July 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston
Why are all these parents being arrested? That was the question raised by Ross Douthat’s recent column. It’s also the title of an article in The Week that Douthat links to in a follow-up blog post.* The author, Michael Brendan Dougherty, sees two causes.
1. A decline of neighborliness (Dougherty borrows this from Timothy Carney, The Washington Examiner (here Timothy Carney, a columnist for The Washington Examiner ). Neighborly adults look after an unsupervised kid who might be in need. Un-neighborly adults call 911. The State is less flexible in what it can do. Dougherty identifies the institutional and historical reasons that these agencies are quick to It use formal procedures and sanctions,
|The state's guardianship functions were developed to handle only the most extreme cases of neglect or abuse. The incentives of those within these departments incline them to suspicion and dramatic intervention. “We only get called in an emergency, so this must be one.”|
2. The encroachment of the State into areas that once belonged to Family, Neighbors, Church, or Community.
The two are linked in a vicious cycle. Because people are less neighborly, they call the State. But this gives greater scope to State agencies, consequently narrowing the radius of neighborhood control, which in turn makes people less able to intervene as neighbors.
There are some problems with this account.
First, does this handful of newspaper stories indicate a real problem. The “good parents arrested” theme certainly seems to resonate with middle-class people, though it is almost certainly less well-off parents who are more vulnerable to being arrested or having their kids taken from them by the state. Even so, we have no idea how many of these cases there are. Besides, the newspaper stories report on the most egregious cases. If we actually tried to sort all state interventions into those we like and those we don’t, we would quickly find oursevles in murkier waters.
Second, Douthat is writing about policy (so are the others, at least implicitly). Policies are not perfect; they improve some things for some people, and make some things worse for other people. That’s why policy is political – it’s about who gets what. If a policy improves the lives of many children and parents but has costs for a few others, we’d say that on the whole it’s a good policy, and we’d try to tinker with it to reduce the bad parts. Yes, one is too many, but in most cases (wrongful executions and the death penalty may be the clearest exception), that’s not a strong argument for scrapping the entire policy.
You have only to spend a few days in a child welfare agency to see how many cases there are where state intervention, with all its flaws, is better than the alternatives.
Third, are we really less neighborly? Americans started wringing their hands about the decline of community as early as 1650. Since then, these alarms have been sounded periodically Right and Left. In recent versions of this jeremiad (say in the last half century) the Right has blamed the government: by arrogating to itself traditional community and family functions, it weakened community. The Left blames the culture of capitalism: its emphasis on competition destroys cooperation.
Unfortunately for the community-collapse theorists (but fortunately for community), systematic evidence for this decline is hard to come by. For decades now, Claude Fischer has done actual research on the topic and has found little to support the image of a land once rich in community now become a nation of isolated and unneighborly individuals. (See Chapter 4 of his excellent 2010 book Made in America.)
Dougherty’s personal recollection, with its echoes of Jane Jacobs, might be instructive.
|Often during this time, and especially in my own neighborhood, I was being silently and unobtrusively guarded by a community of people, many of whom knew my name, and knew something of my mother's situation. When I scratched someone's car with my broken bike handle, I would be returned to my home, and the note explaining it would be addressed to my mother by name. Some of the nosy Italian ladies watched the streets, looking for gossip. But they could help a child who skinned his knee, or bring him inside for a few caramels and a soda if it was raining and the kid had left his key at home.|
Where are those Italian ladies today? Probably at work.
There are many reasons that more women have sought jobs in the paid labor force (one summary is here). I doubt that a decline in “neighborliness” or “community” is among them.** But one possible consequence is the decline in the number of neighbors who are around in the daytime. That’s not the only cause of changes in the who, where, and how of childcare in the US, but it’s an important part of this changing landscape*** of childhood.
* In his blog, Douthat is responding to criticisms from “many liberals.” But for some reason, of all the critiques in all the blogs in all the world, he wanders into mine.
** No doubt, some on the far right would argue that feminism poisoned the minds of American women and made them less neighborly and more selfish and ambitious, with the consequence that they abandoned their “natural” function of staying home and watching over the kids in the neighborhood.
*** That changing landscape is literal as well as figurative. Seven years ago in a post (here)about concern for children’s safety, I reprinted a map showing the shrinking, over three generations in the same Sheffield family, of the range that children would wander.