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.