When Insanity is Normal

I’ve started a new case for my volunteer work.  So I don’t repeat myself too much, you can read a previous post about what I do and what my observations have been as of about 2 years ago.  But this new case has made me realize something else.  I can’t name names but let me give you a taste of what’s going in the case.

A 24 year old woman had her kids removed from her because upon the birth of her last child, she and the newborn tested positive for cocaine.  Her partner also tested positive for cocaine.  The partner is the father of the youngest two, the oldest, who is 5 has a different biological father, who until recently hasn’t been involved because the mother actively tried to keep him out of her life when he remarried.  The father of the youngest two was reported as having sexually molested a 3 year old girl.  He claims he didn’t do it, but the child’s story was detailed enough that he is on record as a known perpetrator.  This father is 32, the mother 24, which is a bit of an age gap, given that their first child happened when she was only 22 and he was 30.  He has 3 other children of which he has lost parental rights to all 3.   There was evidence that often the oldest who is 5 was locked in a room with her 1 year old brother and was at times the primary caretaker of him.  Since her children have been removed from she and the father have continually tested positive for cocaine.  If they are unable to keep clean they will lose parental rights to their children.  Currently they both live in their car, and have no home.

The children upon being removed were originally placed with the maternal grandmother.  The story of her life involves her baby brother dying of SIDS when she was 5.  She has cleary had undiagnosed mental illnesses throughout most of her life from PTSD, to bi-polar, to clinical depression.  To give you a sense of the situation she has been recommended to receive mental health treatment from 9-2 pm…Monday through Friday.  Upon the death of her brother she began being extremely violent towards animals, and pushed her sister onto the driveway as her mother was backing out who then ended up running over her sister (luckily this only result in slight injury).  She has 4 children through 3 different fathers ranging from the age of 26, to the youngest being 12.  Her youngest daughter was actually a twin, but she was with an abusive partner while pregnant, killing one of the twins.  She believed that the birth of a daughter would soften this guy (who was also a cocaine user) but not surprisingly this did not happen.  Her oldest son has 3 children, her oldest daughter (the mother in my case) 3 children, her 18 year old daughter is pregnant.  Recently, the partner she has been with now for 10 years was accused of sexually molesting her 18 year old daughter since she was a young girl.  This turned out to be true, and this maternal grandmother apparently knew about it and didn’t do anything.  The maternal grandmother’s sister also hit her niece badly causing child services to remove the niece for a time from her sister’s home.  It would be too lengthy to give more details but this maternal grandmother has exposed her kids to some broken people, has moved back and forth from different states, has at times not had her own home, and has clearly suffered through some nightmarish experiences.

I know that most of my readers will read those last two paragraphs and be like “WTF!?”  Some of you might feel anger, some sadness, probably both.  Overall, if you’re like me you will recognize this as an insane situation in which can hardly connect to.  This is chaos, and my intuition is helpless as I observe all this because it is so foreign to me.  I cannot fathom how this is real, human life.  But what I’ve come to realize is that this is normal for them.  This is just how life is.  This is how life is for much of their family and friends as well.  You might say, how can a mother let her daughter be molested and not do anything about it?  The only answer I can come up with is that through generations of poverty that the tolerance for deeply troubling behaviors and people is high given that this all seems like par for the course.  And poverty is at the heart of this at the heart of this tale.  Now that’s not to say that there wasn’t a period of prosperity in the maternal grandmother’s life, but the people she imported into her life, because she grew up with no parent recognizing her mental illness, because the behaviors of her own parents seemed normal, has kept a level of dysfunction in the family that would break most of us if we had to tolerate it for more than a day.  I remember my first visit to the maternal grandmother’s home.  Two of her other grandchildren were there along with her son and daughter in law.  The place was a mess with laundry everywhere.  It was a small two bedroom trailer, in which the 3 grandchildren she was fostering, her 12 year old, and her and her partner lived.  I felt claustrophobic and wanted to leave and try to pretend that people didn’t have to live like that.  And that’s not to say that people don’t have it worse.  All I’m saying is that for so many families, all this is absolutely normal.  This shouldn’t be normal.  In talking to the maternal grandmother I actually found her to be fairly prescient, places importance on school and education, and seems to at least have good intentions for those in her care.  What’s not clear is that she necessarily always understand what good care actually means.  If anybody expects people to just reason their way out of the situation, theysimply don’t know what they’re talking about.

