Defining the Family Down

Taranto links, with some irony, a NYTimes article emphasizing one aspect of census news, an increased percentage of black children live within a family:

Demographers said such a trend might be partly attributable to the growing proportion of immigrants in the nation’s black population. It may have been driven, too, by the values of an emerging black middle class, a trend that could be jeopardized by the current economic meltdown.
The Census Bureau attributed an indeterminate amount of the increase to revised definitions adopted in 2007, which identify as parents any man and woman living together, whether or not they are married or the child’s biological parents.

We suspect the third “indeterminate” reason is key and the news may not be all that great. But how do we know? Taranto has fun with this, but it has serious implications. It appears a combination of “political correctness” (ah, he says he loves the child; isn’t that the same as being a father – even better, perhaps?) and post modernism (words can mean whatever the hell we want them to, so can traditions, so can biology).

Obfuscation has consequences. First, comparisons become pointless, distinctions lost. The often-analyzed differences between a nuclear family and one that shifts through a series of “fathers” and sometimes “mothers” can’t be measured. Differences in achievement, health, happiness are irretrievable. (One suspects that is the point.) Second, such shifts affect our definitions of family. I have no problem with commitment between two gays partially because I long suspected it does less to undermine the definition of “family” than a high rate of divorce and bureaucratic decisions/definitions like this. Third, this undercuts the biological. We forget such lessons at our peril – in this case, peril to children. We worry about the dangers of jungle gyms and slippery slides, but ignore those understood for millennia.

Country music understands. Arising from a culture with more than its share of broken homes and restless fathers, songwriters don’t forget such choices affect children. They valorize behavior: a step-father’s should be praised, his loving kindness less prompted by biology and more by a good heart. His willed and heartfelt goodness is the subject of Brad Paisley’s “He Didn’t Have to Be” ; fittingly for this Christmas season, so Trish Yearwood’s “It Wasn’t His Child” takes that perspective.

Listing other random facts, the article demonstrates how intriguing demography can be; still we wonder how many other terms are not what we think they are. Lately I’ve felt stung by such shifts, as I remember my earlier posts which cheered the rising number of lower income and minority owned houses. My roots are in a world in which owning land, owning your house is important. Not all on this blog feel that and I understand. Nonetheless, a street of houses owned rather than rented looks and feels different; we throw ourselves into home improvements because it isn’t someone else’s house but our home. But when I wasn’t looking, the definitions changed.

I’d filtered out the warnings that plenty of television ads, for instance, threw in my face: to me, a mortgage meant putting down 10-15% and then paying out over 15-30 years in monthly amounts within a rather narrow range of percentage of income. I was looking at statistics of home ownership and thought the words meant one thing – what they really meant was entirely different. A commentor noted a house shouldn’t be considered “yours” until you made the last payment. Of course, that would be a dramatic change in what we mean by “house owning” and he wanted to do that to make his point. Of course, he wanted to compare apples and oranges. Nonetheless, his observation noted the fluidity of the words like own & mortgage; he may have noticed that the relation between some “mortgages” and “owning” was in some cases illusory. Of course, my definitions are old fashioned: our banker lived down the street and transparency wasn’t valued in some theoretical way – it was a part of living in a town of 500. As paper boys, our checking accounts were free. But speculation wouldn’t have been encouraged by that bank or our neighbors who deposited there.

We always tell our freshmen the most important first step is defining terms. You can’t make much of an argument if you and your opponent are talking about two different things. But, of course, those immersed in the mortgage market had long ago defined down what they meant by mortgage – I suspect they would think, why do I have to address this when only an idiot doesn’t know what I’m talking about? But, then, the word’s meaning has changed from a desire to transfer the value (the old meaning) to categories less historical and attractive. As hypocrisy is a compliment to virtue, such words borrow that old authority and respect to decorate a less attractive policy/tradition.

3 thoughts on “Defining the Family Down”

  1. Most of political discourse is conducted using highly ambiguous terms. For example, what does it mean when a person is “unemployed”? The definition used by the department of labor fills a large binder. Moreover, the definition changes over time so that you can’t honestly compare unemployment rates from say 1970 and today.

    Almost all the definitions used in the soft sciences i.e. economics, sociology, psychology etc use highly ambiguous definitions which makes their findings often nonsensical.

  2. The terms began grounded in either tradition or biology. When you believe neither describes reality, then the definitions, too, can mutate.

  3. Political correctness aside, although I would guess that “sensitivity” was a powerful motivator for this drivel of a report, there is also an important political purpose here.

    The Great Society, that huge welfare and maintenance regime created in the ’60’s, has been an unmitigated disaster for many poor people, especially in the black community. The “War on Poverty” might just as well been named the “War on Young Black Men” for all the damage it has done.

    How, then, to rehabilitate the idea of big government programs in general, and welfare programs in particular?

    Why, just blur out all those meaningless, old fashioned classifications like married or unmarried, father or current boyfriend, parent or “just passing through”.

    After all, a family is just some people who have a relationship. Nothing else is required, except maybe a well-paid staff of social workers and therapists and counselors. Can’t have too many helpful civil servants advising our poor about the hazards of life in the modern world, now can we?

    There now, see— things have improved already!

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