8 Series to Binge on After Finals

I’m coming into the home stretch here for spring quarter finals, which means study, study, study and write, write, write. I’m looking forward to vegging for a bit, and I’ve got a running list of book series and t.v. shows I need to catch up on (or start).

orphan blackOrphan Black: I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard great things about it. Today I read this break-down on the Mary Sue titled, Sympathetic Characters: Gender Bias, Villains, & Orphan Black, and that convinced me. 


scandalScandal: I love to hate me some Fitz. I think Mellie and Olivia are well-written, complex characters who make morally ambiguous choices in the circumstances available to them … but Fitz sucks. There is nothing redeeming about that guy. I don’t understand why everyone thinks he’s the bees knees, when he’s just a self-absorbed ego maniacal abusive asshole who just completely ignores Olivia’s limit every. single. time. Livvy keeps saying, “No, we’re done,” and he keeps ignoring her and forcing kisses on her to shut her up or cut her off or silence legitimate questions/ complaints. Man, I hate how he uses “affection” to silence her, and she acts like it’s this grand, great romance. Textbook abuse. But I need to catch up on the most recent season. Fingers crossed that Fitz gets pushed out a window, but I’m guessing the writers won’t do that. The Fitz/ Livvy thing (as stupid as it is) is central to the show.

falling skiesFalling Skies: John just started watching this, and from what I can see out of the corner of my eye as I frantically try not to get sucked in because I have books to read and papers to write, it looks amazing. I love well-done sci-fi, and this is directed by Steven Spielberg. The storyline and writing is good enough that I can almost overlook the fact that pretty much every male character’s backstory and character development is reliant on the fridging trope. Also, the main protagonists are all male, and women all seem to exist mostly to support/ prop up the men … I don’t think in my half-assed watching, I’ve yet seen it pass the Bechdel test. But John’s only just started season 2 (I think), and I’ve only paid close attention through about 3 full episodes … I’m going to have to binge watch to catch up. Anyway, although those are valid complaints/ things to notice, it’s a well-written and interesting sci-fi show, and I like that.

orange is new blackOrange is the New Black: The second season of this Netflix original is airing on June 6, 2014, just as my classes are wrapping up. Perfect for a weekend binge post-graduation! I am super stoked. Talk about diversity and strong, well-written female characters! I can’t wait.


sherlockSherlock: Okay, so I’m a little ambivalent about this on, but it’s also been recommended by The Mary Sue. Though I normally love BBC shows, I’ve avoided Sherlock because of what Steven Moffat did to Doctor Who after he became the showrunner. He does not write women well, and he made the Doctor a leeetle bit creepy, with the utter lack of personal boundaries and the constant kissing of startled women. I mean, I loved Matt Smith’s depiction of the Doctor, don’t get me wrong — but the show definitely took a turn for the worse after Moffat took the helm, and that’s mostly because he apparently lacks the talent or desire to write women well, and it’s especially noticeable with the contrast of the first few seasons under Russell T. Davies, or the few episodes written by authors with more talent and nuance (like Neil Gaiman).


mirror sightMirror Sight: The 5th book in Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series was released a few weeks ago, and I’ve been far too slammed with class-associated readings to pick it up. I have the Barnes and Noble page for this book as a homepage tab, and I plan on buying it as soon as spring quarter is wrapped up.


adaptationAdaptation Series: This is a sci-fi series YA written by Malinda Lo. She wrote Ash (a really awesome take on Cinderella), and I really loved her writing style there. I’ve been eyeballing this series for a while, but haven’t found the time to start it. Hopefully I’ll get that chance! Plus, this will go nicely with my commitment to read 50 books by authors of color this year.


laini taylorDreams of Gods and Monsters: Book 3 in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, published in April 2014. This is an insanely awesome take on heaven/hell mythologies. Plus, Laini Taylor’s writing is incredible. She has this lyrical, poetic voice that just envelopes you in her world — it’s really rare to find an author this talented. When I read the short story Spicy Little Curses in her Lips Touch  anthology, I swear I could feel the sun on my skin and smell the spices in the marketplace. Her writing is unreal.


Reading Response: Eyes on the Prize

book coverEyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1945-1965by Juan Williams (Fox News)

As I began reading Eyes on the Prize, I was particularly caught by the story of Kenneth Clark and how his Dolls Study was used as evidence in the Briggs v. Clarendon County case. I think this is a great example of the combination of legal strategy and action with the intent to change public opinion. From the quote on page 20, “It was highly unorthodox evidence to present in a courtroom, but the situation called for unusual legal ammunition.”, it is clear they were aware of the charged nature of this decision.

This choice must have had more impact in the legal and public spheres than is focused on in this book, as it is now relatively common for a court of law to seek the expert opinion of a mental health worker. Psychologists and others who work with the mentally ill are often tainted with a sort of stigma-by-association, yet in a high-stakes trial, they chose to highlight not only a psychological study, but a study done by a black psychologist.

It is clear why: Not only is the study itself sound, the ramifications are unsettling on an instinctual level. To prove the effect of discrimination on innocent young minds is an extremely effective way of inciting both sympathy and desire to act in the viewer — it draws on the innate human desire to protect our children from harm.

Segregated school in Georgia, 1941

Segregated school in Georgia, 1941

In many ways, both the legal strategy and the public action of the civil rights movement danced around this desire. Charles Houston drew on it when he focused his initial efforts of educational desegregation on the higher education levels, knowing that it would be less threatening to whites if it started in adult institutions rather than with children. He drew on this human instinct, too, whether consciously or not, when he filmed the contrasting situations of white and black children in their segregated learning environments. I suspect it is easier for a moderate white to be unconcerned about the plight of black children if they are not aware of the reality of that plight.

Who looks like the real danger here, Elizabeth Eckford or the angry white girls?

Who looks like the real danger here, Elizabeth Eckford or the angry white girls?

Clearly, hard-core racist segregationists didn’t particularly care if black children were in school, in the gutter, or dead. But it wasn’t the hard-core segregationists they needed to sway; it was the moderates and public opinion in general. I think Martin Luther King’s advocacy of nonviolent, passive resistance also appealed, in a sense, to the parent’s desire for their children’s safety. The nonviolent movement showed through both word and actions that blacks were not the threat segregationists were trying to paint them as. Indeed, as the movement progressed, the juxtaposition of dignified non-violent resistance of the blacks and their white allies to the lashing anger and rage of the of segregationists highlighted who the real danger to society was.

This is further alluded to on page 113, in an interview with a white student at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas:

“Other Whites, however, lost sympathy for the governor. ‘I began to change,’ remembers Craig Rains, a white senior at Central during the 1957-1958 school year, ‘from being . . . a moderate, who, if I had my way, would have said, ‘Let’s don’t integrate, because it’s the state’s right to decide.’ I changed to someone who felt a real sense of compassion for those students, and felt like they deserved something that I had, and I also developed a real dislike for the people that were out there causing problems.” (pg 113)

I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that the entire civil rights movement was predicated on the human urge to protect the children, but I do think that a sensitivity and awareness of this shared human instinct permeates the movement. It is present in the cases they choose to argue and the order they chose to pursue them in. It was a consideration in the way blacks and their white allies presented themselves to the public.

In the arena of national attention, they often focused on the violence done to black children. In the arena of legal cases, they chose defendants who were either children or adults who were not considered a threat to those who needed to be protected. They also chose to focus on litigation that either did not affect children and was therefore not perceived as a threat to white children, or that focused on the harm done to black children, which incited sympathy in moderate whites.

Demonstrators Facing Fire Hoses in BirminghamOn top of these choices was the decision to allow children to participate in many marches and boycotts, which both made for moving publicity and allowed their parents some potential level of protection from being arrested or fired for participating in the civil rights movement. Whether such decisions were conscious or subconscious, they positively impacted both the participants in and the observers of the freedom movement on a very instinctive level.

The impact of this was even evidenced by segregationists, who in the immediate wake of the Emmett Till murder were, “outraged at what happened,”(43) and promised justice would be done. As it turned out, justice was not done — but I do think it’s telling that in the immediate aftermath of the murder, the reported reaction of, “all ‘decent’ people,” was outrage and horror.

Emmett was 14 years old when he was murdered by an angry white mob.

Emmett was 14 years old when he was murdered by an angry white mob.

The Southerners did not initially respond with a meh, or (worse), glee: They reacted with the disgust any right-thinking person should feel upon learning of such an incident. As the media attention grew and swelled, the white community drew back on itself and became defensive and angry, but their first reaction to the murder of a child was one of horror.

It is appalling that the community reaction underwent the shift from horror to defensiveness, and even more horrific that we as a nation continue to defend the baseless stereotyping and murder of black youth today, despite the reality that whites are far more likely to commit horrific crimes. That we as a country apparently learned nothing from the unnecessary murder of Emmett Till is indefensible.

Today, many social activist groups say, “Think of the children,” when they try to defend or argue some stance or other. I suspect the segregationists said this phrase, too, or some 1950’s equivalent of it. It is interesting that a successful social movement is the one that does think of the children, and that considers the impact of their movement on all children, rather than just their children.

Misogyny is a Symptom of Sociopathy

Portrait of a Sociopath, Bento Comics (2008)

Portrait of a Sociopath, Bento Comics (2008)

What do the sociopathic serial killers Elliot Rodger, Adam LanzaAnders BreivikGeorge SodiniGary RidgwayMarc Lépine, and countless other serial killer terrorists, rapists, and abusers have in common?

They all expressed extremely misogynistic views.

Not just your run of the mill, normalizing misogyny — the “get back in the kitchen,” or, “women are irrational,” type of misogyny that people treat as a joke but think is ultimately harmless. No, these men viewed women as subhuman, bestial, and incapable of good. Rodger said,

Women are flawed creatures, and my mistreatment at their hands has made me realize this sad truth. There is something very twisted and wrong with the way their brains are wired. They think like beasts, and in truth, they are beasts. Women are incapable of having morals or thinking rationally.”

