Monday, September 8, 2008

All in the Family: A Frayed Part of the Safety Net

Every year I have my undergraduate "Principles" class try to find someone who lived through the Great Depression and interview them. (I don't know how much longer this will be easy, so the alternative is for them to go to a Depression-Era book, movie, or play and discuss the lives depicted there). When I read the reports, I'm getting both a look at what the people who lived through the Great Depression remember and what of that made an impact on my students.

Maybe this has been the case in years before, but I was really struck this year by how many times the report that families moved in together (parents with adult children and grandchildren, sibling with siblings, and so forth) was mentioned. As I said, this probably meant that it happened a lot, that it was remembered, and that it was striking to my students. I know that my mother and her sister were "farmed out" (as she put it) with her aunts and uncles in another state for many summers during the Depression. My father's Dad spent some time working for his brother. My Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather moved in with my great aunt Bernice.

When I was discussing another long-lost part of the social safety net to my students (religious homes for unwed mothers) one of my students told me essentially that it was impossible to think of America ever going back to such a system. It just couldn't happen. I wonder if the same thing is true of the extended family? Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid have not had merely economic consequences; they have had enormous social consequences, for good or ill, as well.

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