Do people working work in working families?

It’s not that “working families” don’t exist, it’s just the way most people use this term it doesn’t mean anything.

Search Google images for “working families,” and you’ll find images like this:

4f4a9a28-ff28-4bc7-88e5-f0df4522b2dbAnd that’s pretty much the way the term is used: every family is a working family.

To hear the White House talk, you have to wonder whether there are people who aren’t in families. I’ve complained about this before, Obama’s tendency to say things like, “This reform is good for families; it’s good for businesses; it’s good for the entire economy.” As if “families” covers all people.

Specifically, if you Google search the White House website‘s press office directory, which is where the speeches live, like this, you get 457 results, such as this transcript of remarks by Michelle Obama at a “Corporate Voices for Working Families” event. The equivalent search for “working people” yields a paltry 108 hits (many of them Obama speeches at campaign events, which include false-positives, like him making the ridiculous claim that Americans are the “hardest working people on Earth.”) If you search the entire Googleverse for “working families” you get about 318 million hits, versus just just 7 million for “working people” (less than the 10 million that turns up for “Kardashians,” whatever that means.)

You would never know that 33 million Americans live alone – comprising 27% of all households. And 50 million people, or one out of every 6 people, lives in what the Census Bureau defines as a “non-family household,” or a household in which the householder has no relatives (some of those people may be cohabitors, however). The rise of this phenomenon was ably described by Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

This is partly a complaint about cheap rhetoric, but it’s also about the assumption that families are primary social units when it comes to things like policy and economics, and about the false universality of “middle class” (which is made up of “working families”) in reference to anyone (in a family with anyone) with a job.

Here’s one visualization, from a Google ngrams search of millions of books. The blue line is use of the phrase “working people” as a fraction of references to “people,” while the red line is use of the phrase “working families” as a fraction of references to “families.” It shows, I think, that “working” is coming to define families, not people.

CaptureThis isn’t all bad. Families matter, and part of the attention to “working families” (or Families That Work) is driven by important problems of work-family conflict, unequal care work burdens, and so on. But ultimately these are problems because they affect people (some of whom are in families). When we treat families as the primary unit of analysis, we mask the divisions within families – the conflicts of interest and exploitation, the violence and abuse, and the ephemeral nature of many family relationships and commitments – and we contribute to the marginalization of people who aren’t in, or don’t have, families.  And those members of the No Family community need our attention, too.

LGBT teens made homeless

From the Williams Institute at UCLA, a report for the No Family For You file: “Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Services Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth Who Are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless.”

The report is cautious in its write-up, which is appropriate, because a survey of service providers only gets you a view through one window into the problem of homeless youth who are LGBT. But in terms of orders of magnitude, I think it’s fair to conclude that LGBT youth make up a very disproportionate share of homeless youth, and that rejection by their families is the leading precursor to their homelessness.

Here is the relevant figure, based on the responses of service providers:

It’s a good reminder that families are only a source of care and support for those who are cared for and supported by their families.

As this report hit the wires last week, ThinkProgress generated one of those graphic Facebook memes, which looked like this:

I wouldn’t use this survey of agencies – representing an unknown proportion of all agencies serving an unknown proportion of all homeless people – to try to nail down a number like “40% of homeless youth are LGBT.” (One question: what about homeless youth who are with their homeless families?) Anyway, let’s just agree it’s a serious problem and they are probably very over-represented in the homeless population.

Disciplining cultural minorities: 1960s housing guidelines for Inuit families

An article in the journal Health & Place raises the issue of how to define residential crowding.

The authors, Nathanael Lauster and Frank Tester, point out that the definition of “crowded” living conditions in the U.S. has been downsized from 2 people per room in 1940 to 1 person per room now. And in Canada the current common definition is based on the age, gender and relationship of the household members, such that children over age 4, for example, can only share rooms with siblings of the same gender without being “crowded.”

In such a way, a household comprised of an adult couple with two sons, aged 4 and 6, would require housing with a minimum of two bedrooms to avoid being considered overcrowded. Change the 6 year old son to a daughter, or age the 6 year old son to 19, and a minimum of three bedrooms would be required.

It’s nice to have a standard of crowded housing, since at some point crowded conditions have negative effects on health. But once a standard is set, well-meaning government programs may end up “disciplining” cultural minority groups, the authors argue.

They cite as evidence the Inuit communities in Arctic Canada, who were semi-nomadic until the 1950s, and lived in “extended family-based hunting camps.” Part of the overall process of cultural dispossession involved getting them to move into modern housing. The fear of overcrowding required special attention from authorities, who stressed the desirability of each family having its own house. The result was an education program designed to change cultural standards of appropriate household sharing and gender propriety that were quite foreign.

The article has a figure used as part of this program, from 1966:

This two-bedroom house is suitable for up to two couples with one baby each, but if any children are 12 or older then it’s only big enough for one family. And the couple can only have 2 children if they are the same gender or one is under 12.