Other serial killers express similar views. Their attitudes were often well-known, either online or in person. They made frequent statements in interviews, writings, and conversation stating their extremist views. The warning signs were overlooked by authority figures, parents, the police (and society at large) because it was conflated with everyday sexism. Look at what George Sobrini said before his attack:

I was reading several posts on different forums and it seems many teenage girls have sex frequently. One 16 year old does it usually three times a day with her boyfriend. So, err, after a month of that, this little hoe has had more sex than ME in my LIFE, and I am 48. One more reason. Thanks for nada, bitches! … Girls and women don’t even give me a second look ANYWHERE. There is something BLATANTLY wrong with me that NO goddam person will tell me what it is. Every person just wants to be fucking nice and say nice things to me. Flattery. Oh yeah, I am sure you can get a date anytime. You look good, etc. Pussies.” — George Sodini

Sounds weirdly normal, right? Just a regular guy who is frustrated at women and says some kinda sexist generalizations, then goes on a murder spree. Totally run of the mill. It reminds me of Sal Mineo’s character, Plato, in the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause.

Sal Mineo, James Dean, and Natalie Wood as Plato, Jim, and Judy.

Sal Mineo, James Dean, and Natalie Wood as Plato, Jim, and Judy.

Plato is one of the first characters we meet, when Jim Stark (James Dean) sees him at the police station. Through the course of the movie, you get the sense that the viewer is supposed to sympathize with Plato and feel compassion toward him. The thing is, the way Plato is introduced in the police station is extremely disturbing — he was brought into the station for shooting some puppies, and looks pretty sulky/ upset about being caught as the cop lectures him. No one seems to ping on the animal cruelty as a serious character flaw, though — it’s brushed off as boyish misbehavior.

Plato in the police station.

Plato in the police station.

Now, today, in 2014, we read animal torture and animal cruelty as a clear sign of sociopathic tendencies, thanks to the 1963 hypothesis set forth by J.M MacDonald. A character we are meant to sympathize with would never be depicted as torturing animals, because such behavior clearly signals to the popular culture that the individual is mentally and emotionally disturbed.

The primary link actually seems to be in repetitive animal cruelty and serial killing, not in MacDonald’s “triad” of sociopathic traits. The fact remains that in popular culture, the perception that animal torture = sociopath exists, and there is good reason. There is a strong correlation between regular animal cruelty and later violence to humans. I think there is a similar link between extremist sexism and sociopathy.

“Women are like a plague. They don’t deserve to have any rights. Their wickedness must be contained in order prevent future generations from falling to degeneracy. Women are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such.” — Elliot Rodger

Studies show that killers torture the animal for a variety of reasons — because they feel powerless and want to exert power, or they are curious to see the reactions, or they enjoy the pain. Perhaps they believe it doesn’t “count” because it’s just an animal. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that someone who tortures an animal lacks the ability to sympathize or feel concern for the well-being of the animal.

The statements made by serial killers, rapists, and abusers about women indicate a similar lack of sympathy for the personhood and humanity of women. The terrorists who commit abortion clinic bombings are worth a mention here as well — after all, they’re willing to resort to terroristic violence in order to enforce their will on the population of a town, county, or state.

Where do we see radical feminism ascendant? It is on television … in the military … in government-mandated employment preferences and practices that benefit women and use “sexual harassment” charges to keep men in line. … There is no doubt in the media that the “man of today” is expected to be a touchy-feely subspecies who bows to the radical feminist agenda.” — Anders Breivik

It seems clear that extremist expressions of sexism indicate a disturbing lack of human connection and empathy. I’m sure there’s a similar link between misandry and sociopathy, but at this point in time there aren’t any misandrist serial killer terrorist manifestos to cite — we can definitely trace a link between extremist misogyny and terroristic serial killers, though.

Now, I’m not saying everyone who says something sexist is a serial killer. I’m saying that because misogynistic sexism is so completely ingrained and acceptable in our society, it’s far too easy for people to dismiss extremist sexists as just socially awkward or angry and venting their rage. The problem, we reassure one another, is not the language we use — those guys were just crazy! No one could have foreseen it!

Except we could have. We could have foreseen it if that language was unacceptable. If someone ranting that women were beasts who didn’t deserve rights was so completely socially inappropriate that it was akin to defending the Holocaust. The problem here is:

  • Misogyny strongly correlates with sociopathy and lack of empathy.
  • Misogyny is socially acceptable.

What if this guy had been ranting about political figures, or bankers, or CEOs? What if his hatred and invective and threats were directed toward war vets or children? What if Rodgers had said,

“The first strike against women policemen will be to quarantine all of them in concentration camps. At these camps, the vast majority of the female police population will be deliberately starved to death. That would be an efficient and fitting way to kill them all off. I would take great pleasure and satisfaction in condemning every single woman policeman on earth to starve to death. I would have an enormous tower built just for myself, where I can oversee the entire concentration camp and gleefully watch them all die. … Women Policemen represent everything that is unfair with this world, and in order to make the world a fair place, they must all be eradicated.” — Elliot Rodgers

Do you think the policemen would have dismissed him as a polite but harmless young man then? Do you think they would have walked away so easily if he was making statements that were not socially normalized?

We live in a society where convicted serial rapists are set free, and 14 year old girls are told they invited their rape because they acted older than their years, and women are told to forgive their rapist. We live in a society where rape is so normalized that some people still don’t understand what actually counts as rape.

In culture where movie stars joke about raping women and rape is a cheap plot device, is it any wonder that the extreme misogyny of killers passes under the radar, and adequate much-needed treatment for severely mentally ill sociopaths is not provided? Here are some seemingly unrelated facts for you:

  • Rapists rarely admit to rape — however, when interviewed they will admit to “forceful sex,” or “nonconsensual sex,” or sex with a woman too drunk to be aware of what was happening. They just don’t see it as rape.
  • Vocabulary of Motive — When rapists do admit to rape, they justify it by minimizing the violence or claiming the victim enjoyed it.
  • Repeat Rape — rapes are perpetuated by a small segment of repeat offenders (about 1 in 25 men.)
  • Overlap of Domestic Violence and Rape — rapists tend to be abusers, and abusers tend to rape.
  • Anti-Feminism of Serial Killers — there is a noticeable link between serial killer terrorists and misogyny.
  • Lack of adequate mental healthcare — Mental healthcare in the United States was privatized and defunded during Reagan’s tenure, leading to a decrease in both quality and access.
  • Mental healthcare is still underfunded — States cut a total of $4.35 billion in public mental-health spending from their budgets between 2009 and 2012, and long-term inpatient care is extremely difficult to get, due to a lack of space.
  • Involuntary Commitment is Rare— In the 1970s, a series of well-intentioned state laws were passed across the USA that pretty much abolished involuntary commitment of mentally ill individuals (example). This makes it very hard for someone to be involuntarily committed today, which means that even when parents or authority figures are aware that someone is a serious threat to community safety, often their only real solution is to call the police (hint: this rarely works out well).
  • Prisons and Homeless Shelters: The New Long-term Care Facilities — Many mentally ill people are homeless or in prison because their families cannot afford treatment, or (even when they can), it is inaccessible and short-term.

When you put these seemingly disparate facts together, you get a much larger picture about how the broken state of mental healthcare intersects with cultural acceptance of misogyny to obscure and minimize clear sociopathic tendencies, as well as the ability to address and treat the underlying cause of those behaviors.

I hope that 50 years from now, extreme misogyny will be just as widely accepted as an indicator of sociopathy as repetitive animal cruelty is today. In the meantime, I think that we as a nation should focus on refunding and supporting our mental health infrastructure, both nationally and locally, in order to reduce occurrences of untreated mental illness.

We should also institute some gun control laws. I know this isn’t a popular view, and there’s always the (legitimate) fear that a lot of gun control proposals will perpetuate bias and stigma against the mentally ill. I suggest references.

Think about it — you provide references when you apply for a job, or when you apply for a loan. So I think that when buying a gun,

  • The buyer should be required to provide references (as determined by the state, but preferably no less than three).
  • One reference must be from their doctor or mental health care professional.
  • The seller should be required to verify the references before the firearm can be collected.

I don’t see how this can possibly infringe on the rights of sane and responsible gun owners. This should be status quo already — I mean, we provide character references to get a job or borrow money, but nothing for people buying weapons? That’s a little weird, isn’t it? With this most recent situation with Elliot Rodger, when you read through his manifesto it becomes starkly, strikingly evident that not one person in this boys’ life would have said, “Oh, yeah, sell him a gun. Sounds like a super idea. He’s totally stable.”

Final Thoughts on Classism Series

I can get a little verbose.

As a final note, the class differences explored in this series are not based solely on 1:1 comparisons of low income friends/ family and my family — early on, my husband and I had some disagreements that he (more sensitive to class differences) attributed to my middle class privilege. This sparked in me an ongoing academic interest in class and how it is perceived/ enacted in modern American culture, so the general differences I note throughout the series are based on a range of studies and research, as well as personal observation.

There’s a strong tendency for anyone to try and relate information to themselves and their own lives, which is reflected in my choice to include personal anecdotes and observations in a lot of the entries. When we discussed Lareau’s book in my Law and Outlaw class, my classmates related their reactions based on their personal experiences, and tended to discount the larger statistical data on that basis.

I find this frustrating.

This is a natural and obvious reaction, but it’s important to remember that these studies examine social trends, not individual facts. There can be a larger trend of poverty repeating and amplifying from one generation to the next with occasional success stories.

Lareau is also careful not to make value judgements on which style of parenting is preferable. I’ve also tried to maintain a neutral tone, although I don’t know if I’ve succeeded.

The middle class values so common in social institutions like schools, medical offices, and government have definitely primed me to see certain poor and working class behaviors (such as corporal punishment and lack of parental interest/ involvement) as physically and emotionally abusive. While I do see the drawbacks in concerted cultivation (*cough* helicopter parenting, *cough*), I honestly feel the best approach is to balance the two parenting styles.

Admittedly, this conclusion is based on my own parenting standards, which are based largely on the assumptions and resources was raised with, in addition to the conclusions from my research. That said, all the research indicates that most parenting styles rely less on the examples of our parents and more on the availability of resources.

In laymans terms, this means that if the children of a working class couple exceed their parent’s income earnings as adults, they’re more likely to practice concerted cultivation than natural development. It really is a question of resources — if all the parents are working full time (or at two or more jobs) just to pay the bills, then it makes it more difficult to engage in concerted cultivation on every level.

