Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Musings: The Fraying Social Fabric

The moon, thinning fast, was white and floating on a patch of apricot in a sky of patchy blue and rolling gray when Koko and I went out walking this morning. The mountains, darkly capped with fluffy swirls, held the threat — or promise — of rain.

Birds trilled and sang, their voices vibrant in the temporary absence of whistling wind that at various times in the past few days threatened to rip my car door right off its hinges when I opened it.

We soon ran into my neighbor Andy, and as his dog, Momi, chased chickens that Koko, in leashed frustration, could only covet, our conversation rambled through dogs getting hit by cars, cat allergies, lawsuits and alternative medicine before settling in on the economic situation, which is far less likely than the day to turn sunny.

A friend in real estate told me he’d been chatting with A&B’s economist, who said he wasn’t expecting real estate sales to pick up until 2017. Meanwhile, the credit counselor leading a symposium I attended as part of my part-time job said home values aren’t expected to return to their prior levels for at least another 12 years.

As I told Andy, the counselor reported that while she’d been seeing about 300 clients per month on the Big Island in recent years, the number jumped to more than 800 in 2009, with about three-quarters of the clients declaring bankruptcy.

Andy said it annoyed him that people are allowed to write off their debts, or renegotiate their tax bills, because it means that other people will have to pay more.

“You’re sounding like a Republican,” I admonished, before telling him that the counselor had said the recent rise in bankruptcies, foreclosures and debt consolidation was not caused by folks seeking to shirk their responsibilities.

Instead, she said, they simply can’t pay their bills, given the combined effects of the imploding housing market, greedy banks sticking it to credit card holders, who in some cases are paying an insane 40 percent interest rate, and, of course, job losses.

Andy, pointedly ignoring my question about whether his disdain for bankruptcy meant he was an advocate of debtors’ prison, said he’d been reading an interesting article in The Atlantic Monthly about how joblessness — now at about 10 percent, with the average duration of unemployment surpassing six months for the first time since the feds began keeping such statistics in 1948 — affects people, particularly men.

“They start beating their wives and kids more,” I said.

It’s true. According to the article:

Last March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline received almost half again as many calls as it had one year earlier; as was the case in the Depression, unemployed men are vastly more likely to beat their wives or children. More common than violence, though, is a sort of passive-aggressiveness. In Identity Economics, the economists George Akerloff and Rachel Kranton find that among married couples, men who aren’t working at all, despite their free time, do only 37 percent of the housework, on average. And some men, apparently in an effort to guard their masculinity, actually do less housework after becoming unemployed.

And as the article also reports:

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008. In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. At the time of this writing, it looks possible that within the next few months, for the first time in U.S. history, women will hold a majority of the country’s jobs.

Joblessness tends to corrode marriages, the article reported, with W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, noting:

It may sound harsh, but in general, he says, “if men can’t make a contribution financially, they don’t have much to offer.”

Well, especially if they aren’t doing the housework, either.

The article went on to say that Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and an expert on family life, "fears that marriage is being supplanted as a social norm by single motherhood and revolving-door relationships."

And that trend is apparently not good for men, or the rest of us, either. According to the article, communities with large numbers of unmarried, jobless men take on an unsavory character over time as the guys get into drugging, drinking and crime. Or as Wilcox noted:

“Marriage plays an important role in civilizing men. They work harder, longer, more strategically. They spend less time in bars and more time in church, less with friends and more with kin. And they’re happier and healthier.”

That trend is apparently not good for kids, either:

But a large body of research shows that one of the worst things for children, in the long run, is an unstable family. By the time the average out-of-wedlock child has reached the age of 5, his or her mother will have had two or three significant relationships with men other than the father, and the child will typically have at least one half sibling. This kind of churning is terrible for children—heightening the risks of mental-health problems, troubles at school, teenage delinquency, and so on—and we’re likely to see more and more of it, the longer this malaise stretches on.

Yet even those social woes don't reflect the full extent of the fallout from down economic times, according to the article.

