Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"It's the Economy, Stupid"

The 1992 Clinton campaign was able to maintain focus (and eventual electoral success) by repeating this four-letter phrase (allegedly initiated by James Carville, one of Clinton's close advisors) frequently. And, lest you fear reading furter, this blog is not a political diatribe. It does, however, create an opportunity for me to recreate the phrase for my use. My contention is that much of the misunderstanding afoot between social service workers and their clients (read this as you will; it could include "older children" waiting to be adopted, their birth parents, or the adoptive families in which they will live) has to do with socio-economics. So, I might say it this way: "It's the socio-economics. Duh." [I would prefer to refrain from salaciously attributing "stupid" to social services professionals].

Here is what I mean. In the USA there are basically three socio-economic groups: (1) those living in poverty, (2) those who are middle class, and (3) those who are wealthy. For more on understanding poverty see Ruby Payne's A Framework for Undersatnding Poverty or her website at: http://ahaprocess.com/

Payne's work should be required reading for all social services professional and all adoptive parents of older children. She masterfully describes the mindset of those experiencing poverty (whether generational or situational). Although she does not reference adoption in her work, there are several principles that I extrapolate as an adoptive parent of older children.

Principle #1: Almost without exception older adopted children come from an experience of poverty. By very definition, neglect (of whatever variety ... physical, social, emotional, spiritual, mental, medical) is an outcome of poverty. When there is not enough of whatever is needed, you find poverty.

Principle #2: Most older children will not be adopted by those already in poverty, nor by those who are wealthy. It's fairly apparent that those already subsisting in deprivation are not in a position to adopt an older child. And those who are wealthy and interested in adoption are typically seeking (and can pay the high costs associated with) the "perfect infant."

Principle #3: Most older children will be adopted by middle-class persons. I surmise that many middle class people who choose to adopt older children have themselves experienced some version of "poverty" early in their own lives. Because these parents understand the grinding pain of lack and have discovered the opportunities middle class living offer, they are inclined to want to reach out to others, often the most vulnerable, society's children.

Principle #4: Middle class families who adopt older children import into their lives an experience of poverty. Middle class parents adopting children whose experience of life has been of lack and a survival mentality will face inevitable hurdles. Payne does an excellent job in identifying those value clashes, including the role of relationships (people are possessions to the poverty-stricken), the way discipline is administered (the poverty mindset assumes no behavior will change; the focus is upon forgiveness and penance, following some form of physical discipline; the reward is food); how money is handled (the poverty environment lacks a motivation to save money, but to spend immediately because you don't know how long you will have it this time).

Principle #5: Social services workers are middle class persons with a middle class agenda. By very definition a social services worker is middle class. He or she will have, at minimum, a college degree, and will typically earn (though it may not seem like it at times) more than an individual living in poverty. The social services system is built upon a middle class value system ... responsibility, cleanliness, self-sufficiency.

Principle #6: Because a middle class adoptive family imports (with the adoption of older children) a poverty mindset into their lives, social services professionals may make some erroneous assumptions.

Erroneous assumption "A": This family has no business adopting this/these older child/children. When the social worker visits and experiences the culture class between poverty and middle class values, the assumption is that the adoptive family is somehow ill-equipped to care for these "special needs" children. This assumption may arise without regard to the adoptive family's excellent references, clean background checks and appropriate home study, all of which generally affirm middle class values (whether that is good or not is another blog for another time).

Erroneous assumption "B": The adopted child/ren are deliteriously affected by such a placement. Social services professionals may not understand that transforming the socio-economic vantage point of previously neglected children is a long process. It is arduous, and it will take the resources of many committed people and systems for any success to accrue. Well-intended, intelligent, committed, middle class parents need the support, not the criticism or disapproval, of the social services system in this process of transformation. Bottomline: children coming to middle-class families with a history of neglect have the best chance for moving away from generational poverty in a family with personal and community resources (mental, emotional, spiritual, as well as material). Long-term foster care and/or institutional settings do little more than displace the eventual return to poverty. If society's goal is assisting the poverty-stricken children to a life of responsibility and self-sufficiency, the best chance of that happening comes through primary relationships with those (adoptive parents, in this case) who form the fabric of our society's "safety net."