Lower-wage jobs often don’t allow the freedom of movement that salaried and white collar positions do. Consider when I worked as an errand girl/ receptionist in a law office — the paralegal was allowed to bring her children (same age as my child) to the office on half days, while I was told that my son would be a distraction to me if I took him on my shopping errands on half days.

That boss was such an entitled bitch.

I know many parents who’ve missed their kids’ parent-teacher conferences due to work conflicts. When it’s a decision between intervening on behalf of your child or getting fired, the ability to pay the bills wins out. That’s a resource difference in terms of time.

Lower-wage positions also make it more difficult to support a stay-at-home parent, or hire a nanny, which is why kinship relations are often so strong in poor and working class families — consider my husband, who was raised by his nana while his parents both worked full time, or the previously mentioned neighborhood mom, whose boyfriend’s cousin moved in with them so he could watch her sons when she travels or works extensive hours.

Ironically, the stronger kinship relationship don’t actually translate to healthy long-term relationships — family can often only rely on family for assistance. When someone in the family has an addiction or mental illness or PTSD or debilitating medical issues, it falls on the low-income family to shoulder the entire burden, instead of offsetting some of the stress to experts such as rehab, counseling, or medical care.

A jobless family member will live with them rent free, financial loans will go unpaid, unpaid childcare is expected. All these things, when stretched out over months and years, contribute to family stress and discord, and are far more common in low-income families.

You should watch The Heat. Excellent movie.

In contrast, consider the response of some local small business owners to the demands of childcare and medical stress: they hired a childcare provider to take care of their preteen children when they were both at work, but since the wife was not only an employee of the business, but the owner, she could work reduced hours and did so, choosing to come into the office for half a day two days a week. They also outsourced many of the scheduling and errand demands of middle-class parenthood to paid employees (such as having office employees pick up their groceries and deliver them to the house, schedule her kids’ activites on their calendars, and remind them when to leave the office for parenting duties).

That is what affluent middle class looks like — the ability to not only engage in concerted cultivation, but to set their own schedules, outsource the tedious parenting tasks, and provide around-the-clock supervision for the children.

To compare, John and I are lower middle class: we can afford to have a stay at home parent who can negotiate on behalf of our child with institutional authorities. We take family vacations and arrange scheduled enrichment activities for our child. Our communication and disciplinary choices reflect middle-class values. But we cannot outsource the tedious daily chores or set our own work schedules. John is lucky enough to have lots of paid personal leave with his employer, so he can usually take time off in order to attend parent-teacher conferences or other child-focused activities without a cut in pay, but he doesn’t have the freedom to simply leave the office whenever he feels like it.

A low income family is in a situation where both hiring childcare and maintaining a long-term stay at home parent is untenable. Instead, friends and family are relied on to provide childcare or help out financially by providing room and board to a homeless friend, sibling or parent– although the relationship is often expected to go both ways, and the boarder is expected to help out financially by contributing what they can to the household income. When one (or both) parties are unable or unwilling to live up to the expectations, that just increases family stress.

If you’re interested in learning more on the role economic stability or instability plays in family dynamics, I suggest the following resources:

Windfall Parenting and Money Mismanagement

One of the interesting topics I’ve come across in my readings is the class difference in money management. It’s part of the whole independence/ meritocracy myth that permeates American culture — you know, the idea that the U.S. is a nation of independent individuals, built from the grit and toughness of specific heroic figures whose singular actions shaped a nation.

Sculpture of George Washington, from Wikimedia Commons

Sculpture of George Washington, from Wikimedia Commons

People talk about the midnight ride of Paul Revere or the lone cowboy/ wild west, but ignore the other two participants of that midnight ride or the pioneer communities. All our historical narratives devalue the importance of community in our culture and reinforce the myth that individual merit is the factor that creates or destroys success.

By John Boyd [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a barn raising. Tools needed to complete: Wood, horses, A COMMUNITY.

So when you have this idea — whether conscious or unconscious — that your own individual merit is the sole thing responsible for your success or failures in life, then you obviously project that onto other people. Even when you’re aware of the ways that your race, gender, or parents’ financial situation and community opportunities impact lifelong choices, it’s still disturbingly easy to fall into the trap of judging the financial choices of others.

Apparently common reaction when someone has a nice phone and is on food stamps.

Okay, imagine this couple, Anne and Bob Pretend. They have three kids, one with each other and two from a previous relationship of Anne’s. Anne has a GED instead of a high school diploma, while Bob has a high school diploma but no college. Bob is a former Army vet, while Anne has a Nurses Aide certification. They are white, and their parents were also low income. Bob used to live here, while Anne’s family comes from another state. They met when Bob was stationed in her town, and have recently moved from her home state to Washington in pursuit of a job opportunity.

This is sort of a composite sketch inspired by several actual low-income families I know, so I’m not just pulling this out of my butt. Data shows that most low-income families on welfare are white, in a relationship, and have a statistically average amount of children. Just imagine your typical t.v. “working class” family, and you have a good picture of what welfare families actually look like.

Family Guy: Is Peter even employed? How come t.v. families never seem to live in duplexes or apartments?

Family Guy: Is Peter even employed? How come t.v. families never seem to live in duplexes or apartments?

Their monthly income primarily consists of child support sent to Anne for the two kids, which is about $750/ month, and Bob’s VA benefits, which are about $300/ month. They also get food stamps, and bring in under-the-table earnings from various odd jobs like housecleaning and vehicle repairs. They are often short on rent, and frequently borrow money from friends and family to meet their financial obligations.

In December, Anne was given $1,000 by an aunt to buy her kids Christmas gifts, which she bought … and then immediately gave to her kids, not waiting for Christmas morning. She spent the rest of the month venting about her inability to give the kids a Christmas morning, and several family friends came through, showing up on Christmas with gifts and treats for the family.

A few months later, Anne and Bob received their tax rebate, which was significant. They paid their unpaid back rent and a few bills, and then they bought their kids brand new bikes, a game system, and several other expensive toys.

What? Why? Why would you do that?

What? Why? Why would you do that?

You’re probably judging this imaginary family pretty hard right now, aren’t you? You’re thinking that they blew their money on stupid stuff, and this is why they’re poor. You’re probably muttering that if they managed their money better, they wouldn’t be so poor — it’s their fault for blowing it on toys instead of bills, or putting it in savings.

Let’s go a little bit deeper into their character history, though. Both Anne and Bob were raised by low-income parents. They went to poorly-funded, overcrowded public schools, and their employment opportunities are constrained by that background. They would both like to go to college and get higher education degrees, but their poor credit prevents them from qualifying for a loan. Plus, contrary to popular opinion, current research shows that the lower income a family is, the less financial aid grants they are awarded. So they can’t better their income situation through college.

Their income situation is constrained by their educational level, which was shaped by factors outside of their control (the income level and living situation of their parents). One might respond that any job will do — they don’t need to be CEO of Facebook, they just need to have a job. True.

But, the thing about jobs is that they’re actually still pretty difficult to find. On the low education/ low income side of the scale, jobs are a little easier to find … but they have demanding hours that don’t balance well with the demands of family, pay very little, and often don’t offer benefits (let alone affordable benefits).

In the case of our example family, the promised job opportunity they followed fell through after they arrived. Bob found work with a local telemarketing company known for exploiting and discarding low-income workers, but stopped going to work after their truck was repossessed and regular attendance meant navigating a bus ride that took about an hour each way, and often was unavailable during the hours he was scheduled.

Bob is chronically unemployed, due to serious and largely undiagnosed/ untreated mental health issues that prevent him from maintaining long-term employment — basically, every time he gets a job, he gets depressed or socially anxious after about 3 months and finds a reason to quit, or just stop going to work. Given that he is former Army, it’s more than likely he suffers from some form of PTSD. Although the Army is improving in their response to and treatment of PTSD, this is a recent turn of events, and Bob is both undiagnosed and out of the military.

Anne has been looking for work since they moved to the area, but has been unable to find employment yet. She does have her Nurses Aide certification, but the certification and experience were acquired in a different state, and she needs to take a few more classes to be compliant with the local requirements.

If she does find work as a Nurses Aide, the starting wage is state minimum wage, which is about $20,000/ year — still significantly less than the $82,175 budget the Economic Policy Institute estimates is needed to support a family of five. According to the MIT living wage calculator, even the median Nurses Aide income of about $13/hour is only slightly above area poverty wages, and does not approach the $22/hour estimated for a living wage. Even if both of them were working full time at the current local minimum wage of $9.19, they still would not be able to afford the cost of daycare for their kids — one of them has to work part time or less.

Starting to get the picture?

Since they moved to the area, Anne and Bob have faced difficulty in being able to meet their basic financial needs, and do not have the savings to cushion their situation or assist them in moving to an area with higher employment. Their family of five lives in a 3 bedroom rental home owned by Bob’s dad.

The rent is about $1,100/ month, which they cannot afford. Because Bob’s dad has his own financial issues, he can’t let them live there for free, but he does not charge late fees and is generally understanding. Though Bob and Anne are lucky enough to have a forgiving landlord, they often have to borrow money from friends or family to pay their rent and utilities, or buy groceries.

All that sounds really stressful and upsetting, and no doubt contributes to marital strain and household discord. But it has another effect, too, a very specific one. It influences their parenting choices.

Wh-what? Economic situation impacts parenting decisions?

Imagine that your child comes home from school with a note. It is from their teacher, praising your child on an essay that was so well done, they want to submit it to a statewide contest. If they win, your child will be recognized in an assembly and given a ribbon.

As a parent, you’re delighted. You’re proud of your child, and excited that other adults recognize potential in them. You praise your kid, and tell them how proud you are of them, and ask to read the essay in question. Maybe you put it on the fridge. Because you’re so pleased with your kid, you take them out for ice cream. You are explicitly rewarding good behavior. Child performs well in school, gets praise and ice cream.

Image Credit: Miss Jones Media (tumblr)

In middle class parenting, good behavior = reward.

This is true in smaller scenarios, too — you’re out grocery shopping, and your kid is quiet and helpful instead of a noisy pain in the patootie. At the check-out counter, they ask for a candy bar or pack of gum, and you say, “Sure, you’ve been really helpful. I think you earned it.”

