Fatherhood and a Misguided Economic Philosophy
Posted on January 22, 2016
It probably will not come as a surprise that I disagreed with many programs and funding decisions made by George W. Bush’s administration. However, one area that interested me was the focus on fatherhood and the idea that programs focused on fatherhood could impact social and economic issues in communities experiencing poverty. As part of my reading on poverty, I picked up George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty which is often referenced by the political right, or supply-side thinkers, when creating policies and programs to address poverty.
Gilder’s language and tone were hard for me to stomach at times – for example: “Liberals force lower middle-class families, who love their children, to dispatch them to ghetto schools dominated by gangs of fatherless boys bearing knives.” However, I really gained an understanding of conservative economic policy and the “why” behind many of the approaches that seem illogical from someone working in poverty. Fatherhood was so central to Gilder’s thinking that he stated, “The first priority of any serious program against poverty is to strengthen the male role in poor families.”
From my experience, not research, I didn’t fully disagree with Gilder’s statement. While I had no proof that fatherhood should be the “first priority” it wasn’t hard to run the numbers about how many fathers were involved in the lives of the kids I worked with in juvenile justice or child welfare programs. My “typical” client had no contact with his father due to death (usually gang-related), imprisonment, addiction, or just disappearing, usually very early in my clients’ lives. While I didn’t have much proof that a father’s involvement would have kept the kids I worked with out of trouble the lack of involvement sure didn’t seem to help.
While my experiences with Fatherhood programs were mainly positive ones, reading Wealth and Poverty gave me a much deeper understanding of the political philosophy that drove these programs into communities. “In a world where women do not say no, the man is never forced to settle down and make serious choices. His sex drive–the most powerful compulsion in his life–is never used to make him part of civilization as the supporter of a family. If a woman does not force him to make a long-term commitment–to marry–in general, he doesn’t. It is maternity that requires commitment. His sex drive only demands conquest, driving him from body to body in an unsettling hunt for variety and excitement in which much of the thrill is in the chase itself. The man still needs to be tamed. His problem is that many young women think they have better things to do than socialize single men.” Welcome to conservative economic reading, my friends!
From quotes like this, an animalistic view of human nature emerges, as well as how that nature keeps people in poverty. Men have greater “drives to produce in the workplace,” while we liberals “still encourage a young woman to sacrifice her twenties in intense rivalry with men, leaving her to clutch desperately for marriage as her youthfulness and fertility pass.” The culture of poverty comes up strongly in this view as well: “The welfare culture tells the man he is not a necessary part of the family; he feels dispensable, his wife knows he is dispensable, his children sense it.”
It was like reading through an odd mix of Freud and Skinner, with a racist imagery of the raging black man who is ready to fuck or kill at a moment’s notice. This misguided understanding of human motivation seems to make it possible to actually believe that people enjoy living in poverty, because liberal policies make being poor easy. “The fundamental fact in the lives of the poor in most parts of America is that the wages of common labor are far below the benefits of AFDC, Medicaid, food stamps, public housing, public defenders, leisure time and all the other goods and services of the welfare state.”
I do believe, once I regulated myself with a large dose of mindful breathing, that Gilder and conservatives care about those in poverty. They care about the people as much, if not more, than they are concerned with the economic drain they believe the poor having on the rest of society. While I disagree with basically all of Gilder’s conclusions, I see him searching for solutions and ways to help those in poverty find a way out.
The problem is that the fundamental philosophy of Gilder’s thinking is so out of line with the science of neurobiology, trauma, and motivation that implementing policy driven by this philosophy does tremendous harm. While this is somewhat forgivable in his early work, “A new edition for the Twenty-First Century” was just published in 2012, with little acknowledgement of the tremendous scientific progress made since Wealth and Poverty was first published in 1981. This would all be easy to ignore if it wasn’t driving policy, and if echoes of Wealth and Poverty were not being yelled from the Republican debate stage.
I also took a moment to reflect on us as service providers. I realized that throughout my career I’ve jumped at dollars without thinking about the philosophies driving these funds. The Welfare to Work movement coming out of the terribly misguided welfare reforms of the mid 1990s and the Fatherhood programs are two great examples. I saw opportunities to increase services without taking a moment to research the philosophies behind the programs, or even asking does the community need this or is there any proof this will even work?
On one hand, I’ve seen lives impacted in a positive way by these programs. On the other, I wonder how many people like myself would have thought about these programs differently if we took a moment to dig deeper into the philosophy driving the dollars. I do think fatherhood is important, but blaming our basic instincts for poverty misses so many psychological and systematic causes that we lose any opportunity to help those looking for a way out.