Thankfully at the last hearing a couple days ago.  The oldest daughter got moved to her biological father and his wife. Both seem like really good people.  The two youngest children have been placed with a foster family who seem really nice and nurturing.  They understand that re-unification with the parents can happen, but are also willing to be a permanent home should the parents not be able lose their addiction.  There is some stability there and there are all sorts of hardworking people trying to do what’s best for the children.  Children are innocent and born into these situations.  It’s easy to condemn the adults, but when you learn more about them you just realize that they were just like these children and born into impossible situations.  I do this work for the children, but my heart breaks for the adults as well.  Most of the time they just get judged by the rest of society and forgotten.  When the mother had her visitation reduced at the last court hearing and found out she wasn’t going to get any special time with her children at Christmas she was in tears.  Despite the fact that she isn’t capable of being the parent her children need, the pain in her voice, in her face, and the intensity of her sobs made it clear that what little love she had in her life was slipping away.  I am not saying this is an excuse for giving her her kids back, and I’m glad Pennsylvania always tries to give parents a path to get their kids back, but I can imagine the pain I would feel if the same was happening to me.  It still broke my heart.

I appreciate all the people who dedicate their lives to helping children and families in these situations, but it’s really just all not enough.  We have to do better.  We have to make these kinds of things priorities for our politicians and raise awareness of what poverty is really like.

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For those of you interested in volunteering for the organization I work for it is called CASA.  You can check out the national website, but you’d have to see if they exist in your county if you wanted to volunteer.  But if you just want to donate to them some time that also helps.  There may be other service providers that help children in your area as well that could use your support.

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Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

I’ve had numerous conversations on the issue of greed and income inequality with libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people are and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed.  They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood.  This is certainly one narrative, and having a society in which hard work is punished is not a good thing, but if we look at the narrative from the side of the person who isn’t making the big salary, but is working hard at a job with no chance for advancement and is barely making ends meet, the narrative looks different.  In this post I want to investigate the narrative that is used by those with money in order to dehumanize poor people, and make it seem as if poor people are the only ones with moral and ethical failings.

Largely I want to keep this discussion away from specific economic systems, but I think it’s important to discuss systems in general and how systems can be cheated.  As an example let’s look at lying.  When is lying effective?  Lying is most effective when most people are telling the truth.  Imagine a society where everybody lied 70-80% of the time when they spoke.  Would you trust anything anybody ever said even if it was the rare occasion that they were telling the truth?  The reason why people can get us to believe a lie is because most people are being honest, or at least believe they are being sincere in what they are telling us. (See the movie The Invention of Lying for a good laugh and a demonstration of this). Similarly one of the reasons why manipulative people can successfully do so is because they are good at reading the honest expression of emotions from other people and use that against you. In society we live with a variety of systems.  Capitalism is a system, welfare is a system, democracy is a system.   Within any system are cheaters.  Cheaters are successful in systems because most people aren’t cheaters.  That’s not to say there aren’t systems that don’t have a lot of cheaters, but those systems are tend to not be successful.

