Inside and Outside the Cage

A few weeks ago, I was interviewing welfare workers somewhere or other about a project they were doing. They were going to stop pushing their clients- TANF recipients, basically poor single moms- to get their full complement of work requirement hours every month, and do more “goal achievement”, self-efficacy stuff instead. Get an apartment instead of couch surfing, get a bus pass, get a real job instead of the community service hours that let you get your check. Go to the doctor, or get your head examined if you needed that. Find a day care. The welfare workers can’t do all this stuff for the moms, so this means writing down the goal, sending them a text or an email with the place they’re supposed to call or the office they’re supposed to visit, and then checking back in with them in a couple weeks, and in the meantime kind of overlooking the fact that they’re a little or a lot short of the work requirement hours, since the moms are supposed to be working on this stuff first.

Is this a good idea? Maybe for some moms it helps and for others it doesn’t. Maybe it works if there are a lot of services available and the moms just need a nudge to make use of them, or maybe it’s a good idea if there aren’t many jobs around, or if the moms are functionally unemployable until they work this stuff out. I don’t know. The TANF workers seemed to like it, and I guess it’s more fun to call up somebody and ask them if they found a day care than to tell them you’re cutting off their check since they didn’t do all 20 hours of community service last week. Carrots and sticks, life needs both, I guess.

My point is just that we’re all going to be in this boat sooner or later. Most of us, sooner or later, are going to be not working, trying to keep our act together in spite of no longer having a place we need to go to every day. Maybe family, neighbors, church can keep people in line, or maybe those will evaporate along with jobs. Technology seems to be expanding in its power to lay low our connections to everything but it. In the medium term, it seems like postmodernity favors groups that resist technology systematically like the Amish or at least have social structures relatively unresponsive to short-term cultural change, like Mormons and observant Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

But, for pretty much everyone else, it’s hard to imagine the future as anything but gradually escalating paternalism. American society is a commercial society, not a communal society, but once most of us are no longer part of the world of commerce, selling as well as buying, it’s hard to know what place most of us will have.

School, as I’ve said a number of times, serves this purpose already. I’ll sometimes encounter people who treat the idea that kids learn relatively little in school, that it’s a pointless hamster wheel that doesn’t get anyone anywhere, as some kind of scandal or shock. Maybe, but have you seen adult life lately? Is what kids do on an average school day so much more pointless and lonely and anomic than what you did yesterday- not than your ideal of what a ten year old or thirty year old should be doing, but what you actually, personally did? American parents are insanely competitive and push their kids and their kids’ schools to do all kinds of pointless shit, because we literally don’t have any other idea how to fill their and our days. They’re already staring at screens for nine hours a day. It could get worse. Four times as many young women 25-34 years old overdosed last year as in 1999. I don’t think school is the problem.

Maybe it’s a Tragedy of the (Missing) Commons. Maybe if you, and you, and you, and you, all pulled your kid out of school, tuned in, turned on (to Jesus or Allah or John Dewey or whoever), and dropped out, let them run around and build forts and make out or read Dante or whatever, maybe they can reinvent society on better grounds. The Benedict Option, like Rod Dreher says.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, and maybe we all need to be more utopian on our home turf even while being less so on other people’s. The ideal- or at least our own ideals- might be more within our grasp than we think. Maybe.

Or maybe what limited store of self-reliance we have is going to be destroyed, utterly, by the next wave of technology, or the next, and the best we can hope for is a benevolently paternalist technostate, the FitBit vibrating on our wrist to tell us to stop being inert, urging us to less self-destruction than we’d otherwise tend, telling us, whether we’re ten or fifty, to turn in our homework next time they see us and to remember to put our names on our papers if we want to get credit on the test.




School Lunched

Whose Nudge, Who’s Nudged

The Rise and Fall of the Bourgeois Era

After Labor Day

2 thoughts on “Inside and Outside the Cage

    1. It varies, but in practice for people who can’t find jobs they use some kind of “subsidized employment” that amounts to paid community service. Some places have more sophisticated internship and placement programs.
      In general, what makes TANF (the cash welfare we have now) different from AFDC (what we used to have until 1996 welfare reform) is the emphasis on the work requirement, along with the 5 year max of lifetime benefits.

      Click to access work_requirements_0.pdf


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