Again, good behavior = reward. The two are explicitly linked in those situations. You don’t buy your kid ice cream or get them candy bars when they get in trouble, though. You don’t want to reward bad behavior, so a kid who comes home with a detention notice or a kid who spends the entire grocery store trip whining and begging doesn’t get little fun rewards.

Most parents like to both make their kids happy and reward good behavior, so we do this kind of thing all the time, and it’s great! It’s a widely accepted and acculturated parenting practice that rewards desirable behavior and links the value of effort and reward in the child’s mind. This parenting practice implicitly teaches kids that their work ethic is what will dictate their financial rewards in life, and it’s a normal practice for middle class and affluent families.

The only downside (in my opinion) is that unless parents explicitly teach their kids about the role of luck and circumstance in acquiring and maintaining financial stability, that awareness may never develop.

Wealthy people solutions: If you can't afford to go to college, ask your parents for a loan!

Wealthy people solutions: If you can’t afford to go to college, ask your parents for a loan!

But Anne and Bob, as seen above, are operating on a negative budget 90% of the time. They buy their kids stuff whenever they’re lucky enough to have extra money. They’re not trying to be financially irresponsible, or to teach their kids that good behavior is not rewarded. They just have the same desires any parent does — they want to make their kids happy, and they want to reward good behavior.

The difference is that if their kid comes home with an award, or is particularly helpful and cheerful on a given day, Anne and Bob don’t have the funds to get an ice cream or candy bar. They are in a situation where literally every penny counts, and on the regular day-to-day cycle of life, they can’t afford the little thoughtless extras that we should be able to take for granted, like a pack of gum at the supermarket to reward good behavior. Sometimes they can’t even afford to celebrate holidays or birthdays when they arrive.

So what happens is that when Anne and Bob get the surprise influxes of money — the tax return, the $1000 gift from a family friend — they spend it immediately on all the rewards/ gifts that their kids either earned or were promised over the past few months, which their kids get even if they are being bad that day, because they can’t afford to reward them in ways both large and small the rest of the time.

Splurge while you still can!

Because the gifts are not tied to good behavior, but to the economic ups and downs of the adults in their life, the kids learn to associate financial and material excess with luck, rather than good behavior. This is the essence of “windfall parenting.”

Windfall parenting actually decreases the ability of a family to teach frugality. Let me borrow and repurpose an analogy one of my son’s teachers used about bullying: Everyone has a bucket that they carry around with them. The bucket is full of good feelings, and we can dip into other people’s buckets and take their good feelings away, or we can share our good feelings and fill up the buckets of other people.

As parents, our ability to offer moderate or frugal rewards is tied to our ability to keep our child’s bucket full. If a family takes their kid to a museum on Sunday, and out to eat with the family on Wednesday, and pays for a class field trip on Friday, then the parents will feel more justified in choosing more frugal gift or restaurant options. Instead of the $150 bike, they might find a used bike at a garage sale for $50.

Instead of buying a newly released video game or console regardless of price, a parent might promise that the item will be purchased when it goes on sale if the child continues to behave well. After all, if the kid complains, the parent can point to all the other ways they’ve filled their child’s bucket of happiness.

Anne and Bob don’t have the economic stability, ironically, to wait for sales or good behavior that would teach lessons of frugality, saving, and rewarding work ethic. When they get a windfall of cash, they pay the overdue bills and spend the excess on the family. In response to internalized guilt for not being able to provide regular rewards for good behavior, Anne and Bob will be less likely to feel comfortable with buying the used or less expensive option, especially since the status-quo for their kids is making do with used and hand-me-down items.

When there is an influx of cash, Anne and Bob purchase new items at full price precisely because there are so few opportunities for their kids to own new items that bring admiration and envy from their social group.

So the next time you find yourself silently judging a low-income parent for money mismanagement, remember all the structural social, historical, and familial elements that are shaping their choices. There’s a lot more to it than just a perceived inability to budget.

Think about it.

Final undergrad stretch

I was going to post another entry about socioeconomic class today, but I haven’t found time to work on it. It’s coming up on the last few weeks of the quarter, and I’ve been pretty busy. I have to finish up my last 3 credits or so over summer quarter, but I do get to officially walk in Spring 2014. I found an online-only course for my summer class, which I’m really excited about since it will enable me to be at home with my family more often.

Family time!

My husband unexpectedly got a month of off work. He had a bunch of vacation time that had accrued. He spoke to his scheduling manager about it back in January, but the timing was never right with the SIT program and the schedules of his coworkers to be scheduled for the time off.

So now they’re coming up on when vacation re-ups, and he has something like 90 hours of paid leave just sitting there. He brought it up to his scheduling manager again, and as a result he’s been scheduled for almost a month of paid vacation. Plus, he’s already requested and been approved for time off around my graduation and at the end of July for a motorcycle camping trip — so he has almost the entire summer off!


I’m hoping he’ll use the time I’m in class to organize the garage and tidy up the house in addition to his planned projects and activities. I’m betting he’ll be hitting some garage sales with Kidling.

I’m just really tired. I’ve been reading so much. I love to read, and all these books are totally the types of books I’d enjoy reading for pleasure … but I kind of miss having, I don’t know, freedom of selection. I want to read Mirror Sight. I want to work on my list of 50 Books by Authors of Color. I want to get started on Saga, but I just don’t have time right now. I have an ever-growing stack of too-read books that I have to push to the back burner while I focus on my class readings.

Summer Plans: Finish Bachelor’s Degree, start reading.

I keep telling myself, soon, soon. We were assigned reviews of Law & Outlaw class readings over each of the breaks — winter and spring — and I totally did not even come close to reviewing them. I figured I’d already read them, and I just binged on fantasy. This week, my assignments are:

Law & Outlaw

American Families

I read quickly. The last time I timed myself, I was on the cusp of speed reader — above the average American, but still unconsciously subvocalizing as I read. Even so, this amount of reading is demanding, especially when it’s for school — when I read for pleasure, I just blast through it. For classes, I read with a highlighter and pen to hand, and pause frequently to write thoughts or reactions in the margins and highlight pertinent sections. I’ve so gotten in the habit of highlighting relevant/ interesting statements that I accidentally started highlighting the good sentences when I was editing my classmates paper on Thursday!

Welfare Queens and the -Isms of Poverty | Socioeconomic Class & Child Development

V. Welfare Queens and the -Isms

welfare queenYou’ve probably heard about the welfare queens who scam thousands of dollars from hard-working taxpayers, right? Reagan apparently talked about one in particular so much that she became a cultural meme. Josh Levin over at Slate actually did a long-form feature on the welfare bogey woman of Reagan’s nightmares, and dug up some interesting facts in his research. For one, the original welfare queen was not a woman of color — she was a white woman who “passed” as various ethnicities at various times. For another, she was well-known as a bit of a sociopath and a con-woman — not your ordinary American. And finally, she was being investigated by a police officer, but the investigation was stopped, thanks to internal political conflicts of interest.

By Dan Piraro

By Dan Piraro

But we’re not here to talk about Linda Taylor, the first “Welfare Queen.” We’re here to talk about why single moms on welfare have become such monsters, and that’s a different story all together.

That’s a story about class and classism, the changing dynamics of the family over American history, and the stories we tell ourselves about our shared history.

In a nutshell, the American family has undergone some pretty drastic changes since the first colonists built their homes on American soil. Early American families were more agrarian/ community based, with the entire family contributing to domestic household production. As the country became more industrialized, production (and men) moved into the public sphere, and women shifted into the primary role in the domestic sphere. At the same time gender roles became more demarcated, class became more of an issue.

Ironically, the individualism that feeds American self-perception has a great deal to do with creating class discrimination. See, under the older community-based models, religiously informed perceptions of the world were a little different. Religious belief at the time said everyone had a divinely mandated role in life, and that earth was like heaven, where God ruled over angels and lesser nephilim. When God put you on earth, he put you into the role you were born to play. So nobles were nobles, and peasants were peasants, and everyone just accepted this idea of a divine plan guiding their life situation. It was not the fault of a peasant that he was a peasant, anymore than a king being a king — that was God’s plan.

Pictured: God's plan.

Pictured: God’s plan.

This meant all the moral individual blame of poverty was absent from the situation. The peasant was poor because God needed peasants for kings to rule over, not because he was lazy or stupid or immoral. So it was seen as the moral duty of the wealth and ruling class to make sure that the basic needs of the poorest in their community were met. It wasn’t a perfect system, and it was just as subject to abuses as modern systems are, but in general people understood involvement in the community to be divinely mandated (for good and ill — this mindset also justified spying on your neighbors in their house in order to catch them in wrongdoing).

Cartoon of a lazy Irish hobo.

Cartoon of a lazy Irish hobo.

The idea of predestined class roles is so counter to the values of a democratic society valuing individual effort that it became necessary to justify the existence of the poor. So after the American Revolution, as we moved into the 19th century and an industrialized economy, we start getting these moral judgements about how poor people are poor because they’re lazy, or greedy, or immoral.

In middle and upper class families, there was a shift toward valuing their children as individuals to be carefully cultivated. While this attitude slowly trickled down to working class/ poor families, the reality was that they needed the income their children could bring in by working. It wasn’t until labor laws restricting child labor were passed that there was a large drop in child labor across all classes.

Around the time of the Great Depression, there was a bit of a hearkening back to the original community values our country was built on, as the economic crash affected not only the usual poor and working class populations, but vast swathes of the American middle class. Suddenly, people realized that poverty wasn’t necessarily a personal moral failing, but just bad luck combined with the fluctuations of the economy.

The Great Depression affected all classes.

The Great Depression affected all classes.

Social welfare programs were put into place, and because of the specific historical trends that led to valuing women in the domestic sphere and men in trade/ politics/ business, a lot of these social welfare programs were focused at taking care of the needs of white single mothers who lacked a household producer (man). In fact, the program was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

A mother and her children, Elm Grove, CA, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration.

A mother and her children, Elm Grove, CA, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration.

