My wife is a special education teacher, and she is truly excellent at what she does. She currently works with families with children between the age of 0 and 3 and helps teach them how to raise a child with disabilities or physical/intellectual delays. She is incredibly skilled at what she does, and performs a role for our society that I would be terrible at. I am simply not an infant person. I could learn a lot about them and become good at working with infants and their families, I am sure, but it is not something that would feel natural to me, at least not in the way that it does for my wife. Contrasting her, I am a good writer (in my own opinion at least) and I have a set of skills in working with data and information, in coalition and team building, and in speaking and communication that my wife does not have (she has worked to be good in all these areas, but again, it is more natural for me than her just as working with children with disabilities is more natural for her than me). The kinds of jobs and careers that come naturally to me would be a major challenge for my wife, just as her job would be a major challenge to me. We fill different roles within society based on our individual strengths.
I think about social roles a lot, especially how far back in our evolutionary history our varying social roles could possibly tie back to. In small hunter gatherer tribes, I can imagine people having many overlapping roles, but also many different specialized roles. It would be hard for people to bring children along on certain hunting or gathering expeditions, and that would necessitate a split in terms of social roles. It is natural then that some people who were better skilled at child rearing would watch over children at a central location while others would go off to hunt. This is the most basic presentation of the idea of social roles I can think of, and I recognize that it is probably too simplistic and vulnerable to abuse by those who want to limit women’s rights, but I think it is a helpful starting point to understand how we should think about the roles we all play within society and how our current social expectations of personal responsibility can run against our possibly evolved social roles. [I want to stress that I am not saying men are by default strong hunters and women are by default fragile childcare workers. I don’t see any reason why a spectrum of skills wouldn’t have some men be naturally more inclined to childcare work, cooking, or other typically feminine coded roles with some women more aligned toward hunting, fire fighting, or other typically masculine coded roles.]
In his book The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes, “In most cases we hold adults responsible for their own actions. But when people are too young, … or [too intellectually disabled], to be held responsible, society has to designate someone else to assume this responsibility. When people’s relatives cannot or will not play this role, society needs to create an institution to act in loco parentis.”
This quote highlights the role of personal responsibility and the conflicts between our social roles and our personal responsibility that can arise in the United States. Not all of us would be great at watching over an assisting a family member or friend who was dealing with severe depression, an addiction, or who had an intellectual disability that prevented them from working. However, for many people in our country, this responsibility is forced on them by a social system that provides minimal support to people with disabilities or who have had mental health challenges. Regardless of the role we are best suited for, sometimes we end up having to care for an elderly loved one with no other person to turn to, or for a spouse facing suicidal thoughts, or for a child dealing with a drug addiction. Not all of us are well positioned to help such individuals, and sometimes those people who need help and support find themselves on the street and on a path toward homelessness when the family around them cannot support them.
That is the warning that Liebow’s quote contains. Without solid institutions (I am not using “institutions” in the sense of a mental institution to warehouse people) we cannot provide the support that people really need. We will force everything into the personal responsibility framework that dominates our society. We force responsibility of others onto family members who may not be well suited to perform that role. The argument is that we need better social systems and structures that ensure that people who need help, whether it is counseling, healthcare treatment for addiction, or life services for those with intellectual disabilities along with assistance for their supporting families is necessary in order to reduce and potentially eliminate homelessness. We cannot solve our problem by continuing to heap greater responsibilities onto the shoulders of those who are not well suited or positioned to bear such responsibilities. Those who do manage to support people in our existing system deserve praise, but those who fail don’t fail entirely on their own. Their failure is a social failure, reflecting the over-reliance of personal responsibility in our society and the unreasonable demands such a system can place upon people who don’t have the right skills and abilities to handle such daunting challenges.