Posts Tagged ‘children’

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Special mention

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Peggy M. Hart, The Magic of Coal (1945)

As I have argued many times on this blog, representations of the economy are produced and disseminated in many different spaces (in addition to academic economics departments) and through many different media (in addition to the usual, mostly mainstream economics textbooks).

One example of this proliferation of economic representations is children’s literature. Children are the targets of educators and writers, most of whom (at least these days) are determined to make sure children get the “correct” understanding of key concepts and institutions. And, for the most part, they mirror the kinds of knowledges produced by mainstream economists, albeit with language and illustrations appropriate for children.

Scholastic offers such a list (which features Homer Price by Robert McClosky, through which students learn the “law of demand”). So does Choice Literacy (which includes Tomie dePaola’s Charlie Needs a Cloak, “good for discussing the four factors of production”). And then there’s the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, which groups books by concept (such as Markets and Competition, Opportunity Cost, and so on).

Motoko Rich’s view is that “By and large, the economic lessons in children’s books lean left of center” (and that may be true of books that teach the importance of sharing and gift-giving) but, at least for the books on the lists provided by economics educators these days, the tendency is much more mainstream, if not purely neoclassical.

That was not always the case, as Kimberley Reynolds [ht: ja] explains, in the Soviet Union but also during the interwar period in the United Kingdom.

The fact that children’s books can have a strongly formative influence upon the young has often attracted the attention of new leaders and regimes. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin and his followers harnessed the power of children’s books to shape culture. Some of the artistically vibrant work that resulted from co-opting leading writers and artists is currently on exhibit at London’s House of Illustration with the title, A New Childhood: Picture Books from Soviet Russia. In interwar Britain too, a group of socially and aesthetically radical children’s books underpinned the work of making Britain a progressive, egalitarian, and modern society. But unlike their Soviet counterparts, these books have since remained a largely hidden secret, with most scholars of the period overlooking them altogether.

A good example is Peggy M. Hart’s The Magic of Coal, which was published as a Puffin picturebook in 1945. It was the British equivalent of the Soviet “production books.”

Production books detailed the production process of economically essential resources such as coal or steel. Emphasis was placed on the difference between the capitalist and communist machinery used to create these resources; where capitalist machinery was shown to feed greed and overproduction, communist machinery provided a helping hand in creating a prosperous future everyone could enjoy. Thus production books clearly directed the child reader’s attention to a wider political narrative beyond the specificities of the text.

Production books were aesthetically modernist, combining ideas from abstract painting with typography to create a visual language strikingly different from what had gone before. Pictures held a machine-like appearance, using straight lines and elementary forms. By championing newness, it was conveyed to the child reader that they had the potential to be aesthetically innovative. Rather than simply encouraging them to learn to copy what was already seen as beautiful, aesthetic modernism puts more at stake for the child; if whatever they create has the potential to be considered beautiful, there is more incentive for them to attempt to create. Similarly, if a transformed communist society is shown to be a plausible alternative to today’s society, there is a greater incentive for the child to become an activist to help bring this society about.

Apparently, the Magic of Coal contained all the features of a production book:

Reference is made to, ‘our gas works’ and ‘our community, implying collective ownership, and all images are aesthetically modernist. Thus it is an example of the attempts of a popular front of left-wing publishers to bring the production book genre and its associated radicalism to Britain in the interwar period.”

As such, it was quite different from what passes today for children’s economics literature:

Taking the child on a journey, it tells not only of the production of coal but also elevates the miner as an important and  respectable member of society. In doing so, the text and its illustrations point towards a political goal.

The text focusses on the production process rather than around any one character. Each role within the mine is shown through illustrations and accompanying text, implying that there is something for everybody. Every individual has a skill set to offer in the production of coal and is a valuable cog in the machinery of the mine. A sense of a community at work is created and when combined with impressionist illustrations of tiny black figures and miners whose faces are blurred or have their backs to the reader, this sense of community solidifies into the socialist theory of collectivism.

