought to heel, or even asked to cut back by one yacht. Government is detested, but there, too, the problem seems too big and complex for them to have any effect.

This culture of fury and jealousy, whatever its understandable origin, isn’t healthy. I might want to blame right-wing talk show hosts like the morbidly obese Rush Limbaugh who, without apparent irony, recently wailed about how food stamp recipients are spending their money on unhealthy choices (including the outright lie that some of it is going to booze; it can’t), but the most accurate thing to say is that they’re only amplifying resentment and confusion that’s already out there. (If you want to make a symbolic stand against the worst (and most effective) offender, join this Facebook group).

As Sarah Palin understands (and she doesn’t understand much), there’s a fortune to be made in tapping into this anger. Obama, meanwhile, has the more difficult responsibility of connecting with our deeper but often less accessible sense of community and collective responsibility. He’s not always done this effectively, unfortunately, but this is the area in which we really need that “hope-y, change-y” thing. Otherwise, I fear that “the centre cannot  hold.” While I’m on Yeats, here’s a tired but apt close:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The Third Chimpanzee, The Winter’s Tale, and the Imperatives of Biology

February 17th, 2009 No comments

How important is the biology of parenting?

Here’s an example from Shakespeare: Audiences and critical scholars have long struggled to understand the insane rage that suddenly overcomes King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.” At first, the king is good-naturedly encouraging his queen, Hermione, to beg their mutual friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, to stay another week.

She does so, but not with the result she expects: Within a few lines, Leontes becomes blindly jealous, crying: “Too hot, too hot!” I’ll spare you the spiral of tragedy that ensues (and is only partly redeemed at the end) to focus on a big reason for Leontes’s rage: He suddenly thinks that Polixenes, who has been around for a span of nine “wat’ry stars” –nine moons, or roughly nine months — is the father of the child Hermione is soon to bear.

Well, it was certainly possible (although not true in “The Winter’s Tale”) that Leontes had been cuckolded. Until the recent development of DNA testing, husbands never knew for sure that they were the fathers of their wives’ children. Yet, as Jared Diamond discusses in “The Third Chimpanzee,” from an anthropological perspective fathers were only interested in devoting themselves to the support and raising of their own biological children — they wanted to pass on their own genes, and not those of another man. (As an example of how strongly this impulse is felt, he discusses one tribe in which the women have sex with many men serially, so that determining paternal parentage was impossible. In those cases, men raised the children of their sisters — at least then 1/4 of their genetic make-up would then be passed along.)

Thus, patriarchy was both strongly enforced and inherently unstable: Men held the legal power and the physical strength, but only women knew with confidence the identity of their children. Yet that biological identity was of vital importance.

The question is whether biology should continue to be so central today. Undoubtedly, there are good effects to making biological fathers responsible to their children, however difficult that responsibility may be to enforce: Men will take responsibility for potentially procreative sex more seriously if they know that they are “on the hook.” And to the extent that the primal urge to pass on one’s genetic attributes still imbues men with an urge to provide for their offspring, there can be benefits to the child and the mother.

But note that I’m talking here about biology and “urges.” Maybe it’s time to develop a more sophisticated approach that recognizes these brute facts but isn’t enslaved to them. In this regard, consider the broadly different ways the law treats natural, as opposed to foster or adoptive, parents.

When my spouse and I wanted to adopt children, we became well-acquainted with the rigor of the process for ensuring that any kids we might adopt would be safe, secure, and well-cared for. There are home visits, probing questions about your life and your reasons for wanting to adopt, embarrassingly intense examination of your relationship, exploration of your parenting style (useless in the abstract, as any parent knows), and a quiz on the 50 state capitals. Then there are required training sessions and certification; additional sessions are required if you’re also interested (as we were) in qualifying as foster parents. Oh, and you also undergo background checks for state and federal crimes of all kinds — not just those including child abuse. After all this, you wait — and wait — for a match.

OK, let’s compare the process for reviewing the suitability of biological parents. Are you ready? I’m about to start now….. All done.

As everyone reading this surely knows, there isn’t any such process. It’s true that the law and society have evolved so as to get better about removing kids from abusive or neglectful homes, but the barriers to doing so are high, and (legal standard aside) the parents really don’t have to do much to get the kids back — often, their return leads to tragic results.

But such removals from the home are rare. In most cases, kids are left to fend for themselves in some dismal situations.

I’m not suggesting that biological parents undergo the same kind of comprehensive process that is in place for foster or adoptive placements — it’s probably practically impossible, anyway. But I think that the model for screening non-birth parents has lessons for the treatment of all families: Why not offer (require?) state-funded parenting classes? Does the state have a right, even a responsibility, to identify risk factors for children and then to intervene in some way before those risks materialize in injury of some kind? Efforts to address some of these questions might lead to clumsy governmental snooping — a real risk. But doing nothing has its own perils, as we know.

In short, once we start questioning the continued preeminence of biology, the questions start tumbling forth.  I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

Categories: adoption, biology, Social Justice Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,