Deficit Models, Bureaucratic Empathy, and Work-Life Juggling

Every now and then, I run across a couple of items that tie together a whole bunch of different issues that weigh heavily on my mind. That happened yesterday courtesy of Timothy Burke, whose blog post about an NPR story is so good that there aren't enough +1 buttons on the entire Internet for it.

The NPR piece is about eating and exercise habits, and the way families struggle to do what they know they ought to:

More than half of children ate or drank something during the "crunch time" window that can lead to unhealthy weight gain, as perceived by their parents. And more than a quarter of children did not get enough exercise, their parents say.

"It's hard enough to get dinner on the table while trying to help them with homework," says Paige Pavlik of Raleigh, N.C. "Once we do everything, there is absolutely no time to go outside and take a walk or get any exercise. It's simply come in, eat, sit down, do homework, go to bed."

The relentlessness of it makes her emotional. Pavlik starts to cry as she talked about her family's daily crunch time. "It's really hard," she says. "This isn't how I thought family life was going to be."

It was kind of hard to read the rest of that, from my head nodding so much. We deal with exactly this sort of issue every day in Chateau Steelypips, and there are days when I don't think I can take it any more.

By the time both kids are up, fed, dressed, and ready to go, it's basically 9:00. Pack them off to day care, take Emmy for her walk, and get my own stuff together, and it's generally 10 before I'm in the office. I spend the morning grading, getting my afternoon class together, and dealing with whatever GIANT EMERGENCY has sprung up that week, then teach my class. My class ends at 3, and on a good day I get to go home about 4:30 to get dinner together (I do basically all of the shopping and cooking). On a bad day, it's 5:30, and I don't go home first, but straight to day care to get the kids. Kate gets home at 6, if we're lucky we have dinner before 6:30, and after fighting for half an hour to get SteelyKid to eat, I've about got time to respond to email and walk the dog again before SteelyKid's 8:00 bedtime. Which takes the better part of an hour, then there's housework to deal with, and usually by 9:30 or 10:00 I'm free to work on whatever I have going on. Or faceplant into my keyboard, whichever is easier.

And believe me, I'm well aware that we have it good-- neither of us is punching a clock at an hourly wage job. If I want to duck out a little early, I can, provided stuff gets done. Kate's a little more constrained, but not all that much. Nobody's going to fire either of us for taking a little time here and there to deal with family matters. And we're well-off enough that if we really needed to, we could fix some of these problems by throwing money at them-- paying somebody to walk the dog for us, or whatever. If I really had to, I could even buy out time at work, though that introduces other complications.

(To some degree, this is also self-inflicted-- I don't have to write another book at this time, or maintain this blog, but I choose to do so, and the time for those things takes away from time for other things. On the other hand, though, if I stopped doing the blog and social media (as I did for a while during the summer), I'd probably snap completely...)

Still, it's a constant grind, and it cuts into what we know we should do. We're well aware that we ought to feed SteelyKid homemade meals including fresh vegetables, but she refuses to believe that they're food, and we're generally too tired to fight about it. She'll eat pre-made chicken nuggets without too much complaining, so that's mostly what she gets. We know she ought to get plenty of exercise, and mostly we try to keep her active. But if parking her in front of the tv frees up time to dust off some class notes or answer some work emails, or just clean up a little so I'm not washing dishes at 10pm, well, at least we can usually get her to watch MythBusters which is kind of educational-ish.

The phrase "work-life balance" gets thrown around a lot in academia, which always seems sort of inappropriate. It's not a balance, it's a juggling act, hoping I can keep my class up in the air long enough to deal with stuff at home, and that the kids won't get sick until after I get those papers graded, and deal with the latest Major Crisis. I realize that lots of people have it much worse than we do, and that's indescribably depressing.

Burke's response to this is also fascinating, picking up on some key issues about how these things get dealt with, both in the tongue-clucking tone of the NPR piece, and on a more official level:

This is a fairly established line of expert reasoning in national discourse about issues that have been coded or marked as “public health” crises. Using a fairly narrow range of methodologies drawn from social science, particularly economics and social psychology, the experts verify first that existing forms of public education have been sufficient to establish baseline awareness of a public health problem that turns on behavior. Sometimes they read the evidence and conclude that the education needs to be in a different form or in a different location, or that more money needs to be spent on it. Usually that involves experts in the expert’s community of peers, if the recommendation is taken.

