Things I Learned from My Foster Children, Part I

A little while back we took our current foster sons to visit the university where Eric teaches physics.  The boys had never visited a university before, and were curious about who goes there and what they do when they are there.   This led to a discussion of the value of a college education, what kinds of jobs require college, and what kind don't.

From here, we segued to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and it was here that the enormous gap between my biological children, trained from birth to see an adult profession/vocation, mixed perhaps with informal economic activities, as their future; and K. and C.'s very different experience.

Like a lot of kids their age, K. and C. have ridiculous expectations.  They want to be professional athletes, rap stars and/or maybe president.  This is pretty normal, and nothing surprising.  Other kids I've cared for wanted to be similarly unrealistic things.  Heck, when I was their age I wanted to be president too. (Now I can't think of a worse fate!)

What is surprising, however, was the way they see work.  It isn't just them -  other of our foster children old enough to articulate their thoughts have seen things much the same way.  There is a remarkable consistency among the kids we care for about what work is for.  Their worldview has something to teach us - in a world where jobs and money are deeply unstable and uncertain, it isn't just that we have less money, WE CHANGE too.

Conversations about "welfare mentality" might show some small part of the psychological weight of the worldview of some people in profound poverty, but it doesn't really get something my kids showed me - that whatever messages they get about hard work, jobs and preparing for a future, that can't overwhelm the contrast with the reality of their experience.  In some ways, this is about our experience too - or the experiences we may have in a period of little or no economic growth.  This isn't news - but I think for most people of middle class origins, the mindset is hard to imagine.

I've written about the problem of reality and message colliding many times - we are told, for example, over and over that debt makes us poorer.  In fact, however, in an era of seemingly endless growth, debt often functionally makes us richer, and the contrast of our real experience makes it hard to hear the message.  We might point out that what really matters is home and family, but our direct experience is that what matters to our culture is money and consumption, so we shape our work lives around the reality.  The dissonance of message and practice are simply too overwhelming for the message to get through.

In their urban, poor and largely black school district (although K. and C. are multi-racial and this is part of both sides of their family), K. and C. hear the message "work hard, go to school, you can become something."  All of my other children got the same message loud and clear from their teachers.

The problem, of course is that most of the people in my kids'  lives are not "something."  They have a series of miserable jobs they hate that end frequently due to unemployment.  These are largely irrelevant to education or training.  Nobody goes to school and works hard to get jobs cleaning office toilets, flipping burgers or selling auto parts.  Thus, most of my foster kids never really understood what the connection would be between their education and their adult future.  This is true although many are bright kids who find school to be a haven from a hard home life.  The idea of education as a track to security simply does not connect - and the idea of work as a profession, vocation or pleasure is utterly alien.

Moreover, both children have learned, as have others in our care,  that work doesn't help you.  Their experience is of having work be intermittent, jobs be lost on a regular basis, layoffs and salary cuts that stress their parents out.  Here are the bad things about jobs:

1.  When you don't have a job, you are poor and don't have enough money for fun stuff or food.  When you have a job (at least the kind their parents can get) you are poor and don't have enough money for fun stuff or food.  The idea of work providing enough money to meet needs and get ahead is absent.   What work mostly means is that the parents aren't around.  This can be good or bad, but is mostly bad - as awful as the parents sometimes are, being alone is frightening.

2. Bosses are mean.  They also make parents stressed out which causes bad, scary things to happen at home.  You have no control over your schedule, your hours, what you will be forced to do, whether you will get hurt or be safe, etc...when you work.  Parents are often injured at work or required to do dangerous things.  Kids have no control over what will happen to them when hurt, exhausted, depressed parents arrive home.

3.  The jobs you can get often involve really bad stuff for kids like working night shift and the kids having to be home alone by themselves all night and being scared, or not having any time to be sick, which means the kids have to take care of themselves by themselves even when incredibly ill.

4. Work is not necessarily a main means of "supporting a family" - the family supports itself through a wide variety of means including employment, benefits like unemployment, food stamps, extended family supports, loans, and volunteer assistance, scavenging, various illegal enterprises and a network of social relationships and exchanges.

