Who Sinned, the Child or the Parents? Inherited Inequality

This is the second post in my series on structural inequality.

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9: 1-3)

As I’ve been working through my study of the structures of inequality, this passage from John kept ringing through my head. All of the talk of the 47%, of takers, of those who don’t have proper work ethic, seems to be designed to draw a direct cause-effect relationship between individual choices and the impacts of poverty.

It is no surprise that Robert Putnam’s book is titled Our Kids. It’s a very interesting rhetorical move. We look at children with less opportunities and we can ask a question similar to what the disciples asked: who sinned? Was it this child’s fault or her parents?

It is a provocative question the disciples asked because of what it implies about next steps.

If, we would assume, the blindness is the result of this man’s actions and choices, then we could be freed from responsibility to act. If, on the other hand, it is the byproduct of choices made in earlier generations, it’s hard to know how to undo those past actions without a Tardis. Again, we are freed from responsibility.

So it is with the children in Putnam’s book or in the Hopkins study of Baltimore (The Long Shadow). I’m still working through both books, but it is clear to me that we can either look at poor choices made by a young tough in New Orleans or we can see how family disruption and parental drug issues hampered a young woman in Oregon.

What do we do now?

In the Baltimore study, they were looking at the situation of students starting public school in Baltimore in 1982. One of the chapters looks specifically at the family background of those six-year-olds. I took this picture of the Table (even if it is a little crooked):

Baltimore FamiliesThe researchers first broke the data by socioeconomic status and then, within lower SES, by race. This data shows the kinds of statistics that people like to toss around when critiquing inequality: single-parenthood, early pregnancy, lack of educational achievement. There are stark differences present in these columns. Note, for example, that in over a third of the families the mother had never married. The breakdown by class and race shows a 42% gap between the higher SES families (which were only high within Baltimore standards), and the lower-SES African American families.

But these demographics mask deeper, family system issues. Sometimes those relate to lack of job opportunities in the city. Incarceration is a factor as well. So are issues of drug and alcohol addiction.

Consider the story of Bess, one of those kids who started first grade in the early 1980s. Here is her situation as an adult as reported by the interviewers:

Bess, who grew up in what she described as a chaotic family environment, had her first baby at age fourteen in the summer of eighth grade, then a second in tenth grade. She tried to finish high school, indeed worked hard at it, but was unable to trust her mother to watch her first baby and eventually gave up. Bess would call home from school, she told us, and her mother would not be there; she would come home to find her baby soiled and unfed. “If I had somebody to watch who I knew, you know, was a good person to watch and I knew she was gonna’ be alright, then, you know, I woulda’ stayed [in school].” Bess was surrounded by an abundance of family — a cousin who supported a drug habit by prostituting herself and her mother, who, according to Bess, was drunk “morning to night.” Bess is one of the Youth Panel’s permanent dropouts, a victim, she says, of a neglectful mother and extended family disruption (2014, 48).

“Who sinned”, they asked, “this girl or her mother?”

Frankly, Jesus’ response is hard to figure out. He seems to suggest that the man is born blind “for such a moment as this”.

I prefer to take Jesus to be saying, “Your question is irrelevant. What is important is how God’s work can be done.”

Both of the books I’m reading share this common sentiment. Somehow, the children are suffering from the situations in which they grow up. Or at least some of them are. Putnam has a regular series of what he calls scissor graphs, which show advantages accruing to upper class families (because they have time for summer enrichment and organized sports) while disadvantages deepen for lower class families (because life circumstances set them farther and farther behind).

We wrestle with an appropriate response to inequality in the same way the disciples did.

We want to celebrate “good families” and don’t want to legitimize family dysfunction. We can argue that having two parents in the household, in their first marriage, who spent time interacting with their children yields the best outcomes for those children. This is demonstrably true.

But we can’t actually say to Bess’ mother, “you should marry the father, clean up your life, read to your children, and take the family to church.” Or more correctly, the only reason to say so is to ease our conscience about our own families.

Maybe we’d be better able to address issues of inequality if we saw Bess’ situation as a way to see God’s work displayed.

We’d worry less about affixing blame and show compassion on the young girl in a remarkably difficult circumstance.

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