The text informs the reader that the miners can attend the ‘pitbaths’ before or after work, challenging class boundaries as it suggests that before he enters the mine, a working-class man looks like, and therefore is like, any other man going about any other business. The text also tells us of the miner’s life outside of work, mentioning societies, theatre visits and higher education, indicating that the miners are not only important members of coal-fueled, modern society, but also respectable citizens with good standards of living and a thirst for culture.

I don’t know if children’s economics books of this sort—whether about coal mining or Wall Street—are being written and produced today. If they’re not, they need to be. If they are, then they need to be included in the lists that promote the economics education of children.

There is—and there needs to be—a lot more than mainstream economic ideas in representations of the economy, both inside and outside the official discipline of economics.

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More than 7 years into the current recovery and all the talk is about the number of jobs created, the falling unemployment rate, and the prospect that workers’ wages are set to finally increase on a sustained basis. Problem solved!

But what about the 1 in 6 American workers who were let go during the Great Recession, victims of the 40 million layoffs and other involuntary discharges during the official downturn that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009? Not to mention the fact that nearly 14 million people are still searching for a job or stuck in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work.

As the Wall Street Journal reports,

Even for the millions of Americans back at work, the effects of losing a job will linger. . .They will earn less for years to come. They will be less likely to own a home. Many will struggle with psychological problems. Their children will perform worse in school and may earn less in their own jobs. . .

Only about one in four displaced workers gets back to pre-layoff earning levels after five years. . .A pay gap persists, even decades later, between workers who experienced a period of unemployment and similar workers who avoided a layoff. Estimates vary, but by one analysis, people who lost a job during recessions made 15% to 20% less than their nondisplaced peers after 10 to 20 years.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Workers who lost their incomes or received lower incomes if and when they found a new job have found it difficult to save and make purchases (and, in many cases, had to dip into what savings they had), own a home, send their children to college, and pay for healthcare.

Losing a job, of course, has more than just financial consequences for workers and their families.

Unemployment often is an isolating experience. A layoff can strip people of their identity as workers in a chosen field and their workplace-based social network of co-workers and other contacts. Researchers have linked job loss to stress, depression and feelings of distrust, anxiety and shame.

Alarming trends that emerged after the end of the 1990s economic boom may have been amplified by the latest recession. The death rate for middle-aged whites has been rising as a result of suicides, substance abuse and liver diseases, all potentially products of economic distress, according to research by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

Data spanning the recession years show a link between high unemployment and increased abuse of painkillers and hallucinogens. The U.S. suicide rate climbed 24% between 1999 and 2014, a rise that accelerated after 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One study of Pennsylvania men who lost long-held jobs during the early 1980s found a spike in mortality following a layoff, with middle-aged men set to lose a year to 18 months off their lifespans.

Researchers have found that the children of people who lose their jobs perform worse on school tests and are more likely to repeat a grade. A father’s layoff is linked with a substantially higher likelihood of anxiety and depression in his children. In one study, the sons of men who were displaced from their jobs earned salaries that were 9% lower compared with otherwise similar children whose fathers had stayed employed.

And the list goes on.

What no one in charge seems to want to talk about is the fact that the economic trauma of the Second Great Depression “has left financial and psychic scars on many Americans, and that those marks are likely to endure for decades”—thus scarring not just millions of individuals and their families, but all of American society.

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According to a new study by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Lauren Bauer, and Greg Nantz (citations omitted),

In 2014 more than 15.3 million children—or more than one in five—lived in a food-insecure household in the United States. This is a marked increase from the years prior to the Great Recession, when an average of 12.9 million children lived in a food-insecure household. . .

After the onset of the Great Recession all household types saw sharp increases in rates of food insecurity, with households with children experiencing the largest increase. From 1998 to 2007 an average of 15.7 percent of households with children, 10.8 percent of households overall, and 6 percent of households with seniors were food insecure. The average from 2008 to 2014 was roughly 4 percentage points higher for households overall and for households with children, and about 2 percentage points higher for households with seniors. These changes amount to millions more Americans living in food-insecure households. Despite recent improvements in the economy, food insecurity rates are still higher than they were prior to the Great Recession, potentially reflecting higher rates of poverty and increased costs of other necessities such as housing.