One does not think of one's job as providing these things - your family provides for you, rather than your job - how they do it is highly variable and varies from week to week, but it is your family, not your professional life that meets those needs.  Work is just one thing you could do to keep fed.

5. You are just going to get laid off or fired or the business will close anyway.  Jobs are temporary, so there is no point to getting fixated on one.

Now these are children, and in some measure adult jobs always look strange and alien to kids, but there is a remarkable consistency between the things we hear from our kids.  Some of these things are marks of troubled families and inability of parents to hold down a job - but some of these are the generational implications of poverty, of people doing bad work that leads nowhere, of vulnerability and insecurity.

The children who come to my house have lived in shelters and cars.  They have gone hungry - not a little hungry, but deeply hungry.  They have had long-untreated medical conditions that caused pain and suffering.  They have been left alone for long stretches and been uncared for.  They have a picture of a world, and no matter what we tell them, that picture is inscribed in their minds as the real - because they have seen and experienced.  Yes, their parents have failed them in important ways - but they are not only the product of those personal failures, but of the messages that our culture sends to poor people.

What is clear to me as I talk to the older kids we've taken in is that we cannot expect to have a radical change in our culture and economy towards more poverty, more intermittency in employment, less security without profound implications.  That is, what we are facing is not just losing our jobs and economic security, but in the next generation, if it continues, a sense of the possibility of those things.  In some ways this is obvious, and there's nothing new about the poorest and most disenfrachised people in a nation not seeing much in the way of opportunity, but I do think there's a clear lesson here - and also an argument to be careful what we teach by example as things change.



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Another potential fallout of the constant instruction “work hard, go to school, you can become something" is the children's perception of their parents (and the resulting undermining of respect and authority). The parents are not, as you say "something". So if the instructions are correct, then this means what? My parents didn't go to school? (Yes they did.) They're lazy? Worthless maybe?

I do not want to claim that all of these parents are role models--probably many aren't. But how terrible would it be to raise children in a society who keeps pumping the message that, functionally, your parents are sh*t and it's all their fault (which sometimes it isn't)--and that moreover, if they weren't so worthless, your life would be better. What kind of childhood could that be?


Have you ever come across Paul Goodman's book (from 1956), Growing Up Absurd? He lays out the dynamics of this kind of thing with a clarity that I find a little depressing. Mostly because, in the 50 years since he wrote, we just haven't wanted to deal with this.

By Andy Brown (not verified) on 03 Jul 2012 #permalink

In the case of debt, ISTM that the mixed message issue was that banks were pushing people to go into debt above and beyond what they could reasonably be expected to repay, so that they could live the good life, but didn't tell people about the stress that comes with excessive debt levels. I don't know if they were pushing this in the neighborhoods where your foster kids come from, but they were pushing it to people pretty far down the socioeconomic scale. The most profitable customers for credit card companies are the ones who can (usually) make the minimum payment, but not much more. It also extends pretty far up the scale--plenty of affluent people were living beyond their means, temporarily covering up their problems by rolling that debt into home equity loans and then proceeding to max out the credit cards again.

It's somewhere between difficult and impossible to save any money when you are perpetually one calamity away from financial ruin, as is true of many Americans, or already in financial ruin, which is where most poor people start. Treating poverty as a personal failing, as many in this country do, makes matters only worse.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Jul 2012 #permalink

As I was reading this post I had memories of my own childhood. My mother was single. We got help from the state and family. I was a latch key kid. I have very vivid memories of my mother coming home and complaining about he rash of crap she had to put up at her job. She was the victim of sexual harassment at a time when it was not good to complain about such things. She had to make decisions on a daily basis which required that she swallow a vast amount of pride. It is hard to see your parents do all this just to try to keep food on the table.

You write: They have a picture of a world, and no matter what we tell them, that picture is inscribed in their minds as the real.

But isn't it truer that: They have a picture of a world (as all of us do), that is real for them.

You might be interested in Job Insecurity: It's the Disease of the 21st Century -- And It's Killing Us…

ET, yes and no. Is unemployment a huge and painful problem? Absolutely. Are there categories of employment that are safer and more secure than others that are available to many people, but not to my kids? Yes, I think there are - the idea of getting a nursing degree or a welding apprenticeship (both jobs with significant demand) is one that seems as out of reach to my kids as being president.