Image result for war on poorSo with this idea of systems and how cheaters cheat successfully let’s move forward to talk about the rich and the poor.  Both operate within different systems, although the groups are connected insofar as one group accumulates wealth at the expense of the other.  There is no question that there are poor people who work the system to get free money.  But we also know that to be successful the percentage of such people can’t be very high. How do we know this?  Well I think one good indicator would be how horribly drug testing welfare recipients has gone in terms catching all these supposed people using their welfare money for drugs.  Percentages are extremely low there.  Finally we have to remember some of our cognitive biases when looking at this problem.  There are many people who are working at part time or full time while on welfare.  Such people don’t catch our eyes, because they are indistinguishable from anybody else who is working and trying to get by.  Cheaters on the other hand are highly visible.  Media outlets like Fox News likes to report on those cheaters and I’m quite certain, given the number of poor people in the U.S., that they can have a new story every day of the year, each year, for the foreseeable future.  There are currently 52.2 million people using government assistance programs.  Even if the number of cheaters were 1% of that number, this is plenty of fuel for media outlets who want to demonize the poor.

Meanwhile what about cheaters at the top?  Do we not believe that those with vast sums of wealth aren’t cheating?  What’s interesting is the way such cheating is justified.   If a rich person is taking advantage of a loophole it’s okay…he or she is just doing what is humanly normal to do in an imperfect system.  We can’t blame rich people for taking advantage, but poor people apparently are the scum of the Earth for doing the same thing.  And of course the truth is that the rich don’t have to cheat the system, with their wealth they can game the system so it doesn’t look like they are cheating at all.  And if they do get caught they have the best lawyers to get them out.

Image result for bacon's rebellion
                                                   An artist depiction of Bacon’s Rebellion

The way poor people are portrayed today is a very real problem that has been going on for long time.  Consider Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia.  Poor blacks and whites united together against the rich landowners.  Although the rebellion was eventually quelled the rich became worried about races uniting against the rich and instead promoted the poor whites giving them selected benefits and privileges, and some were even given status to police black slaves.  This event in American history has been cited as one that hardened racial lines in U.S., but it’s also a good example how the rich are more concerned about keeping their wealth than even matters of race.  Using race was simply a convenient tool to make sure that their riches were protected.  This tactic of division continues today.  Virtue is so strongly tied to wealth that so many of the poorest of Americans put a billionaire in power, believing that this person’s talent for acquiring wealth would somehow spill over to them.  People have gotten wealthier under Trump but this is largely been the people who had wealth to begin with.

Image result for war on poorAs a current example of how the discussion always turns towards poor people being the problem, read this analysis of why so many people voted for Trump.  It argues that those who work hard for little money are unhappy with those who work less and make about as much due to welfare.  The analysis is done by a former U.S. Congressmen and now banker, and an Auburn university professor who is a policy advisor for the Heartland institute.  Two wealthy white older males.  Now even if their analysis is correct, which it very well could be, it represents a big problem.  Wealthy people are always pitting poor people against each other.  And poor people buy into it.  “The other poor person isn’t working as hard as me, and so they are the problem”.  But why can’t the problem be the rich person who is making people work for so little pay?  Why should I begrudge someone else is barely scraping by even if they live entirely off welfare? Not to mention that I am in no position to judge any person’s particular situation. The fact that so many poor people point across the aisle, while a handful of people continue to accumulate more wealth than they can possibly use is the real travesty here.  And this isn’t only a tactic of conservatives.  Many on the left happily treated poor people like a monolith and faulting them for the election of Trump based on solely on their racist, xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes.  And while there is no question this describes some voters (and not just poor ones) making an enemy of the poor shouldn’t be what a liberal party that claims progressive and humanist values is about.  Sometimes I feel like the attitude on the left is similar to the right “We could really make some progress in this country if it wasn’t for all those poor people”.  Was Mitt Romney’s comment about poor people voting democratic for free handouts any more offensive?  As David Brooks recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, rich and white lead both ends of the political spectrum.

