Friday, April 19, 2013

The Original Welfare System

The word "welfare" is strongly associated with the state in contemporary American politics and pop culture, calling to mind terms like Social Security, welfare checks, and Medicare--and if you lean toward the right, the additional terms of socialism, the Nanny State, state-ism  and "cradle-to-grave". Semantically, this is how we think about welfare: welfare comes from the government.

A 2011 Pew Research Poll found that among college-age and post-college adults, 49% held a positive view of socialism. Socialism as it is generally considered implies that the welfare of the collective should be provided for through functions of the state, and one of the its main functions should be the redistribution of wealth. The idea that the government is responsible for the collective's welfare is gaining popularity, and if we include government policies along with popular opinion, we can clearly trace its rise in the American consciousness as a valid solution to poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage.

I've stewed over the governmental connotations of "welfare" for a while. To really understand a concept, you have to put it in a different context, turn it upside down, find the exception to its rule--if welfare is almost always a word for government assistance to the poor, what else can it mean? What is welfare outside of government?

Well, national governments are fairly new, in the grand scheme of history. So what would welfare have been before their development? I asked myself: what was the original welfare system?

If you think I'm going to take us back in time to uncover some obscure Babylonian or Egyptian social system, you'd be wrong. The answer is actually quite simple and very logical, but due to welfare's involuntary mental associations, it isn't that obvious.

It's family. Kinship has been humanity's primary form of welfare--like it or not, everyone needs family in one way or another. In the U.S. we take a sentimental approach to family, seeing it more as an emotional support group than an economic co-op. Matters of material support are considered more individualistically, and the paths of brothers and sisters, both in geography and career, often diverge upon leaving their parents' home.

The value of individual achievement and personal responsibility that generally pervades American life, although weakening, feeds into the idea that family is not there to ensure your success; asking for support is considered a last resort. In a sense, getting a handout from a family member implies personal failure.

Generally speaking, you sink or swim on your own. You don't ask your brother to throw you a life preserver from the boat.

But the truth is, family makes the best welfare system imaginable, if you do it right. I doubt you've ever met a bureaucrat that knows your individual situation, your motivations, your faults, your work ethic. I doubt you've ever met a legislator who talks with you one on one to determine the best course of action and the best way to help you. I doubt you've ever met a social worker that will sacrifice for you like a sister would.

You might object to this reasoning by asking, "What if your whole family is poor and under-educated? Then who helps you?"

This is a very possible situation, if you consider your family to be yourself, your parents, and your siblings.
The nuclear family has been the most popular American model--aunts, uncles, and grandparents are people you generally dine with occasionally and visit when they are ill, and intimate relationships and frequent social involvement with in-laws are uncommon.

 But logically speaking, the larger your family network, the more opportunities and support exist for you. Your parents and siblings may be no better off than yourself, but are all your aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nieces and nephews equally disadvantaged? Of course not.

For the family welfare model to work, two strong American attitudes must change:

1)  The idea of family must be widened to include "extended" members, or in other words, we must remove the "extended" prefix.

2) Our attitude about sacrifice and sharing must change. There's a fancy term for the principle that drives the success of the family welfare model: reciprocity.

Reciprocal exchanges differ from direct exchanges, such as financial transactions, because they take varying amounts of time and are "repaid" in a variety of ways. If your brother takes two of his vacation days to help you move, he's done you a favor. When the time comes for him and his wife to go on a real vacation, you're expected to return the favor by babysitting his children and pets for a week. Some years it may seem like you're sacrificing much and getting little in return, while other years you might enjoy a lot of help from family members at their immediate expense.

Reciprocity is the smartest social strategy for survival, particularly in high risk, high gain situations. There's
hardly a better example of this than among the Ju/'hoansi of Southern Africa. At one time a completely hunter-gatherer community, each individual's survival ultimately depended on the cooperation and sharing of others--many times a hunter would come back empty-handed, but those few who did make a kill would distribute the meat among them all so that no one went hungry. The next success a hunter has is expected to be shared, just as others had shared with him. If you hunted for only yourself, you would most likely die of starvation in periods where gathered foods were scarce.

The point is that when you fall on hard times, there's always going to be family experiencing relatively good times that can help you out. As an added bonus, family members can be held accountable for their reciprocal participation in a way government cannot.

Ironically, both the traditional American values of individual success and responsibility and the newer positive attitudes toward state-provided welfare inhibit consideration of family as an economic co-op in addition to being a set of emotional attachments. Socialism emphasizes the state's responsibility to care for you, while individualism stresses a sink-or-swim attitude.

As Americans, we need to change the way we think about family and about welfare. There is no shame in accepting help from family, as long as you are willing to someday return it. Seeing as our government is dead broke, if I were the President, or any other government official for that matter, I would promote the value of family cooperation like nothing else, even if its success is in doubt. Because what the heck, it's free.
State welfare isn't.

No comments:

Post a Comment