Black women were not eligible for the program because they had “always” been in the labor force. Not-fun fact: At the time AFDC and the first labor law protections were introduced, most black women worked in domestic labor, which was not protected by the new labor laws. In fact, domestic labor is still not fully protected under Federal US labor law, which is why organizations like the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance are fighting for the rights of domestic workers state by state.

Anyway, the point is, AFDC was an extremely popular program when it was first implemented, and one that primarily benefited (and was seen as meant to benefit) white women and children. Other government aid programs in the past also enjoyed general popular support, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave essentially free land to eligible US citizens (white men). Later, the G.I. bill post-World War II would primarily benefit white soldiers and their families, while the service of Black, Latino, Native, and Japanese soldiers was largely ignored or downplayed.

So when did welfare start to decline in popularity? That would be the 1960s. In 1964, as you’ll recall, the Civil Rights Act (take two) was signed into law. Black Americans — all Americans of color — were now protected under labor law and eligible for the government aid benefits their white peers had been accessing for decades. At the same time, the new wave of feminism coincided with a new sexual and contraceptive revolution, and suddenly, welfare turned sour in people’s mouths.

This was hardly the first sexual revolution in America. We’ve had several — notable tidal moments in the historical struggle for women’s rights include the Revolutionary War, when women increasingly joined political and business matters and looked toward their own rights. Abigail Adams famously wrote her husband,

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Obviously, Abigail’s request was ignored, and women were increasingly pushed out of the public sphere and into the domestic. However, education for middle and upper class women did increase after that, as the new role of domestic centers of the home also cast women as the primary educators and moral guides for their children. Another tide of sexual and feminist revolution, popularly known as the “Suffragette movement,” occurred from the 1870s to 1920s as more single middle and working class women moved into the workforce and changes in courtship patterns altered gender dynamics once more.

So despite the popularity of claiming that modern women’s rights came from the “first” feminist movement of the 1960s, that’s inaccurate. Interestingly, some decried the 1960s feminist movement as unnecessary, since women had “achieved equality” 50 years earlier when they entered the workforce in record numbers and acquired the right to vote. What made the 1960s feminist movement and sexual revolution so different from the previous historic tides that promoted the rights of women was the invention of women’s contraception concurrent with the increasing popularity and acceptance of marriage for love.

Companionate marriage

Victorian wedding portrait (Source: Wiki commons)

See, marriage has also been undergoing some pretty massive shifts since our colonial immigrant ancestors first stepped foot on America’s eastern shores. Marriage started out as contracts arranged between the parents of the couples to benefit the families and, to a lesser extent, the community.

Over time, as parents lost the ability to hold an inheritance over the head of their children, companionate pairings became popular. In a companionate pairing, the friendship and affection of the partner was valued as much as their economic value and social status. The companionate pairing eventually shifted to the love match, which is what we deal with today.

The biggest similarity between arranged matches and companionate matches was that the family was seen as existing for the production and care of children. If a marriage turned unhappy or sour, the perceived needs of the children were expected to take priority over the desires of the spouses. By the 20th century, the companionate marriage was already shifting toward the love match as we understand it, but it was really the creation of readily accessible birth control that kicked off this current movement of focusing on the couple relationship before the parent-child relationship.

By that, I don’t mean that modern parents are selfish or hate their kids. I mean that birth control allows couples the freedom to delay having children in order to strengthen the bond between themselves and make sure they are “set” economically, and to limit the size of their families. Middle class values have accordingly shifted, until it’s become normal and acceptable to delay pregnancy and childbirth until your education is complete, you’ve been married for a few years, and you are set in your career. Having children earlier in life, or before you’re educated and financially set, is seen as irresponsible and selfish.

rosie riveterDuring WWII, women of all races entered the workforce in greater numbers, and although they left (or were kicked out of) the workforce in droves after the war, black women in particular were negatively impacted by the post-war situation.

As noted above, black men generally did not benefit from the G.I. Bill, which led to economic distress for families. The strain of war marriages, enforced housewife status, and PTSD led to skyrocketing divorce rates across America in the years immediately after the war.

Chicago protest of redlining practices

Chicago protest of redlining practices

In black families, the reduced income of now-jobless black women and men led to increased financial strain in the black community of a whole. The increased production of post-war America shined a brief light of hope on the situation, as black men were more likely to find jobs and even union protection.

Unfortunately, union membership and representation was already plummeting by the 1970s. Practices such as redlining and white flight led to the rise of ghettos even as manufacturing jobs and other forms of employment disappeared.

This is where we loop back to welfare, feminism, and racism. So, back up a bit to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act, which was enacted at about the same time hormonal birth control became readily available and the high post-war production economy turned downward. All these previous factors I’ve described coalesced to create a situation where suddenly the predominant single mother in the public’s eye is the black low-income mother, instead of the white one.

Mother and child, Chicago South side.

Mother and child, Chicago South side.

Now, welfare still predominantly benefits white people — Blacks comprise 22% of the poor, but only take in 14% of government benefits. Whites make up 42% of the poor, but take in 69% of government benefits. But now welfare also benefits people of color, and apparently that leaves a really sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people. A program that was once pretty popular with the average working American is suddenly increasingly controversial. So … besides race, what’s that all about?

Well, it actually is about a few more things then race. It’s about feminism and classism, too. It’s about the myth of meritocracy, and representing poverty as an individual moral failure instead of a systemic social issue. It’s about blaming poor women for having sex outside of marriage instead of recognizing that our social structures are such that poverty is replicated and intensified from one generation to the next. Don’t believe me? Answer this: What are some of the most popular complaints about welfare today?

The Welfare Queen

Linda Taylor: The original welfare queen

Linda Taylor: The original welfare queen

She’s single, unemployed, probably a woman of color, and she keeps having babies to collect fat government checks. Unspoken moral judgments of that description: She is lazy, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

THE FACTS: Actually, from the 1980s on, welfare payments were not tied to inflation, so welfare benefits plummeted. As anyone who’s actually had a child knows, kids are expensive, and $60 extra a month in welfare benefits is not going to help. Also, other developed countries that have invested in their welfare programs have actually seen a decrease in family sizes among the poor. The Welfare Queen is a myth.

The Teen Mom/ Welfare Princess

photography by Joe Niem

photography by Joe Niem

She’s seen as a welfare queen in training, the young woman who romanticizes pregnancy and is too stupid to realize she’s putting her entire future at risk. Moralizers tut-tut over her perceived lack of concern for marriage and her tendency to have several children by various fathers.

THE FACTS: In what may be a surprising twist to many, research is showing that poor teen moms don’t delay marriage out of a lack of respect for the institution, but because they value it so highly. The poor have internalized middle class values that say an ideal marriage is not about having kids, but is about the love between supportive and equal partners. They’re putting off marriage not because they think it’s pointless, but because they want to avoid the failure and stigma of divorce.

Research also shows that for poor populations in American, teen parenthood has almost no impact on their lifetime economic situation. In fact, a study on two sisters — one a teen mom and one who was childless — show that their long-term financial situation was not at all impacted by the presence or absence of a child. Also, many teen moms credit their pregnancy and child with “straightening them up” and inspiring them to leave their wild ways behind and become responsible adults in the community.

The Drug Dealer


Too lazy to get a real job, he supplements his drug habit with occasional dealing and welfare benefits.

THE FACTS: Like the welfare queen, this one is a giant bogeyman. I’m not saying drug dealers are a bogeyman — clearly, they’re not. But I guess black market drug dealing must be lucrative enough that it isn’t worth the humiliation and hassle to apply for and maintain the lifestyle qualifications for welfare benefits. In the end, the few places where this has been implemented (and subsequently struck down), the program showed few results. Only 2.6% (108 out of 4,086 people) of those tested were found to have been using illegal drugs. It actually cost more money to carry out the program than it saved in cancelled welfare benefits.

Welfare Programs Failed

welfare state

We’ve been dumping money into welfare programs for ages, and the poverty rates have just kept rising! Therefore, the programs have failed.

THE FACTS: As mentioned earlier, welfare payments have not been tied to inflation for over 50 years. In fact, measurements of poverty and welfare are too conservative — they’re tied to an equation from the 1960s based on food prices, which were more expensive than the costs of lodging or utilities at the time. An updated equation would dramatically increase the official poverty rates in America, which would look bad for whichever political party is in office. Hence, incentive not to change the formula, which means both the issue of poverty and the social programs with which to address it are working with bad data.

Furthermore, welfare programs have been subjected to a war of financial attrition … Nixon, Reagan, and Bush all made budget cuts to AFDC, and then Clinton just sliced the entire program with his Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) “reform.” Actually, at the rare times in our country when welfare programs have been well-funded, they have been extraordinarily helpful in addressing poverty rates. The implementation of social welfare programs helped America survive the Great Depression, and poverty across America dropped from 24% to 12% when Johnson’s funding of his “war on poverty” was at its peak.

The thing about poverty that a lot of people don’t seem to realize, or don’t want to realize, is that it’s not about the individual. While the economic cycle is an established fact of capitalism, the natural result of this type of economic cycle on the poorest members of society is an uncomfortable truth that many people prefer to ignore. It’s easier to moralize and pretend poor people are poor because they failed in some way; they are weak of character or lack work ethic. In the paraphrased words of John Steinbeck,

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Money, Family, and Class | Socioeconomic Class and Child Development

This is the fourth in a series of posts on child development and social class. It’s my final project for my American Families class is on, so I need to know this material inside and out!

In section 4, we’re looking at the impact class can have on the life-long financial situation of a family.

IV. Money, Family, and Class

When family members transfer wealth from one generation (like parents to kids, or kids to parents) during their lifetime it’s called an “intergenerational transfer of wealth.” I actually learned the name for this at the WPC-14 in spring 2013. I’ve benefited from this my entire life, but I didn’t realize it had an economic term that could be applied to it.

In middle class and affluent families (MC&A), intergenerational transfers of wealth tend to go from the adults to the children — things like helping the kids with a down payment on a house, or co-signing a loan, or financial gifts, or business start-up funds.

This has an obvious benefit to MC&A children, since it reduces their financial burden and adult debt as they move from childhood to adult independence. Additionally, when MC&A individuals are adults supporting their own children and SO’s, they don’t have to spend their entire working lives stretching their paychecks that little bit further to support their parents. At most, they may support their parents during the retirement years. But in MC&A families, transfers of wealth usually flow from parents to children.