Sometimes (as in this case) the experts conclude that there is sufficient awareness, just not sufficient compliance. People aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing with the near-ubiquity that they ought to do it: not wearing helmets or seat belts, not quitting smoking, not taking a recommended pharmaceutical, not getting enough exercise, not minimizing their consumption of some kind of mass media, not following dietary recommendations, and so on.

Rarely if ever does the community of experts pause at this moment to inventory their own histories of error and exaggeration, or ask what the nature of their relationship is to the publics they advise and the resources they demand for the advising and studying of those publics. That alone might provide something of a testable hypothesis: that sometimes publics stall and defer on doing the things they ought to do because at least some of them are old enough to remember other things that they were told they ought to do that later on turned out to be not so important, or actively the wrong thing to do. Or that some of the advice turns out to be improvident or unrealistic in unnoticed or unacknowledged ways. Or that the experts are being impatient: on some issues, it turns out that people will change, if you just quietly keep working on the problem and don’t insist on changing your focus and approach every three seconds.

This struck a chord because of a number of discsussions, at Science Online and on Twitter about the "Deficit Model" of science communication-- the idea that people just need to hear the facts about what they ought to be doing one more time. In fact, this is a pretty dismal failure, for reasons that apply just as much to areas that are less science-y than things like climate change or vaccine hysteria. A lot of the time people know perfectly well what they should do, but they can't or won't for any of a wide variety of reasons. It might have to do with skepticism about official wisdom, as in the examples quoted above, or it might just be that they're too tired and worn down to deal with the hassle of getting kids to eat right.

Burke goes on to make a terrific argument about the moral content of a lot of official approaches to this, and its fundamental lack of what for lack of space and a better word I'll call empathy. I can't really do it justice without quoting just about the whole thing, but I do want to get one more bit from near the end:

We are offered a thousand reasons to complain of other people’s behavior (and to excoriate and loath our own) on the grounds that it will cost us too much. That we should talk about what is good and bad, right and wrong, mostly in terms of the selfish consequences, or at best, in terms of the kind of closeted idea of a collective interest that neoliberalism dare not directly speak of–sort of the nation, sort of the economy, sort of the community, but really none of those directly or clearly.

What the experts generally rarely say is, “Because we care for one another, want the best possible lives for one another, and would not be deprived of each other’s company one moment sooner than we must”. Why does your mom tell you to wear a helmet and stop smoking and lose some weight? Ok, sometimes because of the ordinary psychodrama of family life and its little struggles for power, but sometimes, often times, simply because your mom or your dad or your kid or your friend loves you. Because they value you.

This humane sensibility drops from public policy and technocratic expertise because, for one, we’ve become profoundly unpracticed in its use.

This is where it comes back to the work-life thing for me (though it's not the end of the post, and what comes after it is also excellent and important to read). We hear a lot of arguments, especially in academic science, that attempt to advocate for work-life balance or "family-friendly" policies in a manner that awkwardly frames them in terms of cost-- that people would be healthier and more productive with such policies in place, or that not providing flexibility costs us by driving women out of the field. Those quickly get mired in all kinds of quibbling-- arguing about whether the abstract gains are worth some abstract cost.

Ultimately, though, this stuff isn't an economic issue or a gender issue-- it's a question of basic human decency. Both men and women should get the flexibility they need to care for their kids and themselves because that's how people ought to be treated. Students and post-docs shouldn't be expected to put in 80-hour weeks (at minimum), or have their dedication questioned because they have families or outside interests because that nonsense is fundamentally inhumane.

I'm too frazzled to really come up with a grand conclusion (I'm writing this while proctoring an evening exam, toward the end of a long and frustrating day). I'll just note again that both of these pieces really resonated with me, for a lot of reasons, and leave it at that.

More like this

I'm not sure that it's really possible for a bureaucracy to love and care for the people it is tasked with serving. And I don't mean this in an anti-bureaucratic sense, but in the sense that humans aren't really built for that kind of abstract empathy.

