By Michaela Soyer, author of Lost Childhoods: Poverty, Trauma, and Violent Crime in the Post-Welfare Era
“While sociology as a discipline celebrates its most accomplished members, I believe it is also time to collectively address the fundamental thread to what is left of the social safety net. It is not one celebrated book, one well-crafted article, or one presidential panel that makes a difference, but a collective dedication to holding U.S. society accountable when it fails to live up to its take moral responsibility for its weakest members.”
In July president Trump’s council of Economic Advisers proclaimed that the war on poverty “is largely over and a success”. Unsurprisingly, given the current state of the Trump administration, this announcement has received comparatively little media attention. The council’s assessment is but the latest attempt of the administration to systematically undermine what’s left of the American social safety net. Reforms that have been proposed range from replacing food stamps with canned food, connecting the food stamp program (SNAP) to work requirements, and consolidating existing welfare programs in one agency with the goal to monitor more effectively the different kind of government support families receive.
The young men and their families I interviewed for my new book, Lost Childhoods: Poverty, Trauma, and Violent Crime in the Post-Welfare Era, will be among those hit hardest should the administration’s proposals become reality. I met the 30 initial respondents at a prison designed to hold juveniles adjudicated as adults in Pennsylvania. The life-course histories at the center of Lost Childhoods reveal that children who grow up in extremely disadvantaged families have to cope with an unusual amount of trauma. In case of the 30 young men their traumatic childhood cemented pathways into violent offending. When I asked them about their childhood, many struggled to recall happy memories. As one respondent put it, “I wanted a normal [life], to be able to have a conversation with somebody else and we talk about family, you know, good memories … and have fun pictures from when you was younger. I didn’t have none of that.”
The political discourse in the US however has long done away with idea that those who do well bare any collective responsibility for whose struggle to find their place. As a result, the young men in Lost Childhoods only received social support once they had come to the attention of the juvenile or criminal justice system. In a post-welfare society, criminal justice institutions have become the only well-funded centralized government agencies left administering social services to those in need.
Overall, the life-course histories I collected show that abject poverty is crippling. Poor people are not allowed to make mistakes. When they do, it exacerbates their already tenuous existence. Even more so, when African American parents make wrong decisions, racism, concentrated poverty, and a powerful criminal justice apparatus make it even more difficult for them to overcome their marginal social position. The wealthy, on the other hand, may consume drugs and they may neglect their children, but their actions do not have the same devastating consequences. Layers of privilege established over generations shield all but the most extreme cases from the consequences the poor have to bear almost immediately.
As sociologists gather at a five-star conference hotel in downtown Philadelphia for the ASA conference, the segregated areas in which many of the families I interviewed continue to live are only a few subway stops away. While sociology as a discipline celebrates its most accomplished members, I believe it is also time to collectively address the fundamental thread to the what is left of the social safety net. It is not one celebrated book, one well-crafted article, or one presidential panel that makes a difference, but a collective dedication to holding U.S. society accountable when it fails to live up to its take moral responsibility for its weakest members.