This is why Mitt Romney told college students to borrow money from their parents — his class status blinded him to the reality that not all intergenerational transfers of wealth go from the older generation to the younger.

In poor and working class (P&WC) families, these transfers of wealth tend to go from kids to adults. Kids start working as soon as legally possible  (sometimes earlier, with under the table or black market employment) to contribute to the family income. They help their parents out with bills and groceries, often even after they leave the family home and are supporting their own families. They help pay for car repairs, emergencies, funerals, and medical bills for their parents, siblings, and grandparents.

Now, it’s not that P&WC parents don’t want to help their kids out financially — it’s that they lack the finances to do so. Between 1975 and 1990, the wealth divide steadily grew. In the 15 year stretch between 1979 and 2004, household income grew by only $800 a year for the poorest American households, but increased by $63,100 per year for the wealthiest.

“Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.” — Mother Jones

The income of low income families hasn’t dropped because they’re lazy, or refuse to work. It’s because the traditionally blue-collar labor manufacturing jobs were increasingly exported to Mexico, China, Haiti, and Bangladesh during that same time frame.

“More and more, US multinationals are laying off workers at home and hiring overseas.” — Mother Jones

Check it: the highest job growth is in the industries of temporary employment, health & domestic services, restaurant, and retail. These positions are usually paid minimum wage (the Federal Minimum Wage is below the cost of living in most areas), lack benefits, and have demanding hours that don’t balance well with the needs of family life.

“The share of American employment in manufacturing has declined sharply since the 1950s, from almost 30% to less than 10%. At the same time, jobs in services soared, from less than 50% of employment to almost 70%.” — Economist

The wages of jobs that can’t be exported are depressed by the continued presence of undocumented immigrants in the work force. The problem here is not the undocumented immigrants as workers; the problem is that employers can use the undocumented status of an employee as a threat to prevent them from protesting violations of labor law. Plenty of people think undocumented immigrants don’t have labor rights, but that’s not quite right.

The real situation is a little more complicated. Undocumented immigrants are actually covered under the basic labor law protections — the catch is that if they complain that an employer is violating labor law, the employer can just deport them. If workers in these industries (of all races and citizenship status) begin trying to organize for a safer work environment, better hours, or better wages, their efforts can be cut short by the employer simply deporting the undocumented immigrants among them.

In other words, the presence of undocumented immigrants in a workforce is a way for an employer to keep wages down and prevent workers from organizing to demand better treatment. The solution to this problem is not to throw more money at the border in a futile attempt to prevent immigration, but to actually relax immigration laws. Once undocumented immigrants can no longer be threatened with deportation for trying to access basic labor rights, the equilibrium of the workplace will become more democratic.

This 2008 Pew Center graph shows where undocumented immigrants are employed. Undocumented immigrants tend to be employed in low-wage work, which bolsters the research of Chavez and others that the existence underpaid and exploitable labor class will keep all wages down for these positions.

Don’t blame the undocumented immigrants for coming to America. First off, when you tell the entire neighborhood that your house is the best and you’re having a kick-ass party where everyone gets prizes, don’t be surprised when the entire neighborhood shows up to the party. Second, as I noted above, the workers aren’t actually the problem — it’s the structural policies in place that prevent undocumented workers from complaining about mistreatment. They’re an exploitable working class, and the presence of an exploitable working class will depress wages in all industries where they’re present. Fun fact: the white small farm-owners in the South, the ones who couldn’t afford to own slaves? They tended to object to slavery on the basis that having an unpaid and exploited working class undercut the labor value of white working men.

When California became a state, their constitution outlawed slavery not on the basis that it’s inhumane and awful, but because the existence of an exploitable working class undercuts the value of American workers. This is also why after the railroads were built, Chinese immigrants were run out of towns up and down the West Coast, and immigration laws became increasingly restrictive. The presence of an exploitable low-wage working class always, always undercuts the value of that entire working class.

So next time you hear someone blame “illegal immigrants” for taking American jobs, remind them it’s not the worker’s fault. Unpatriotic American corporations prefer to import workers they can mistreat and underpay without fear of labor law complaints, rather than invest in the minimum standards of wage and work safety required by American workers.

This is the same reason, by the way, that American corporations ship all those jobs overseas. The usual story is that unions got greedy, but it’s (again) so much more complex than that. Corporations don’t want to pay minimum wages, yeah, but they also don’t want to invest in creating and maintaining a working environment that is up to basic safety standards. Look at the recent fires in Bangladesh factories contracted by American corporations. There are a lot of similarities to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that helped spark the American labor movement.

American corporations also don’t want their employees to enjoy a decent work-life balance. Look at the Chinese factory workers, who live in dorms on the factory premises. Sounds a lot like the “company towns” in our own pre-labor rights history, don’t they? American workers weren’t greedy, they just learned to stand up for the value of their labor, safety at work, and health after years of being exploited. The corporations who ship jobs overseas aren’t being “business savvy,” they’re being unpatriotic and inhumane.

Low income workers are often blamed for not getting better work. This relies on the assumption that jobs are plentiful, but poor people are lazy or stupid. First things first: Jobs are not plentiful, even for college graduates. High school graduates are even worse off in the job market.

In the first post, I talked about how class differences in child development styles influence the social behaviors and education of kids. Those differences come into play during the job search. Then there are the other factors, like unconscious bias on the part of the employee due to race, gender, or credit history. Those types of judgments are out of the control of the individual, but they still inhibit their ability to work for a living. You can acknowledge or deny the impact of this reality, but that doesn’t change its existence.

Maybe I could blame Americans who shop at stores like Walmart and Target, and so reinforce the demand for cheap goods produced by exploitable labor, but I don’t think that’s very useful. First, the CEO’s of these companies definitely know what they’re doing, but the shoppers may not be aware of their role in the system of worker exploitation.

Second, it’s a kind of a cycle. American workers aren’t paid enough, so they need to stretch their wages are far as possible. That means they need cheap goods, and the companies produce those cheap goods by exploiting cheap labor at home and overseas. The presence of exploitable low-wage labor continues to depress the wages of American workers, who continue to need cheap goods. It’s a vicious cycle, and the ones with the power to easily break it are the employers, not the employees.

What sucks is that during the same time frame that well-paying blue collar jobs were disappearing for low-income families and being replaced by low-wage work, the welfare system came under fire. Between 1970 and 1990, welfare payments actually decreased by 43% per family. American poverty rates were at their lowest in 1969 and 1970, at the height of President Johnsons’ “War on Poverty,” but Nixon, Reagan, and Bush all made cuts to welfare programs. Then Clinton just ruined everything by reforming the old welfare programs into the new TANF program, which has a 5-year cumulative limit. Welfare spending and poverty rates have grown since the TANF reform, so now we’re spending a lot and solving nothing.

So at the same time that full-time, unionized jobs are disappearing from the American employment landscape and real wages for working class families are plummeting, the government responded to a rising tide of political pressure and defunded the available welfare programs. In real terms, this means that a lot of working class and mid-to-lower middle class families have actually experienced downward mobility, as wages have stagnated or fallen and welfare benefits have increasingly been cut.

Additionally, American workers now work longer hours and take fewer vacations than any other industrialized first-world country, and for what? We don’t have more money, and we have even less time with our families than we did 30 years ago.

“For … many middle-class workers, job obligations are creeping into free time and family time. For low-income workers, hours have declined due to a shrinking job market, causing underemployment.” — Mother Jones

When you take all this together — lower pay, more working hours, fewer benefits, and reduced funding for welfare — what you get is a generational impact. P&WC families don’t have the resources in terms of time, education, or finances to set their kids on the path for success. The government and community are unwilling to invest in their P&WC populations, and so the same social structures that kept the parents in poverty limit the next generation as well. Remember, it’s not that P&WC parents don’t love their children, or don’t want to invest in them — it’s that they lack the resources to invest in the next generation in the same ways MC&A families can.

MC&A don’t necessarily recognize their class privileges, or some of the ways they rely on their parents for assistance. Legacy admissions to colleges, for example, don’t carry quite the same stigma that welfare benefits do. And MC&A kids whose parents help them financially may not realize how lucky they are to be able to receive money from their parents as they set up their future. This lack of recognition doesn’t make MC&A kids bad or selfish, anymore than the lack of resources available to P&WC families means they don’t care about their kids.

I would really like to stress that point — the simple fact of having access or not having access to certain privileges in life doesn’t inherently mean someone is good or bad. All it means is that they were born into a certain space and time where specific attitudes and social structures held sway, and they had to wield their personal agency in negotiating the paths available to them. Everyone makes mistakes, but those mistakes tend to be a lot more costly for P&WC families. Consider for a moment two imaginary women, Katy and Cathy.

Imagine that Cathy grew up in a poor working class family. Her father worked, and when he wasn’t working he was drinking. Her mother worked on and off. Cathy had three brothers, each of whom worked. Cathy was expected to clean the house, prepare the meals, and do all the laundry. She rarely had time for schoolwork, and often felt isolated and stressed. Her family often teased her for being a stupid girl. When she was 14, she dropped out of high school and ran away from home and dropped out of high school to marry a 17 year old classmate, who also dropped out of high school. When she was 17, she had her first child. In her early 20s, Cathy acquired a GED, and she has worked on and off in various low-wage industries over the past decade.

Now imagine Katy. Katy grew up in the same state as Cathy, during the same time frame. Katy also had two working parents and three older brothers. Katy was also expected to do household chores. But Katy was middle class, and her parents never assigned so many chores that they interfered with her homework. She had a wide circle of friends and a fulfilling social life. Her brothers were busy with schoolwork, sports, and internships, and although they teased her, they were generally supportive of her accomplishments. When she was 14, Katy started high school. She dated an older boy for a little while, but they broke up before it got serious. When she was 17, her parents helped her apply for her college choices and scout apartments in the cities she was looking at moving to. In her early 20s, Katy graduated with her Bachelor of Arts and decided to pursue a Doctorate of Psychology. She is currently working as a counselor in a local non-profit.