The evidence is all around us about how the poor are regarded compared to the rich.  I mean we still have homelessness in this country.  And while oft used as a favorite excuse for not helping other people in need (we can’t help Syrian refugees because of all the homeless people…who we are incidentally not helping also), how many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum are simply numb to this reality.  I’ve had people tell me that homeless people are just faking it and trying to scam money.  This of course patently untrue, but again the only reason why some people might be successful faking homelessness is because there are so many to begin with.  Think how successful the campaign of the very wealthy must be in order to convince people to not only erode sympathy for homeless people but to actually think that it’s not even a real problem?  What about the differences in the way rich people and poor people are sentenced?  Not to mention the difference in legal advice such people can afford.  The famous example is “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch would easily end up in jail for life if he was in a lower tax bracket.  The thing is I am willing to accept the psychological impacts of growing up very rich and having your brain develop in a home in which there are literally no consequences for your actions.  When there are no mistakes that can be made which would impact Image result for psychology povertyyour standard of living in any noticeable way.  So I do think there is something real about affluenza.  What I strongly object to is that there is never the same consideration in sentencing when it comes to the real and also well documented evidence to the psychological impacts of poverty.  Growing up impoverished with little social mobility, lower quality schools, lower nutrition, your ability to plan long term, your likelihood of addiction, your reduced exposure to affluent people who can inspire you to more in your future.  It many places in the world the philosophy is “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.”

Where do such ideas come from?  How do such divides enter into society?  How has the common person been baked into believing that wealth is what matters most to the point that we become willing participants in a game tilted against all but the most fortunate of people?  As I go back to think about the hunter-gatherers we were for such a long time it’s hard to imagine such vicious divides in those societies.

Further Reading

I found this site interesting.  There is very little research on how many cheaters there are of welfare, but what federal agencies are able to determine is the amount of “Improper Payment”, which includes fraud, but is only due to fraud is at 10.6%.  We can assume that the number of cheaters in the system is somewhat less.  Note that the greatest losses are associated with medicaid and negative income tax.  Not the many programs that actually help people who need the money for things like food and housing.  This loss from improper payment in those programs is at $21.2 billion, which in a country with 100 million tax payers averages to $212 a year or just under $18 a month.  And keep in mind some of the money that is labeled improper could just be due to government error.  Furthermore an improper payment is also deemed such if proper documentation is not available to support the payment.  This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t have legitimate documentation but lost it, or just didn’t know what documentation they had to send in.  In my experience many people who are poor are either poorly educated, incredibly busy, or both and rules and paperwork are complex and laborious, and honest mistakes happen all the time.  If you’ve lost a document the time you might have to take off work to replace it, is something you just can’t afford.  In the legal definition this might be fraud, but is certainly not people trying to fraud the government.

Greed Pt. 1: The Inequality Snapshot

When I feel the weight of the world, and try to focus on the one thing that brings about the most injustice in the world, it is greed.  What I want to say about extends beyond the confines of one post so I’d first like to look at the type of inequality we face in today’s world and then I want to explore how systems and cheating work, and then have a discussion about the morality of greed.

I will start with sharing with you how I define greed, which I don’t think varies too much from anyone else’s definition, and that is the hoarding of resources.  I am however going to focus on money which is most ubiquitous resource out there.  Of course it is true to say that money isn’t truly a resource in itself, because as Douglas Adams says, “Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them…”  However, it is a fiction that we’ve all agreed to believe in to give value to, and with money we can acquire the resources we need to live.  Now some of you will say that resources aren’t the most important thing in life, but I think we can agree that if you don’t have any food, having a meaningful job doesn’t do you much good.

Image result for hunter-gatherer shareAs someone who is very into evolutionary psychology, as I do with many things I like to start with our natural habitat, which is a group of a few hundred or so hunter-gatherers.  This is our beginning as humans and is very much how our brains are wired in terms of survival.  Power structures certainly exist, but the disparity is small.  People don’t really have property.  Everything in the tribe belongs to the tribe.  Some people are better at some things than others.  Some people maybe do more physically demanding activities and work harder, some may have less physically strenuous jobs.  Everyone knows each other, grows up with each other. If there is not enough food, the entire tribe is deprived.  If there is an abundance of food everybody prospers.  This is far from where we are now.

Let’s just take a look at some basic facts about the disparity here in the U.S.  The top 1% of earners in the U.S. according to data from 2015 is $1.4 million per year.  The average income for the bottom 90% is 34K.  The ratio between those two populations in income is 30:1.  Think about that for a second.  Imagine a tribe in which there were a 1000 people and 900 of those people had 1 piece of fruit for the day, while 10 of those people had 30 pieces of fruit per day.  There are about 90 other people averaging somewhere between 10 and 15 pieces of fruit.  Would such a system be stable for long?  Of course it would not.

First you may say, well you’ve just arbitrary given each person one piece of fruit, but what really matters is do all the people have enough to survive?  If so, then the disparity doesn’t matter all that much.  I’m going talk more about this later in future posts about why the bare minimum isn’t sufficient, but for now let’s say though that I changed it so that everybody had enough fruit to live each day.  So let’s give everybody their minimum calories for the day at 10 pieces of fruit.  Keeping the same ratio, the top 10 people in the tribe therefore have 300 pieces of fruit, most just rotting away and going unused.  Those people are still experiencing a lot of stress, because what happens when there is a low rainfall year and the amount of fruit goes down but the ratio stays the same?  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, can you honestly see those 10 people still withholding fruit from others?  Of course not.  Why?  Because everybody knows each other.  They grew up together, they care for each other and they would not let each other starve.  They would not blame those with little fruit for not working hard enough to gather fruit.  And if someone wasn’t pulling their weight they would talk to them and find out why they aren’t helping as they could and support them to do better.  Most people would not slack in their duties for the same reason that someone would not horde that much resources from other members of their tribe.  This is who we are.  We have empathy, we share, we help each other.

Image result for greed
Such a world is not the one we are living in however.  This disparity of course gets much worse if focus our attention on the extremes.  There are 300,000 people in the U.S. alone who average $6.7 million per year, and there are 1.56 million homeless people.  Just as a little math exercise, if you wanted to argue that each homeless person could live modestly and feed themselves for about 30 K a year.  If we took that money from the total wealth of the top 1%, they would still earn an average of 6.5 million a year.  I know, sounds like they’d be roughing it.  Now of course there are lots of reasons why homelessness happens, but my point again here is to look at the disparity, to look at the level of injustice that such greed allows.

Turning our gaze worldwide, in 2012 it was determined that the ultra-rich have 21 trillion dollars just sitting in off-shore accounts.  This Atlantic article also says it could be much higher at 32 trillion.  And since this was 6 years ago, it is certainly much higher.  This is money that these ultra-rich don’t even need for their day to day life.   Just to put that number in perspective, based on current rice consumption in China, this would continue feeding China rice for 329 years.  A population less than the size of China, 816 million, do not have enough food on a daily basis to live a healthy and active life.  The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that it would take US $3.2 billion a year to feed the 66 million hungry school aged children in the world.  This about 0.01 % of  the 21 trillion that sits in off-shore accounts.

So this is where we are at.  Now I am not saying that solving world hunger is as easy as just redistributing wealth, but I am saying that it’s a problem that we have several orders of magnitude times the resources to solve.  Next I’m going to look at how cheating occurs in systems, and how dehumanizing the poor, helps maintain the level of inequality and greed we see in the world.

Further Reading

Interesting article about sharing and cooperation in hunter-gatherer tribes.

And another

Psychology of greed

ribbons of gold

when I looked up at the sky
still bleary-eyed and yawning
a drop of light fell into sea of black
morning would soon be dawning

but still in dimness I could see
a sky nearly void of clouds
a stretched out figure in the distance
you were hiding in a darkened shroud

I felt drawn in to your mystery
mind drifting to anxious wonder
what might come of the morn
should I remain there under?

when impatient for the moment
it slips like minnows through one’s fingers
but flowers bloom when they bloom
and time is no perfume that lingers

so I carried on and let worry go
if I was nervous it did not show
I was as a leaf in a river’s flow
and did not tremble at the eastern glow

from silhouette gray and cold
for a time your form was mine to hold
as rising sun let your beauty unfold
and my eyes beheld ribbons of gold