I’m sure many readers are more familiar with this Canadian history — or similar situations from other parts of the world — but this story jumped out at me because it involves official definitions of families, cultural domination/discipline, and real problems of health and well-being. This relates to the “no family” theme insofar as it represents a contest over family self-definition.

News from No Family For You

Inequality comes in many forms in modern societies. On this blog I’ve written about poverty as a lack of income or wealth; people also lack for jobs, health care, or food, among other things. But the more human care and well-being depend on family-based support and labor, the more we need to think about “having” a family — or the family of one’s choice — as a matter of inequality as well.

I’ve gone through some old posts and added a “no family” tag to a series that focus on absence, loss or denial of family relationships as problems of inequality — for example, the deportation of legally married spouses in homogamous couples, state eugenics programs, and the drug war’s father-removal consequences.

Once you start reading the news with this problem in mind, the stream seems endless. (For example, what about the future marriage consequences of unbalanced sex ratios resulting from sex selective abortions?) To keep up, I need to do a digest post.

No Family Update

Deportation: The first time I wrote about “Who Gets a Family?” was back in my Huffington Post days, in a story about the parents of U.S.-citizen children being deported. At the time I was shocked that, “Over the 10 years up to 2007, the U.S. deported 108,434 adults whose children were U.S. citizens.” Now we learn from the Applied Research Center’s government document investigation that 46,000 such deportations took place in just the first half of this year.

This is a family loss for both the allegedly illegal immigrant parents and their U.S.-citizen children, many of whom end up in foster care. Some people aren’t sorry for the parents, since coming to the U.S. was their risk. Others aren’t sorry for the children, because it’s their parents’ fault rather than the government’s. (Feeling justified in punishing children for the actions of their parents is one perspective on human rights I can’t get behind.) In any event it clearly shows that the birthright citizenship of these children does not include the right to keep their parents here.

Abduction: Two horrific stories of state-sponsored child abduction made the news for this roundup.

Manoli Pagador's first-born son was taken from her at birth -- the doctor said he died.

In Spain, we are gradually learning that thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of children were stolen from their mothers at birth by Catholic nuns and priests in cahoots with the Franco dictatorship, and sold to other families. The BBC has run a series of reports, describing how a program that started out something like American eugenics — except taking away children from socially marginal women rather than sterilizing them — developed into a profit-driven criminal enterprise under the protection of the dictatorship and the cover of Church authority.

This boy spent a year and a half in foster care before being returned to his family.

In South Dakota, hundreds of American Indian children are removed from their family homes every year and placed in White homes or group homes, in violation of the federal law requiring every effort to place them with native families. A heart-rending NPR series revealed that American Indians are 13% of the state’s children but 53% of the children in foster care. Further, the South Dakota system is using their child removals to gain federal funds and funnel money to home operators with deep connections at the highest levels of state government.

James Taylor drowned in a bathtub when he was left unattended at his group home in Schenectady, NY.

Aberration? Finally, the New York Times has a long story on deaths from neglect (my layperson’s term) in privately operated group homes, where adults with disabilities are cared for at state (and federal) expense. The Times looked into the inexcusable or unexplained deaths of hundreds of residents from choking, drowning, fire and other causes. How does this fit? The group homes in New York, as in other states, are the post-deinstitutionalization system of non-family care for people whose developmental or psychiatric disabilities prevent them from living on their own or with their families — given their economic resources. When the family can’t care, who cares? As this story shows, it’s the state that cares — sort of.

(This one struck close to home for me, since I was once a 19-year-old high school graduate working as a counselor in a group home in New York for adults with developmental disabilities. I dispensed medication, supervised household chores and relationships, cooked and cleaned with the residents, and counseled a little. Sometimes I was the only staffer with eight residents or so, even overnight, and now I’m thinking how glad I am nothing awful happened. I had a few days training, and I was very conscientious, and everyone was fine, but it might not have been.)

No family-caregiver-citizenship for you

Add to the No Family For You mantra of the Defense of Marriage Act — which includes denial of immigration (or citizenship) to legal spouses of U.S. citizens — denial of a primary caregiver.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Citing the Defense of Marriage Act, the Obama administration denied immigration benefits to a married gay couple from San Francisco and ordered the expulsion of a man who is the primary caregiver to his AIDS-afflicted spouse.

Bradford Wells, a U.S. citizen, and Anthony John Makk, a citizen of Australia, were married seven years ago in Massachusetts. They have lived together 19 years, mostly in an apartment in the Castro district. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied Makk’s application to be considered for permanent residency as a spouse of an American citizen, citing the 1996 law that denies all federal benefits to same-sex couples.

Further on:

The agency’s decision cited the Defense of Marriage Act as the reason for the denial of an I-130 visa, or spousal petition that could allow Makk to apply for permanent U.S. residency. “The claimed relationship between the petitioner and the beneficiary is not a petitionable relationship,” the decision said. “For a relationship to qualify as a marriage for purposes of federal law, one partner must be a man and the other a woman.”

Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder decided earlier this year that the law, commonly known as DOMA, is unconstitutional on equal protection grounds and that the administration would no longer defend it in court.

And so it goes.