Erroneous assumption "C": Family size and poverty go hand-in-hand. As the father of a large family (we have ten adopted children), I continue to be surprised by the assumption that large family = deprivation. The fact is that large family is not a middle-class value. The middle-class value is roughly equivalent to the number of people one can comfortably seat in a mini-van, which allows for two parents and four (five at the most, and even five is questionable) children. Moving beyond that number violates some unspoken rule of middle class living (see Payne for more on the "rules" of socio-economic condition). Social service professionals may project their own feelings ("I don't know how you do it; I have two kids, and I just can't keep up with them"), may betray their own need for freedom ("You do how many loads of laundry a day?") or may voice their own unspoken fears ("It must cost a fortune to feed that many kids").

Erroneous assumption "D": Social services professionals may assume that the adoptive parents are as poverty-stricken in mentality as the children they have adopted. I have personally experienced this attitude too many times to assume it is unusual. As a well-educated (bachelor's and master's degrees with half of a doctoral coursework completed), well-placed professional in my community and vocation, it is insulting to be told, "We have gas vouchers so that you can visit your son" in foster care, or "We have some funding at the county level so that your family can take him out to a movie." Because one's child is in pain and manifests a poverty-orientation does not mean that the adoptive family is the source of that outlook.

Principle #7: Social services professionals need to see adoptive parents as resources in the goal of transitioning children from (generational or situational) poverty into lives of responsibility and self-sufficiency. It is frustrating for adoptive parents to be seen as drains on the economic resources of a county's social services sytem, or to be treated as "hostile" or in some way at odds with the goals of social services. Adoptive parents see ourselves as being significant partners in the goal of social transformation. Accord us the respect and the honor that rightly belong to those who give their lives to save the world one child at a time.

So, my contention is that much of conflict between adoptive parents of older children and their respective social services agencies comes because of a lack of understanding of socio-economic backgrounds, and the inevitable clash when poverty and middle class values come face to face.


processor said...

I don't really understand what you're trying to say here. Are you trying to say that people who work in social services don't understand poverty, or the difference between the values of those who live in poverty and those who are middle-class? As a social worker myself, I can't see how that's true. I don't think social workers make any more assumptions about people's socio-economic class and what that means than other people do. I think we generally understand the limitations of living in poverty. And I think that assuming that someone with ten children to support may be struggling financially is a pretty reasonable assumption. As for offering gas vouchers etc., well, we offer what we can to whomever we can. It's not meant to be insulting.

I don't understand assumptions 1 and 2. Is your experience that social workers think that kids shouldn't be adopted by middle-class families? I haven't found that in my work at all. I have found that the parenting work of adoptive parents is generally well-respected. But there isn't much talk about adoptive parents transforming kids' socio-economic status from poverty-stricken to middle-class. First of all, some adoptive parents are living if not in poverty than close to it, so close that they would not be able to adopt without subsidies. Second of all, our primary goal is to give kids families and homes, not transform their socio-economic class (although we think it's a good thing when it happens).

I found Ruby Payne's thoughts on poverty interesting and mostly valid, from the perspective of my experience, anyway. I agree that people who live in poverty are often excellent problem-solvers, but are solving different kinds of problems than are those of us in the middle -class. I'd like to hear more about how your kids' attitudes and values have changed as they make the transformation from poverty to middle-class.

theroses3 said...

I am reading your blog because I found it on an email from Adoptive families mag. I am a minister and my husband and I have adopted 2 boys (Jason was 10 and Steven was 12). I just wanted to comment that I LOVE Ruby Payne's information on Poverty and concur with your thoughts on Social Services and Adoptive families. I will say though that at least our workers I think wanted to help though it always seemed like a "treat" for us so we would keep them and not turn them back in..."oh dont you know, you can take advantage or this or that service OR when you adopt this one, you will get a whole bunch of money from SS for him. We just wanted a family and we realistically came into it knowing our children were not "perfect" and we know we have chosen a road not taken like many "normal families". I have been reading through your blogs...finding encouragement as one of our sons who is 14 now is now experiencing mood swings which they now call Bi Polar and we are wondering what the road will hold for him. We are just taking this journey one day at a time and cherishing what good things come our way and holding on to Jesus even tighter when the hard things hit our family!

May I use some of your comments as I share from your assessment of poverty and adoption?? I can use your name and give you credit or it can remain anonymous. My husband and I are advocates for older child adoption and what you have to say is so important? Let me know....

Peace to you!
lisa rose