Friday, March 6th, 2009

Wealth, class and dysfunction.

Filed under: class,dysfunction,ignorance,money — alison @ 07:47

An old draft. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it at the time – possibly too emotional, possibly revealing myself as too ignorant, too judgemental, too pretenious, but mostly too ignorant. Maybe I felt that it was too apologetic, protesting too much. But ok, I am ignorant. Might as well post it now.

I was called out recently for referring to ‘the dysfunctional poor.’ It was suggested that I really meant ‘the working class.’ I didn’t think so, but I realised that I didn’t know what ‘the working class’ means. I looked it up in Wikipedia and it turns out that ‘working class’ can mean so many different things in informal speech that it’s pretty much useless. (Wikipedia suggests that ‘the underclass’ is more like what I really meant, but… so monolithic?) Academics have various definitions for ‘the working class’ based on income or marxian theory, but as I am not an academic I’m not going to try to use them.

It’s interesting that poverty still carries the stench of shame, that calling someone poor generates a reprimand.

Trying to identify what dysfunction means to me I have been thinking about people I have known (some better than others, but I’ve met them all in person).

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I think violent sociopaths are dysfunctional, but that’s a purely personal feeling. You can be a violent sociopath millionaire corporate lawyer and lots of people will think that’s just peachy. You will probably spend less time in jail than if you are a violent sociopath pimp, and the spending time in jail part is usually what gets considered dysfunction.

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Doing time in prison more than once is dysfunctional – that is, if it’s not part of a conscious protest.

There are lots of things that will increase your chances of doing time, like being poor or Native (or in the US, African-American) none of which are inherently dysfunctional. But most people have staying out of prison somewhere on their agenda, and if you are unable to manage that for yourself… there’s a problem somewhere, and it’s manifesting itself in your life.

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A family dynamic that includes filicide is dysfunctional.

If as you enter your teen years you realise that your violent sociopath father will end up murdering you if you stick around, money means you can be sent to private boarding schools. Poverty means you’ll have to run away and live on the street.

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Alcoholism is dysfunctional.

Again, a personal prejudice. Perhaps the things for which alcoholism increases the risk – road accidents, fights, FAS, cirrhosis, too many children, suicide – are the actual problems and alcoholism merely a convenient target for finger-pointing. Whichever, even a little money makes things better. Remember the Temperance movement, and Demon Rum, and Taking the Pledge? People drink just as much as they did in the 1920s but Demon Rum isn’t taking the rap it used to. Breadwinners get paid more and are less likely to spend the entire week’s paycheque in one evening at the local pub. Families are less likely to be dependent on a single breadwinner. Even if they are, welfare means that a parent can leave a violent partner who spends all their money getting drunk or high. We have Al-Anon to replace the WCTU because those social changes don’t make all the crummy stuff associated with alcoholism go away. Welfare isn’t enough either, so the ex-wife on the top of the hill in Westmount getting both alimony and child support has easier choices to make.

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Sexual assault of kids by family members is dysfunctional. Money doesn’t change that, but it affects a parent’s child care choices.

If you don’t have money for a babysitter, it’s possible you would leave your toddler with your creepy brother-in-law when you go out for the day and tell yourself he isn’t that creepy because you don’t have a choice. And you might come back to find your toddler dead and sodomised in the dumpster behind your apartment building.

If you don’t have money for a babysitter, it’s possible you might let your mother look after your six-year-old daughter after school. Recalling what your father did to you when you were that age, you would warn your daughter not to let herself be in a room alone with her grandfather. And when you saw her bruises in the bathtub in the evening, you would know what she had done and you would whip her for having disobeyed your instructions.

Not being able to pay for childcare when you need it – that’s poverty, and it sucks. Whipping your child for getting herself raped – that’s dysfunction. But you wouldn’t see that particular dysfunction if appropriate childcare were available.

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Keeping your kids out of primary and secondary school so that they can keep you company is dysfunctional. Money doesn’t seem to have much impact either way.

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Preventing your kids from attending university is dysfunctional.

Parents may refuse to fill out financial statements for aid applications and/or decline to fund any aspect of their children’s university education. Either way the children aren’t eligible for financial aid and will have a very hard time. The student in this situation who receives an inheritance – even a small one – will be greatly helped.

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Repeatedly beating your school-age children into unconsciousness is dysfunctional.

If you live in a single family home, you can shut the windows and the neighbours won’t hear the screams. If you live in an apartment, you’ll upset the neighbours. They’ll have to figure out how to cope. They might or might not interfere, but either way relations will be tense.

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Setting fire to animals is dysfunctional.

If you live in a single-family home and set fire to your parents’ $800 show pekinese in the basement, your parents may discreetly take the animal to the vet for treatment and leave it there for placement somewhere gentler. Your neighbours will be none the wiser. If you set fire to one of the many cats trying to make a living in your traditional working class neighbourhood alley, your neighbours know who you are. One of them might retrieve the animal and take it to the vet, thus starting a career as a cat lady.

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So, that’s what I mean by dysfunction. Violence, spite and alcoholism. Universal, sure, but money can absorb some of the mess and limit the damage – even if only cosmetically. It’s a middle-class list that will offend many people because it labels individuals and not the societies they are a part of. But that’s my point: violence, spite and alcoholism are not themselves the domain of any particular sector of society. When I referred to the ‘dysfunctional poor,’ I was thinking of people caught up in dysfunction who don’t have access to money to mitigate the damage – so it’s out there hurting for all too see.

What do you mean by dysfunction?

1 Comment »

  1. Thinking about why I didn’t post this at the time.

    I think it was problematic because when I was called out it was because I had made a comment about one particular poor/inexpensive neighbourhood being less desirable than other poor/inexpensive neighbourhoods “because then you have to live next to the dysfunctional poor.” Meaning that this particular poor neighbourhood had more drug dealers, pimps, thieves, child abusers and animal-setters-on-fire relative to other poor neighbourhoods.

    Which went counter to the thesis of my post that dysfunction is everywhere. Trying to reconcile the two statements would have taken a sociology course, and then I might have turned out to be wrong about one or both.

    And no, I am not singling out “traditional working class neighbourhoods” as being the only ones where I think there can be concentrations of dysfunction. You know those fathers who kill their families? They tend not to live in “traditional working class neighbourhoods,” but neither are they evenly distributed. Just as I would prefer not to have to live in certain poor neighbourhoods, I would prefer not to have to live in the kinds of isolating suburbs where mass-murderers incubate.

    But this is getting too complicated. I couldn’t simplify it so I didn’t post it.

    That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t welcome your thoughts.

    Comment by alison — Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009 @ 20:14

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