Same state. Same gender. Same time frame — the biggest difference is in the differing resources available not only to the girls, but to their families. No matter how much Americans like to deny it, socioeconomic class has a great deal to do with an individual’s upbringing and lifetime finances.

The family in crisis (again)

The family was in crisis at the turn of the 19th century. It is fascinating to read the contemporary dire predictions about the results of the rising divorce rates and splintering “traditional” family values from the perspective of a century later. I cannot help but wonder what the student of 2110 will think of our current debates regarding gay marriage and global warming. So why was the family in crisis as we approached the 20th century? You might be surprised to learn that it was the same concerns that fill the news media today: pre-marital sex, high divorce rates, falling birth rates, and women prioritizing work or education over homemaking.

There were other factors influencing family dynamics, as well. An ever-widening wealth gap created social upheaval and led to labor protests in cities, factories, and mining towns. Droughts throughout the south and changes in the tenant farming system caused black Americans to migrate north for factory work. World War I took American husbands and workers away to fight in Europe, and their return led to a government-enforced deportation of Mexican American workers. Young, single adults were living on their own in the city, away from parents or chaperones as they went to college or started working.

In The History of Doubt, Jennifer Hecht shows the social, religious, and lifestyle changes repeatedly occur throughout history as metropolitan areas become more diverse and various cultures intermix. Something similar seems to occur with family and gender dynamics. As young adults moved to the city, they shifted away from a traditional house-call based courtship toward “stepping out,” or dating.

Pride and Prejudice illustration

Pride and Prejudice illustration

Under the “calling” system of courtship, women handled much of the courtship process: vetting and inviting potential suitors to the home; denying or admitting callers; and choosing to allow the courting couple privacy or require a chaperone. While women did have power in this process, men were not powerless. The social weight of their gender and the assets a suitor brought to a match protected him from abuse of the system.

With dating, the balance of power swung decidedly to the male as he also took on the roles of invitation and hosting. The only requirement of women under the new paradigm was that they be amusing and interesting enough to make the investment of time and money worth it. It’s probably unsurprising that the term “dating” actually came from prostitutes, who would mark the “dates” their clients saved. From there, it moved into working class slang. Working class youth often lived in crowded dormitory-type residences that lacked a parlor, making the system of “calling” hard to manage. Dating was a natural alternative for them, and it was soon adopted by affluent upper class youth as a form of rebellion. From there, it trickled down to the middle class, and dating became a way of American life.

Amelia Earhart in a dress from her Amelia Earhart Fashion line in 1934.

Amelia Earhart in a dress from her Amelia Earhart Fashion line in 1934.

Fashion trends also reflected the drastic changes in society, as hemlines rose and necklines plunged. A little known fact: The groundbreaking aviator and feminist icon Amelia Earhart (born in 1897) designed a celebrity fashion line called Amelia Earhart Fashions, which was sold at Marshall Fields’ in Chicago and Macy’s in New York. Amelia funded her flight career through speaking engagements and celebrity product endorsements. Amelia is an exceptional example, but she was hardly the only woman to seek fulfillment outside the home. As America entered the 20th century, women across the country chose to delay marriage and focus on their education and career — women’s participation in the workforce doubled between 1900 and 1920.

The choice to delay marriage makes even more sense when considering the rising divorce statistics. Despite the restrictive and punitive divorce laws of the time, the United States had the highest number of divorces worldwide. Although pre-marital sex — and awareness about sexual intimacy in general — was on the rise in the first decade of the 20th century, childbirth rates for middle class women were actually falling. Across the country, politicians, educators, and self-appointed experts on the family shared their opinions regarding the perceived decline or progress (depending on their point of view) of the American family. Disturbingly, some conclusions about what it all meant were pretty racist — Teddy Roosevelt even expressed concern that the American middle class was committing “race suicide.”

The Idealized Victorian Family

The Idealized Victorian Family

As always, major social change inspired a backlash of conservative values from some corners of public opinion. In the midst of the social, labor, and gender revolution of the 1920s came a response idealizing the “traditional” Victorian and Protestant values of previous generations. Proponents of the movement to return to traditional values saw the idealized Victorian family as a refuge against an immoral and corrupt world.

As we know from the debates about gay marriage currently roiling through our own historical moment, any time one set of self-appointed experts’ voices their opinions, another set feels the need to set them straight. The experts of the early 20th century were no different, and a small yet influential cadre of academics and psychologists countered the conservative backlash to defend the new conception of family that was coalescing among the social tumult. companionate marriage

These experts praised the growing emphasis on affectionate spousal relationships and sexual fulfillment of both husband and wife. The companionate family may have idealized affectionate familial relationships, but that didn’t mean egalitarian gender roles. Research on family patterns in the mid-1920s showed a vast difference in the responsibilities and priorities of the spouses. Wives were responsible for all household affairs, childcare and discipline, and social engagements. They identified as caretakers and nurturers. Husbands were primarily concerned with their job, income, and household or vehicle repairs. Their self-identity as fathers and husbands was not in how involved they were with their families, but in their ability to provide for the family financially. This shift from the father acting as the moral center and disciplinary force to identifying through his earning capabilities occurred in part because of increases in the amount of time away from home, which was caused by work and commute demands.

Child development styles were also in flux at this time. Earlier family models of interaction had strongly discouraged open affection or teasing conversations between parents and children. That changed in the early 20th century as it became socially acceptable for families to show casual, open affection toward one another in a way that wasn’t common only a generation earlier. At the same time, youths were allowed more independence. This was happening at the same time as a nationalized form of popular culture really took off. For the first time in America, a working city girl on the East coast could hear the same news stories and enjoy the same entertainment as a small-town rural farm girl on the West coast, so long as they both had access to a radio or cinema house. All these elements coalesced to allow the birth of teen culture.

Dating in the 1920s

Dating as it was.

In the 1920 and 1930s, dating took a form that might look strangely familiar to today’s hook-up culture. Called “rating and dating,” this method of dating frankly “ranked” the date-ability of guys and girls. On college campuses and in high schools, listing ranking who was date-able were commonplace. Dating just one person was seen as a sign of how unpopular a person was, and so frowned upon. The ideal date would be where a guy took a girl to a dance, and she spent the entire time flying from one guy to another. For the guy, it meant he could “get” an extremely popular and likeable girl and show her a good time, which reflected well on him and meant he “ranked” higher on the scale. For the girl, skipping from guy to guy showed how popular and in demand she was, which meant she “ranked” higher on the scale. The worst social embarrassment a girl could experience was not changing partners at a dance.

It wasn’t just affluent and middle class teenagers who enjoyed close family relationships and more free time — by the 1920s, fewer working class families expected their children to hand over their entire paychecks to their parents. Instead, they took whatever was necessary to help cover their share of the family essentials, and the left the kids the rest to spend as they saw fit.

Scientific childrearing is another development from the turn of the century. It was promoted by the Mother’s Movement, which began as a response to a drop in domestic labor as more employee opportunities opened up for poor and working class women. As a result, the middle class women who relied on nannies, housekeepers, and cooks to manage the tedious minutiae of household work and childrearing suddenly found themselves holding the bag of domestic responsibilities. By educating young women in economics, nutrition, germ theory, and psychology as the ideal way to set them up as homemakers in order to teach them essential homemaking skills, the creators of home economics classes hoped to highlight the value of housewives. The sad remnants of this ill-fated attempt to help society take domestic labor seriously struggle on in today’s much-maligned “home economics” courses.

stocks crashIn 1929, however, all the concerns about immoral youth and skyrocketing divorce rates were put on the back burner as the Great Depression gripped the nation. The effects of the Great Depression on family life are almost unimaginable today. In 1929, no comprehensive social welfare net yet existed. Although signs of the upcoming economic strain had been evident on the lowest rungs of society for some time, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought the financial hardship to middle class and working class families. Following the crash, entire families were thrust into homelessness and malnutrition. Many Americans shared living quarters with their families or in-laws, and delayed marriage and child bearing. The divorce rate dropped, not because of solidarity in hardship, but because divorce was an expensive process that many families could no longer afford.

Family life suffered as marriage rates declined and birth rates dropped throughout the 1930s. Husbands and fathers who identified through their ability to provide for their family were suddenly stranded in their households without work. Often the mother became the primary income earner and money manager in his stead. Women did face unemployment during the Depression as well, but not at quite the same rate as men. For one, the women were paid less than men were. Another reason was that women worked in “pink collar” industries that were not as immediately affected by the bank closures and farm evictions. The sudden and discomfiting switch from being the household provider to being dependent on a woman’s earning capabilities caused a lot of depression and angst among working class men. The cultural conception of what made a good husband/ father had been so tied up in their ability to provide for their families that men who lost their jobs often lost their self-respect — as well as the respect of their wife and children.

In the 1940s, World War II brought America out of the Great Depression and definitively changed American dynamics in marriage, child bearing, and workplace demographics. By the time the U.S. got involved with the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it had been raging in the European theatre for two years. The industry and manufacturing sectors had been hit particularly hard, so the U.S. wartime production was not only to provide uniforms and munitions to the American military, but also to produce those same goods to sell to our allies.

working womenThe demand on the American manufacturing sectors streamlined efficiency and increased productivity. The wartime economic boom brought an increase in internal migration, as Americans gravitated to industrial centers in search of work, or followed loved ones seeking employment. Their presence created a demand for housing and other community developments, further encouraging the economic recovery. The demand for labor in manufacturing was intense, but the traditional labor class (men) was sent overseas to fight. As a result, the manufacturing industries began hiring women, blacks, and even teenagers. In many states, restrictions on child labor laws were temporary relaxed with special wartime measure to increase the labor pool.

Mel and Stan  Weddding Photo January 4, 1945 } www.galik.com

Mel and Stan
Weddding Photo January 4, 1945 } http://www.galik.com

The sudden drop in the male population affected the dating scene, too. Rating and dating was suddenly out of style, and “going steady” became the thing to do. The age of marriage dropped, too. Through the early 19th century, men and women had gotten married later and later — through the Great Depression, the average age of marriage was in the late 20s, for both men and women. With the onset of the war, though, young marriage became completely acceptable and the average age of marriage dropped to 18 for women and 22 for men. During the war, marriages rates skyrocketed. Approximately 1.5 million American soldiers got married during the war, and they apparently were not patient men — the sharp increase in marriages was accompanied by an equally sharp increase in childbirth — the population soared by 6.5 million during the war years, thanks to the wartime birth surge.