Those who know me know that I'm no advocate of universal college, or of college debt, despite my husband's job. But this is somewhat different - this isn't a sudden realization that a college degree isn't the key to a good job in a good economy - lots of us face that, and we face out the reality that the informal economy may be all we have. These kids have never had the formal economy, and don't even see the intersection with the informal economy they actually depend on.

That was some very thoughtful writing, including the comments above. I can't believe the amount of blaming the poor still going on out there, so it was nice the see this - Thanks!

Cheryl, The solution lies in paying people living wages. I know many people with college degrees who still cannot support their chidlren without government assisance and help from friends/family. They are intelligent people with strong work ethics but life is expensive. It isn't only your poor, black foster kids who are living this way. There are many single parent families with a parent who works full-time who are living extremely insecure lives. Just do the math. If you are a single parent with income of say, 28-30k and you have to pay rent and daycare for the one child so you can work-how much is left for food, car, car insurance, electricity and phone? What is left? Nothing. It's much worse and much more widespread than you can imagine. What do you do if you miss a few days of work due to illness and you are paid by the hour with no paid days off? What do you when the car breaks down and the bill is hundreds of dollars that are not in your budget?

David Weber in his military science fiction novel, "In Enemy Hands", as in his preceding Honor Harrington novels, demonizes the enemy "Peoples' Republic of Haven" as a central government, socialist after a couple hundred years in power. The result is a need to conquer neighbor nations to loot them to keep the entitlement payments going, and for a PR story to keep the masses in line.

It is eerie how the realities of life your foster children understand echo Mr. Weber's account of the predictable result of government "safety nets". Perhaps we have been mis-reading the "give a man a fish" parable. Perhaps the difference is taking responsibility. A teacher, a parent, a friend invests in a personal relationship with a student, a dependent, a friend. That relationship binds the one learning to fish to the culture of fishermen -- which is much more than a fish to eat.

Maybe what is needed is to extend the foster program to all social safety nets. Perhaps everyone needing food stamps should become responsible to someone for their food, that a responsible member of the community should take responsibility for procuring, planning, and preparing their food -- and assuring that the recipient acts for the good of the community as well as in their own best interest.

Because sending out debit cards loaded with fish doesn't seem to be keeping people fed.

I don't really understand the point you are trying to make here. As a long time reader, I really appreciate (understand and value) just about everything you write, but what is wrong with the way these kids see jobs? Surely it's just the truth, or at least the truth for most of the population? The idea of paid employment being "a profession, vocation, or pleasure", to use your phrase, is quite simply a fantasy for the vast majority of people, in most social classes, it most countries. If you can see that kind of pleasurable and satisying employment as a realistic and long term prospect in your life, you are extrememly priveleged.
Caveat - of course 'work' is not the same as 'paid employment', and of course pleasure and satisfaction are to be found in the domestic or non-profitable spheres of work, or in self-employment (whether legal or illegal).

By Freedomgardener (not verified) on 07 Jul 2012 #permalink

I think there's a lot of truth in what you are saying. Freedomgardener, but what's critical is that there is no accessible positive informal economy any more than there is an accessible positive formal economy. My kids don't see going out on the street and hustling as positive either, and the kinds of informal labor from which they might derive benefit have been stripped away from their lives as well - they simply have no place in any economy. I point out that my children see the informal economy as a place to begin as well as the formal one, but the things that enable their family to survive are uniformly destructive. While that has always been true for a segment of impoverished society, it has rarely been true for so many - nor are the consequences potentially so severe. Think about what happened in Russia - the jobs and subsidies went away, but informal economy work and life met their needs. If they only informal economy is social welfare programs being stripped and crime that leads to violence and death, there's nothing there for them. You can't imagine the circumstances in which you'd be able to say, as you could about Russia, "economists thought people should have been starving, but they weren't.."

I hear what you are saying Sharon: that these people don't have any place in any economy, apart from what is purely destructive to themselves. Is this perhaps linked to the fact that we have surplus population, so for chunks of the population there is no land or resources to underpin a web of economic connections.

By Freedomgardener (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink