Saturday, 11 January 2014

More weddings won't reduce poverty There’s a peculiar argument that because there is a statistical association between single parenthood and poverty, the policy response should be to promote marriage (e.g.). Some influential folk on the right (e.g.) seem to relish this line of thinking because it gives them a sense of moral superiority coupled with a reason not to have to address the realities of poverty. People in poverty are so much easier to blame. But it’s actually not that difficult to work out, as this Atlantic article by Emily Badger puts it: ‘Fractured family structures don't cause poverty. Poverty causes these family structures. Reduce poverty through more direct means, and we might actually reverse the retreat of marriage along the way.’ As she says, the basic logic ‘casts poverty as the result of a collapse in family values, not as the product of complex structural economic and social factors.’ Badger based her material on this article from the Council on Contemporary Families and quotes the Council’s researcher Kristi Williams: ‘We know marriage has a wide range of benefits, particularly for raising children. And it's not unreasonable to think that it would be nice if all children could enjoy these benefits. The problem is that there’s no evidence that the kind of marriages that poor, single parents enter into will have these same benefits.’ The article points to a range of research that helps explain why so many policy attempts to reassert traditional family structures have failed. I accept that right wing policy makers in the UK today will struggle with the possibility that there might be a direction of causality contrary to the one they favour. But it’s just possible some light might penetrate the blinkers. Even Conservative Home thinks the minister for welfare and pensions should meet the Trussell Trust to discuss food banks. Poverty is actually quite an important issue, and to have povertyism practised consistently at a high level in policy thinking is disgraceful.
Less education, more play Since my kids were at school, many moons ago, I’ve been highly sensitive to the need to challenge the obsessive over-regulation of childhood generally and school time in particular. So thank you Peter Gray in today’s Indy for a forceful and knowledgeable articulation of the arguments. His article reviews the human value of play and its social importance, then reflects on the significant reduction over a couple of generations in the amount of time children have to play. Gray notes that these changes ‘have been caused by a constellation of social factors, including the spread of parents’ fears, the rise of experts who are continuously warning us about dangers, the decline of cohesive neighbourhoods and the rise of a school-centric, or ‘schoolish’, take on child development – the view that children learn more from teachers and other adult directors than they do from one another.’ Apparently this dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play ‘has been accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in childhood mental disorders:’ ‘research indicates that empathy has been declining and narcissism increasing, ever since valid measures of these were first developed in the late 1970s.’ Successive governments, feeding the peculiar ambitions of many parents and also being encouraged by those aspirations, have insisted more and more fervently on regulating, controlling and managing a high proportion of children’s lives. And yet: ‘The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practised by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions… ‘We no longer need people to follow directions in robot-like ways (we have robots for that), or to perform routine calculations (we have computers for that), or to answer already-answered questions (we have search engines for that). But we do need people who can ask and seek answers to new questions, solve new problems and anticipate obstacles before they arise. These all require the ability to think creatively. The creative mind is a playful mind.’ I will be pondering all this more deeply, but I have to pop out shortly to pick up a friend’s children from school, let them loose on a few games for an hour, then ferry them to a tennis lesson…

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