Traveling from New York to Northern Utah offered a spectacular and illuminating respite from the urban squalor of New York City. Visiting an alpaca farm and ecologically pristine and iconic landscapes made it obvious to me that the southwest region of the United States offers a quality of life that cities like New York clearly do not. Known as a ‘family values state’ and considered one of the best places to live in America, Utah’s high quality of life and low crime rate is an alarming juxtaposition against the crime and chaos of New York.
According to The Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless New Yorkers has risen to the highest point since the Great Depression, and the largest demographic within the homeless population is children.
This tragic reality has caused me to consider how the decline of values and priorities are instrumental not just in the collapse of New York, but other cities that are similar in rapid declines such as San Francisco, Seattle and Portland.
Of course variables such as unbridled neoliberal economics, deficient municipal services, widespread corruption and abandoned infrastructure factor into this equation, but for the purpose of this article I am interested in examining how societal decay and widespread prevalence of deaths of despair (deaths by suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug overdose) are influenced by the collapse of the family.
For one fortunate enough to be born into a healthy cohesive family it’s understood that this is a place where children are raised, love is imparted, and ambitions are defined. Conventional rites of passage that chronicle pivotal life transitions such as marriage, childbirth, graduation celebrations and other celebratory milestones are established occasions. It is within the family that a blueprint for successfully navigating through the customary hallmarks of one’s lifespan occurs. United through blood, ancestral ties and social roles, this tribal unit engages in a shared cultural experience that provides a sense of collective identity and enduring security.
This was not my experience.
Born into a family plagued by mental illness and generational abuse and trauma largely determined my life’s trajectory. For those, who like myself were denied a healthy familial experience, core values were not instilled and basic economic, social, and psychological, moral and spiritual needs were not met. Needless to say, the long-term damaging consequences of an absent, neglectful family are extensive. Unfortunately, this plight is becoming more pervasive as the function of the family as an institution declines.
Cultural and political commentator David Brooks elaborates on the societal changes influencing familial breakdown in his article, The Nuclear Family was a Mistake. As Brooks imparts, although the traditional nuclear family has morphed into alternative forged family structures consisting of unique variations of single adults and non-biological family members coming together to raise children, the emphasis on self-sufficiency, competition, and factions fueled by aggressive vitriol has disintegrated the strength of the extended family. This shift has devastated the working class, the poor and the elderly.
Brooks explains, “ We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.”
While this shift from interdependent kinship to truncated disconnected family units clearly reflects rising economic inequality, the repudiation of old school familial obligations is also indicative of changes in societal norms and values.
In general, recent Gallup polls indicate that Americans are increasingly disdainful of traditional norms and distrustful of societal institutions, structures and systems. This is understandable given the financialization of the government and a declining quality of life.
Given the lack of social cohesion, the value of collectivism has been replaced with a mounting emphasis on individualism. While the pursuit of an autonomous identity that distinguishes one from one’s family of origin is a relevant pursuit, impetuously excising those perceived as an impediment to one’s quest for autonomy and happiness may result in permanently severing familial ties. This trend has led to an increase in estrangement and divisiveness on both familial and cultural levels.
Identifying what beneficial systems and structures should take the place of long-established conventions continues to be a mystery. With increases in U.S. divorce rates and one-parent households being tied to poverty, we need to consider how the economic disintegration of the family lends itself to the dramatic rise in deaths of despair.
Prompted by a NY Times opinion piece faculty and students from Harvard created an event in which the origin of deaths of despair was explored. Included in the variables discussed was how the absence of social cohesion, familial poverty and childhood deprivation negatively impacted the spiritual and mental health of those whose lives ended through suicide, drug overdose or alcoholism.
Indeed, deaths of despair are concentrated among those with lower incomes, and on average, even high school dropouts who are married have a far lower poverty rate than do single parents with several years of college. Whereas the wealthy can afford childcare, daycare, and healthcare, these essentials are out of reach for most people. Hence, one must consider the ways in which profit-driven economics contribute to conditions that make motherhood and sustaining a family an impossible pursuit for many.
The impact of the profit motive, wage differentials and occupational segregation on healthcare, the marketplace, daycare, child abuse, housing, violence towards women, and teen pregnancy creates a cultural double bind.
Women are encouraged to embrace motherhood and the domestic sphere, yet the necessary provisions to do so are not accessible.
The reality is, motherhood is largely predicated on the distribution of wealth and public policy. That almost half of young children in the United States live in poverty or near poverty suggests a huge discrepancy between family values and the obvious lack of public services and entitlements which would support that frame of reference.
In fact, research conducted by the Center for American Progress affirms that mothers must make job decisions based on child care considerations rather than in the interest of their financial situation or career goals. The only federal law guaranteeing maternity leave in the U.S. is unpaid and it only applies to some employees.
Even though the fields of developmental psychology, neurobiology, and animal epigenetic studies reveal that neglect, parental inconsistency, and a lack of love can lead to long-term mental health problems and negatively impact potential and happiness, at best, women are given three months of maternity leave. At the most crucial stage of childhood development, mothers are forced to return to work.
Needless to say, if we lived in a perfect world, the aforementioned concerns would be addressed with humanity and justice. However, given this somber reality we are challenged to reckon with the complicated mixed bag of neoliberal economic progressiveness and address serious matters concerning the future of the family and society at large.
English historian and author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote about how the fall of the Roman Empire was related to sundry factors such as increased taxation, insatiable hedonism, an unsustainable accumulation of weaponry, the decay of religion and lastly, the breakdown of the family.
In a similar vein, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead conveyed, “A society imperils its own future when, out of negligence or contempt, it overlooks the need of children to be reared in a family or when, in the midst of plenty, some families cannot give their children adequate food and shelter, safe activity and rest, and an opportunity to grow into full adulthood as people who can care for and cherish other human beings like themselves.”
Both Gibbon and Mead imply that family is the base on which the society stands. The vitality of any society is influenced by the health of the family. Once you destroy the values of the family you destroy society.
Likewise, American sociologist Carle Zimmerman emphasized the connections between the rise and fall of different types of families and the rise and fall of civilizations in his landmark book Family and Civilization.
Zimmerman portended that moving from the domestic family in which a balance exists between the power of the family and that of other agencies, to the atomistic family, which has virtually no power and little field of action, as it is primarily individualistic, leads to profound social ails.
Although the atomistic family is currently perceived as the pinnacle of progress given that it is the capitalist ideal, declining education standards, greater violence and drug use, gang violence and deaths of despair contradict this assessment. Yet given that family breakdown is largely economically driven, addressing key concerns related to this issue, such as youth homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and poverty is at best relegated to performative stunts to tax the rich and government rhetoric touting dedication to change.
Hopefully one day we will come to fully recognize the interconnectedness between family and culture and how the sicknesses found in the family are a direct reflection of the sicknesses in the culture. If we do not, in the words imparted by Jungian Analyst Dr.Clarissa Pinkola Estés, the predator will continue to rule and, “all new life needing to be born, all old life needing to be gone, will be unable to move and the soul-lives of its citizenry will be frozen with both fear and spiritual famine.”
Alternatively, “if the culture is a healer, the families learn how to heal; they will struggle less, be more reparative, far less wounding, far more graceful and loving.”
Needless to say, I am hoping for the latter.