Wartime marriages had a very specific effect on black families. First, wartime wages brought about an abrupt increase in income, making marriage affordable for many people who had put it off during the Great Depression due to a lack of finances. This effect was particularly strong in the black community, who had faced discrimination, union color bars, and lower earning potentials in addition to the privations of the Great Depression.

Kanowia, Bud & Friends [PFC Stephen B. Thomas’ Album, 1940’s] [Black Soldier Series]

Kanowia, Bud & Friends
[PFC Stephen B. Thomas’ Album, 1940’s]
[Black Soldier Series]

Second, black women also enjoyed the benefits of increased earning potential during the war. Surprisingly, the increased financial earnings actually led to more marital instability in black families. In the decades prior to WWII, black women had adopted the role of household leader and financial managers, due in part to more reliable employment in the domestic sector. Although black women’s earnings did increase during WWII, they did not increase as substantially as the earnings of black men. This change in their economic profiles enhanced the authority of black men while decreasing the authority black women had held — a recipe for disaster.

Finally, birth rates nearly doubled for black Americans during the war years. A program instituted by the U.S. government to provide medical care and support for soldier’s wives during their pregnancy, labor, and the first year substantially lowered the childbirth mortality rate in the black community. Unfortunately, not all the new mothers had access to this military healthcare program — although some of the increase in children was due to wartime marriages, others were due to a sharp rise in teen pregnancy and single motherhood.

Childcare was a huge problem for working mothers of all racial backgrounds during the war, as the nation dealt with a sudden and unexpected transition to households headed by a working mother while the fathers were away, serving in the war. Some families doubled up, lived with family or friends for cost effective childcare, and reduced housing costs. Others could find no solution but to lock their kids in a room or their car while they went to work. The government did attempt to roll out childcare programs, but they were inadequate to the demands.

Teenagers in the 1940s

Teenagers in the 1940s

The new family dynamics affected teen culture, too, as the older and more self-sufficient teens and pre-teens suddenly found themselves largely free from adult supervision and in possession of extra money. Across the country, school attendance requirements and child labor laws were relaxed in order to allow all capable hands to support the war effort. Under the pressure cooker of war, a separate teen culture emerged.

Of course, none of this could last. The war ended, and the first workers to lose their jobs were the people of color and the women. Men and women who had married in haste, swept up in the mood of the moment, returned home to repent of their impulsiveness at leisure. By 1950, almost a million GIs and war brides had divorced. The rate of women in the workforce has remained high and continued to rise steadily since WWII in comparison to pre-war employment rates of women. That said, the immediate post-war years saw a not-always-voluntary exodus of women from the workforce.

Romantic relationships were affected by the end of the war, too. Aside from the war shortages, Americans were largely insulated from the violence and horror occurring overseas. This created a communication and perspective gulf between spouses. The women were upset about losing their jobs; the returning soldiers were suffering from PTSD and grieving for their lost friends. Both parties had legitimate needs, but neither was in a position to validate or understand the other. In order to negotiate this intense psychological distance, men and women retreated into the safety of neatly prescribed gender etiquette. Gender stereotypes and the proper performance of “natural” gender roles seemed to provide a structure by which families thought they could safely negotiate their relationships in an emotionally damaged era.

He resents them and she's on tranquilizers.

He resents them and she’s on tranquilizers.

Unfortunately, it also sowed seeds of discontent that would fester in a quiet undercurrent of resentment through America’s Golden Age. For example, Playboy was started by Hugh Hefner as a celebration of bachelorhood decrying the expectation that men should work their fingers to the bone to support a family who didn’t appreciate them. Meanwhile, women felt stifled and unappreciated, pulled from college educations and wartime careers to serve as housewives to resentful husbands. Through the 1950s, the economic boom continued, fostering the growth of suburbia. The tide of history now echoed the retrained values of a century prior as men and women pushed down their emotions and sexual needs in order to put on a happy face and try to enjoy the peace and economic prosperity of the 1950s. Soon enough, the sexual revolution of the 1920s would find its historical echo in the 1960s.

100 years of Celebrating Mothers

mother quote

Mother’s Day as we know it is usually credited to Anna Jarvis. The story goes that after her own mother died, the grief-stricken Anna became a driving force in creating a nationally recognized day to honor mothers. The later commercialization of the holiday disgusted Anna, and she spent the remainder of her life combating mother’s day.

What this story ignores is why Anna would choose that particular model to honor her mother, and why  she was angry at the popularized success of the holiday. So … why?

Well, the concept of a Mother’s Day actually began with Anna’s mother, Ann Reeves, who was a pacifist and humanitarian. Before the Civil War, Ann would organize Mother’s Day work clubs who tried to lower infant mortality, fight disease, and improve sanitary conditions. During the Civil War, they became a way for grieving women to honor fallen soldiers, care for wounded soldiers (on both sides), and work for peace. After the war, Ann continued to organize Mother’s Friendship Day picnics and similar pacifist events in an effort to unite the former foes.

So when Ann died in 1905, her daughter Anna saw the continuation of this pacifist, humanitarian, charity-based holiday as a natural way to honor the life’s work of her mother. Anna was successful in getting her town and several other cities to hold several Mother’s Day events on May 10, 1905.

1935 mass Mother’s Day protest at Malkin Memorial Shell

1935 mass Mother’s Day protest at Malkin Memorial Shell

Over the next several years, Anna was instrumental in encouraging more towns to adopt the holiday. By 1918, it was so widely recognized that President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May for the holiday. Then everything began to go downhill, at least in Anna’s view.

Anna conceived the holiday as a reverent day to spend in charity work and honor the guiding influence of your mother. She stressed the singular “Mother’s Day,” rather than the plural “Mothers’ Day.” But when the holiday went commercial, it was a commercial goldmine. Suddenly the holiday was celebrated by buying candy, flowers, and greeting cards. Fundraising events and charity galas took the place of humanitarian aid within the community.

moms day general

Anna tried to fight the commercialization of “her” holiday and return it to its intimate, reverent roots. She spent everything she had on lawsuits, protests, and boycotts. In the end, she died alone and penniless in a sanitarium. Mother’s Day as a commercial juggernaut powered on, and is now celebrated around the world.

According to CNN, 141 million Mother’s Day cards are exchanged each year in the United States alone, and one-fourth of all the holiday sales of plants and flowers are attributed to Mother’s Day. The National Retail Federation estimated that USians would spend nearly $20 billion to celebrate Mother’s Day in 2014. And according to Hallmark Cards, Mother’s day ranks in a close third behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day for the top three card-exchange holidays. This is exactly the type of commercialization Anna hated. She once said,

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world … and candy! Your take a box to Mother — and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”

Anna did start one tradition, albeit one that has largely faded from public consciousness — that of wearing a red or white carnation on Mother’s Day. The red carnation indicates a person’s mother is living, while a white carnation means their mother is deceased.

A Lladro carnation sculpture

A Lladro carnation sculpture

I remember the youth passing out pin-on carnations each year at church when I was growing up, and they were red and pink and white. I do not recall any discussion of the meaning of the colors, and I usually grabbed the white for my mom because I thought it was prettiest. My grandmother did not die until 2007, four years after my mom died.

So what is a mother worth? A Hallmark Card? Some chocolates? A single day of focused appreciation? Well, according to the Insure.com 2013 Mother’s Day Index, the domestic labor typically performed by mothers would be worth $59,862 in the professional world. According to this salary.com calculator, the local professional worth of my domestic labor is worth $145,940 annually.

mom paycheck

You might be surprised to learn that we are not the first generation to attempt to bring recognition to the value of unpaid domestic labor. Home Economics courses were actually started by the Mother’s Movement at the turn of the 19th century, as a means to educate young women in the science of motherhood. Students were taught biology, economics, and nutrition. The idea was that by quantifying the work of domestic labor, the worth of it would become more apparent and valued.

Obviously, that didn’t work out, and although motherhood is often called the “noblest of all callings,” it is not noble enough for a U.S. movement to actually reimburse stay at home moms (or dads) and make it financially viable for all families to have a stay-at-home parent to manage the domestic labor of the household.

Myself, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Mother’s Day. I used to love it. I would find the sweetest, funniest, goofiest card I could — something sure to make my mom’s face break out into her beautiful smile. We would make my mom breakfast in bed and give her gifts (both store-bought and homemade). At church, they passed out carnations and chocolates during Sacrament meeting, and all the lessons and talks were about the value of mothers. Dad usually made the Sunday dinners, but on Mother’s Day he would add a special flare — like flowers or candles on the table.

I may be a little biased, but my mom was the best.

I may be a little biased, but my mom was the best.

When mom died in August 2003, I kind of existed in a state of shock for several months. I didn’t cry very much. I felt numb and shut away. Occasionally I’d have bouts of rage or grief, but they were mostly private, witnessed only by my husband and toddler son. The first Mothers Day after her death crept up on me.

I was shopping at Target in May 2004 when I passed the card aisle, with its huge, focal Mother’s Day display. Automatically, I went to the display and picked up a card. It was cute and funny, and I smiled, forgetting for a moment as I thought how much my mom would like it. And then it hit me all over again, a 1000x worse because of the momentary lapse. I burst into tears right there in the card aisle, holding the card I wouldn’t purchase and my mom would never read, and I ached for the loss of her.

You are probably familiar with the type of display I'm talking about.

You are probably familiar with the type of display I’m talking about.

For the next several years, I tried to avoid stores around Mother’s Day, and most definitely avoid the card aisle. I wasn’t always successful, and I did have a few more (quieter) weeping fits in random card aisles. Since John and I don’t really celebrate “Hallmark” holidays, there was nothing to fill the void of my grief.

Then my son entered Kindergarten, and every year he would come home with some homemade trinket or card to give me, his little elvish face gleaming with barely-constrained excitement. His love and delight in the holiday began to supplant my grief, and now the loss of my own mother is a soft ache in the background, secondary to the love of my son.

Retrospective: 10 years of parenting (part III)