It’s been a spectacular recovery from the Great Recession for a tiny group at the top. For millions of the nation’s children and working-class families, well, it’s meant something quite different—including a great deal of food insecurity.

child poverty

According to the latest fact sheet from the National Center for Children in Poverty, both the number and percentage of children in or near poverty increased from 2008 to 2014 (the latest year for which data are available).
Here’s what else we know:

  • More than four in ten U.S. children are living close to the poverty line. In 2014, 44 percent of children under age 18 (31.4 million) lived in low-income households and 21 percent lived in poor families (15.4 million). This is much higher than at the start of the Great Recession in 2008, when 39 percent of children were considered low income and 18 percent lived in poor households.
  • Children remain more likely than adults to live in poverty. While 44 percent of children live in low-income households, only one-third of adults between 18 and 64 years of age live in these households. In addition, children are more than twice as likely as adults 65 years and older to live in poor families.
  • While children with a full-time, year-round employed parent are less likely to live in a low-income family, compared to children with parents who work part-time or part-year or who are not employed, it is still the case that 31 percent of children with at least one parent who works full-time, year round (16.1 million) live in low-income families and 9 percent of children with at least one parent who works full-time, year round (4.6 million) live in poor families.

I don’t see how the project of making America either “great again” or “whole” is going to fix the growing problem of child poverty.

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Special mention

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Stephanie Coontz has been working for a long time to shatter the myth that the traditional family was accurately portrayed in Leave it to Beaver.

Even for the short time such nuclear families reached their peak, as Mia Birdsong and Nicole Rodgers [ht: ja] explain, only 65 percent of American children were living in this type of “traditional” nuclear family unit (with a father employed and mother out of the labor force). Today, it’s just 22 percent.

There has been an explosion in the diversity of family structures in the U.S. over the last several decades, much of it the result of delayed and declining marriage rates and higher nonmarital birthrates. Forty-one percent of babies born in the U.S. today have parents who are not married, and among millennials, it’s over half.

The traditional family, which dominated for just over a decade, wasn’t replaced by one kind of family, but by many kinds of families. Unlike in the early ’60s, today, there is no single-family arrangement that encompasses the majority of children. More individuals live alone, there are more families with married parents who are both employed, more single-parent homes, children living with grandparents, children living with unmarried, cohabitating parents, and households composed of people who are not biologically related or legally bound. Family diversity is the new normal.

The problem, of course, is both liberals and conservatives retain a nostalgia for the Leave it to Beaver nuclear household, and overlook the many ways (from tax breaks to employment policies) that supposed norm is reinforced.

Even progressives often tacitly accept the logic that marriage and “keeping families together” is the best way to support the wellbeing of adults and children. But just beneath the surface, this is the same underlying “good old days” nostalgia used by conservatives. It’s the same logic that says that working women going to back into the home is a legitimate solution to the inaccessibly of affordable childcare.

The Left, for its part, has done a very poor job over the years of imagining alternative forms of householding, much less of supporting public policies that might support and enhance “family diversity.”

The evolution of family we are experiencing is a complex, sometimes confusing, but also beautiful thing. It means that despite all the policies, practices and social pressures supporting the nuclear family, people are continuing to create family in a variety of ways. It’s not always intentional, or without struggle and challenge, but it requires a creative spirit to navigate and bypass the myriad structures and institutions that get in one’s way. We have so much to learn from the wisdom and resourcefulness of those whose families have too long been thought of as broken, when really, they are sewn together by ingenuity and love against all kinds of odds.

That’s not to say all the forms of householding we’re seeing today are beautiful. They’re not. People still struggle to assemble various kinds of households, to raise children, and to get ahead in life. And some of the results are pretty ugly—with, as we know, many forms of spousal abuse and child neglect, inadequate opportunities, and a shredded or nonexistent safety net when it comes to helping both parents and children.

So, yes, people have long been pretty creative in terms of how they manage the task of setting up one or another kind of family householding—before and after Leave it to Beaver. And we can help them become even more creative, by relinquishing the nostalgia for the single household that never was and imagining and supporting the diversity of alternative households that can be.