One study showed that college graduates who entered the job market during previous recessions hadn’t closed the income gap even 15 years later, despite raises and promotions, and they were less likely to work in professional occupations. Another study found that long bouts of unemployment provoke long-lasting changes in behavior and mental health among young people, including depression and a heavy drinking habit as they approached middle age.

Other studies link joblessness to a decline in physical health, with two researchers recently finding “that particularly among men in their 40s or 50s, mortality rates rose markedly soon after a layoff,” according to the Atlantic Monthly article. “[T]he lives of workers who had lost their job at 30… were shorter than those who had lost their job at 50 or 55—and more than a year and a half shorter than those who’d never lost their job at all.”

While income inequality usually falls during a recession, indicating that everyone’s sharing the pain, that hasn’t happened with this one. According to a new study by the Spectrem Group, the number of U.S. households with a net worth of $1 million or more than $5 million is on the rise. And according to Labor Department data:

If the current trend continues, then the American income gap will resemble that of Mexico by year 2043.

Not surprisingly, a lot of folks aren’t handling the economic crisis well. As the Atlantic Monthly reports:

One National Journal poll in October showed that whites (especially white men) were feeling particularly anxious about their future and alienated by the government. We will have to wait and see exactly how these hard times will reshape our social fabric. But they certainly will reshape it, and all the more so the longer they extend.

And that's something that all the reporting on the economy hasn't really touched on.


Anonymous said...

funny. here we note how important it is to be gainfully employed, and then i bet if we were to follow the advice of the people on this pending radio show there would be an even greater local economic fallout


Anonymous said...

refreshing to hear Joan talk like a conservative once in a while.

Breakfast of Champions said...

As a single mom, I really want to say something about single parenthood.

Despite all of the hurdles and obstacles our little ohana has been through, I gotta say that my kids have turned out great.

They turned out that way, because I made a decision not to allow men, drugs, alchohol and bad people into our lives, and have kept my word on that. My kids mean way more to me then any personal relationship with anyone else.

They turned out that way because I stopped trying to stuff their heads full of empty religious dogma, but allow them to act upon their own good natures and common sense of humanity.

I don't allow others around our little ohana who make trouble and cause dissension. Do that, and you do not have an invitation to our lives. Period.

This allows my kids to decide for themselves when kids they hang out with may not be good for them, and they have both done an excellent job from weeding out those whose friendships that do not enhance them as human beings. (Although sometimes I do voice my opinion on the matter! :D)

In our house there is freedom of speech, although sometimes I do feel the need to editorialize from time to time.

This teaches them to stand up for themselves and others in a world where arguing and debate has become a national spectator sport.

But they have gotten really really good! Sometimes it sounds like Glenn Beck and Keith Obierman around our house.

But in the end we always hug and make up. And we love each other very much.

Also, both of my children have grown up with the idea to make themselves and their lives better. They have learned not to make my mistakes, while hopefully taking my best qualities and integrating them into their best qualities.

They are strong minded and independent thinkers, who both have their own individual lives, pursuits, ideas, friends, beliefs and accomplishments. They are each unique individuals, and I am very proud of both of them.

I care where my kids are, who they are with and what they are doing. That to me is being a good parent. Too many parents have no idea where the kids are or who they are with or what they are doing.

I make sure that I have a good support system of family and friends, and know where to go in the community should I or the kids need help.

The election of a President that had a single mother for a parent and was raised by grandparents, swayed me more than the color of anyones skin. I felt that finally the case against single kids being the scourge of the world because they were raised by single parents was over.

Its time to take a new look at single parenthood, outline the successes of many kids who turn out not only just fine, but exceptional. I think that my two kids are a perfect case in point.

And they are not exceptions either. Kids of single parents do great things every day in our communities. We don't give them, or the parents the respect they deserve. And that includes all single parents, dads too.

Let us hope, that the first President raised by a single mom, and grandparents who struggled to give him a good education, and whose mother pierced his consciousness with a desire to do good for people all over the world, and here in our country is treated with the respect he deserves.

With that respect, comes respect for my two kids as well. Without that respect, and that dignity afforded to kids of single parents, people that tend to think discriminatory fashion and in a prejudiced way against them will continue to undermine the successes and glorify the failures.