No family for you

Images from a week in the world of family denial.

It’s been a big week for stories of families denied by state authority. Family denial came up in the form of bodily intervention (as in North Carolina’s eugenics program), border control (as when Jose Antonio Vargas‘s mother put him on a one-way plane for the U.S.), parents’ incarceration, or legal denial of family rights (the refusal to recognize homogamy).

* * *

North Carolina’s eugenics program was the subject of hearings this week, dragging on with no compensation for the living victims. A collection of literature at the State Library of North Carolina includes this 1950 propaganda pamphlet:

* * *

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, recounted his life as an undocumented immigrant, including this photo of his mother, who put him on a plane for the U.S. with false papers, maybe never to see him again.

* * *

While a judge declared the federal anti-homogamy law unconstitutional, the New York legislature maybe moved toward legal recognition, and President Obama’s “evolution” apparently stalled.

* * *

The 40th anniversary of the drug war was a bleak reminder of the millions of U.S. families separated by incarceration during that time.

The text says, “more women and mothers are behind bars than at any time in U.S. history,” from (

My graph from data in an article by Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western in The Future of Children.

Family consequences of the drug war

The drug war @ 40.

Forty years and 40 millions arrest later, some reflections and protests against the policy. In family research, the effects of mass incarceration have gained greater attention in the last 10 years. Because of the concentration of imprisonment by gender, race/ethnicity and age, the family effects are particular to the groups involved. Here’s a graph, then some suggested research:

Source: My graph from Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Here are three papers that cover different aspect of the issue:

1. Incarceration in Fragile Families, by Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western in The Future of Children.

…the effects of this sea change in the imprisonment rate … have been concentrated among those most likely to form fragile families: poor and minority men with little schooling. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. … Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and so negatively affects them, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may increase future racial and class inequality — and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any benefits of the prison boom. U.S. crime policy has thus, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and reduced the life chances of their children.

2. Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families, by Amanda Geller, Irwin Garfinkel and Bruce Western, in Demography.

Because most men in jail and prison are fathers, a large number of children may be placed at considerable risk by policies of incarceration. … Both cross-sectional and longitudinal regressions indicate that formerly incarcerated men are less likely to contribute to their families, and those who do contribute provide significantly less. The negative effects of incarceration on fathers’ financial support are due not only to the low earnings of formerly incarcerated men but also to their increased likelihood to live apart from their children. Men contribute far less through child support (formal or informal) than they do when they share their earnings within their household, suggesting that the destabilizing effects of incarceration on family relationships place children at significant economic disadvantage.

3. Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage, by Christopher Wildeman, in Demography.

Results show the following:

  1. 1 in 40 white children born in 1978 and 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  2. 1 in 7 black children born in 1978 and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  3. inequality in the risk of parental imprisonment between white children of college-educated parents and all other children is growing; and
  4. by age 14, 50.5% of black children born in 1990 to high school dropouts had a father imprisoned.

What for sterilization victims?

North Carolina has named an executive director of the N. C. Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation, Charmaine Fuller Cooper. Upon her nomination, she said:

“I’m excited about this opportunity and see it as a turning point to bringing justice to so many families and individuals affected by this tragic moment in North Carolina history.”

Moment? From 1929 to 1977, as part of the state’s contribution to the Eugenics movement, they sterilized 7,600 people, nearly four-fifths of them after WWII, according to this state report.

About half the victims of the sterilization campaign have already died. Then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized in 2002, and now-Gov. Perdue campaigned on the pledge to compensate the victims. And yet no one has been compensated, although the state’s new foundation got $250,000 to get started. A bill to give victims $20,000 each stalled last year.

Many of the the victims, more than half of whom were Black, were institutionalized, supposedly for mental retardation, illness, or whatever — although many were simply poor, uneducated or orphaned. (Here’s a historical study of those sterilized in institutions.) Although compensation has yet to reach the victims, the state has at least owned up to the travesty, which is documented in this good digital repository at the State Library, including a pamphlet from the Human Betterment League of North Carolina:

North Carolina has an interesting profile with regard to historical travesties and crimes against humanity. The casual immigrant to the American South might be surprised that compared with, say, Germany’s official attitude toward the Holocaust, there is little in the way of official recognition that the Confederacy was wrong in Civil War. For example, the monuments to those who fought for “their country,” the Confederacy, remain on display – like this one at UNC, which honors students and alumni who contributed to that cause:

In Germany, the old Nazi Party and some of its descendants were banned, but U.S. organizations dedicated to preserving the honor of war criminals are allowed to flourish. (I’m for state-protected free speech, just not state-sponsored monuments to the Confederacy.)

On the other hand, we’ve seen some notable symbolic efforts beyond the sterilization issue. The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission at least produced a comprehensive report on the White establishment’s coup against the local government at the end of Reconstruction. And the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission has produced a report on the attack by Klansmen on communist anti-racism activists. And legally, North Carolina is virtually alone in its official willingness to consider actual innocence claims when new evidence emerges after criminal convictions.

For historical crimes, compensating the victims matters. Symbolism matters, too.