(A possible counter-argument to that is the notion of patriotism and dying for one's country. I'll grant that exists, but with some caveats. Not everyone is built for the military, and not everyone in the military is built for actually shooting at and killing the enemy. Very frequently soldiers kill because they are defending themselves or their fellow soldiers, or because they're simply pressing a button and watching a miniature explosion on a screen. None of those constitute empathy in my book.)

Individual workers can care a great deal about the individuals they serve: see (good) social workers, but you can't ask a monolithic organization to care for a population. In a country of 300 million plus, the highest levels of bureaucracy can do little more than do a job, sometimes for precisely the same reason that we can do no more than eat a hamburger before going to bed.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 28 Feb 2013 #permalink

It's not a coincidence that my exercise has increased immensely now that my daughter has gone to college (so, no chauffeuring, no school events, etc.) and I changed to a job that feels that 40-50 hours a week is a decent work week.

All along, I've known that I should exercise more. But, realistically, there was nowhere to cram it in that didn't displace other things that were more important to me.

In the same way, a medical crisis last year forced us to change our diets. Because it was forced, we went through the month of pain as we learned new shopping and cooking habits. It's *hard* to switch, especially if you're used to getting a meal on the table in 30 minutes or less so much of the process is auto pilot. Now, we have new habits and new behaviors and all is good. But, that initial month was not fun at all. (What I wouldn't have given for a sample menu that gave a month's worth of meals, just to get us started!)

Neither of these changes was a revelation to us. We knew we should do them. However, there were barriers preventing us from starting that I feel most people advocating exercise and healthy eating habits don't acknowledge.

By Jo in OKC (not verified) on 28 Feb 2013 #permalink

Yes and no. I agree that it's not really possible to deal with each and every citizen as an individual, but as Burke notes, it would be possible to at least take a rhetorical stance that is more humane-- even if you can't devote individual care and attention to everyone, you can talk about them in a way that's less toxic than the focus on costs.

A lot of our political pathologies of the moment can probably be traced to the rhetoric of costs. Things like the Tea Party or the "47% of the population are just takers" nonsense. If you only focus on how much people "cost" you, that slides easily into a deeply unhealthy view of the electorate, with dire consequences for our political culture.

(Jo snuck in while I was typing that-- the above is a response to Ori...)

Heh. Just wait till you bit the homework and serious after school activities phase... ain't seen nothing yet.

By Steinn Sigurðsson (not verified) on 28 Feb 2013 #permalink

A lot of our political pathologies of the moment can probably be traced to the rhetoric of costs.

This. A thousand times this.

The MBA mentality tends to ruin everything it touches. Research, whether to create your company's next product or to expand the horizons of knowledge generally, becomes a cost center, and you have no way of knowing which of those bets are going to pay off. Likewise, you have to pay your employees money. Try to skimp on these costs, and you end up with a world where nobody has the money to buy anything even if there were exciting new products on the market. Henry Ford was smart enough to recognize this trap, as was Karl Marx. But the average MBA holder, and even a substantial fraction of economics professors, might as well be in the marketing department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.* They maximize the short term number, and never mind the long term cost. Then these people gain political power, with similar results on a national scale. They forget that taxes are the price of a civilized society, and the richer you are, the more you gain from such a society.

*Recall that the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines the marketing department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as "a bunch of mindless jerks who will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes."

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Feb 2013 #permalink


Well, it's the economy, stupid. Traditionally, that's been the political refrain. But with the emergence of the tea party and its ilk, the only proper way to manage an economy is to ignore it. Anything else is evil socialism. I'm not sure an empathy-based approach would improve the rhetoric any, however. Then we'd have a paternalistic government, which is just another flavor of evil socialism.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 28 Feb 2013 #permalink

Chad: Thanks for writing this piece. It was a little depressing in one way - and you have my sympathy! - but in another it was a big relief.

Eric: OMG, brilliant. I'm adapting that for a Facebook status.

One more reason to support humane behavior toward others as a baseline for general interaction - it would mean we non-parents could avoid getting screwed, no having to cover for a colleague when they have an illness/issue to deal with or being side-swiped by displaced stress and aggression.

Current circumstances are "I'm going to lean on you more heavily because you don't have kids" in the corporate world, which is a fast way to breed enmity between employees since it is playing favorites.