Like many people, my family is complex. I have two uncles who have finally re-connected after at least 20 years of not talking to each other. At the same time, one of those uncles and another are now no longer talking to each other even though they have been business partners for over 20 years. Half of my family doesn’t talk to the other half, and one Grandma only speaks with me, though she mostly only asks me about my siblings. The relationships are challenging, often frustrating, but like virtually all humans, we all still find emotional support in the form of family.
Regardless as to whether family members are living or deceased, whether we know our ancestors or have no knowledge of our familial roots, and whether we have close relationships with family or whether our ties have faded, we all seem to be primed to find emotional support in family and in the idea of family. I really only recently learned about the heritage of my family from my dad’s side, and while I have lived most of my life without knowing any of that heritage, I am now able to find pride in the roots of that side of my family. I also look back at my dad’s dad, a troubled man who made some bold choices to get our family to the United States, and I find emotional support in his story, even if the man was not ultimately the best role model one could have. The point is that despite the contradictions in people and in families, despite the distance in time and space that arise between family members, we hold on to our families as something special, and find support in them, even if they are not around to actually support us.
Elliot Liebow writes about this phenomenon in the case of homeless women in Washington DC in the early 90’s in his book Tell Them Who I Am. Many of the women who he met were divorced, some had kids, and many had lost almost all connections with family. Nevertheless, family, the stories they had about their families, and the ideas and memories of family gave the women emotional suppport. The women didn’t want to burden their families with their own homelessness, demonstrating a real respect for their family members who were doing better than they were. They were impressed by children whose lives were on better paths, and they even sometimes remembered former spouses in a positive light. For women who had few deep connections or meaningful relationships in their homeless lives, the past relationships and memories of deep connections still fueled them to keep moving and surviving each day.
Humans need connections and families are the first connections we form. Even though today the families we chose are sometimes closer to us than the families we are born into, our original and genetic families are still a strong force in our lives. We are predisposed to care about our families and find emotional support within them, even when they are not physically close by or emotionally near us.
In The WEIRDest People in the World Joseph Henrich argues that ending polygamous marriage helped strengthen people’s sense of community by allowing more men to father children and have a reason to invest in the future. His argument is that in polygamous societies the highest status men attract multiple wives, making it harder for lower status men to get married and have children. Without prospects for a wife or family, these men become more transient, are more willing to take risks, and are less committed to any single place or community. Only allowing one wife per high status man means that lower status men can get married, have children, and find a reason to invest in their communities.
This idea from Henrich supports an argument made by Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Not writing about marriage and family policy, but instead about housing policy, Desmond also argues that transient individuals with no future prospects harm the development of community. He writes, “neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their streets safer and more prosperous. But that takes time. Efforts to establish local cohesion and community investment are thwarted in neighborhoods with high turnover rates. In this way, eviction can unravel the fabric of a community.”
Community requires long-term relationships, investments in people and places, and a commitment to the future. Henrich argues that giving men the opportunity to get married and build families provides these community pre-requisites. Desmond argues that the American system of evictions undermines these requirements. I think that looking at these two arguments together is interesting, and reinforces both.
Low-income tenants who face eviction, whether men or women, lack community and the benefits it provides. Their transient nature in places makes it hard for them to invest in relationships and doesn’t give them hope that the place they live can be better in the future. They underinvest in the places they live, hurting the community for themselves and others. Single men in polygamous societies are similar. They can’t find a wife and engage in the community in a complete way, and also disinvest from the community, harming community growth and safety for everyone.
What is important to recognize is that community requires people with a commitment to a place and reason to invest in growth and development. Individuals need to feel that they are in a place where they can achieve their desires and where they feel they can be socially accepted to connect with others. When people do, they can create real communities that help make life better for everyone. When they don’t they can create problems and havoc that holds communities back.
One of the things that struck me about Cory Booker’s United is the way in which he draws unusual connections between people in society, particularly the connections he highlights between people who live during different times. Going back several generations, Booker’s family had lived in poverty as the descendants of slaves, something Booker did not actually know until he had an ancestry check as part of a television show. His parents were able to escape a cycle of poverty that had dominated both sides of his family. Growing up, his parents made him deeply aware of the sacrifices made by his family and by people in the United States that allowed him to have greater opportunities.
He writes, “I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”
The saying, “shoulders of giants” was originally used to demean a politician, but Booker repurposes it to show how close we truly are to the people who came before us. We benefit from the choices and decisions of our grandparents and ancestors and owe much of who we are to the people whose hard work helped create the situation and environment we were born into. Through our childhood we are supported and dependent on others to prepare a life for us where we can truly survive and thrive.
In a recent episode of the Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, Brookings Scholar Richard Reeves shares a section from his recent book, Dream Horders, and the section he shares describes the American Dream as an opportunity for man and woman to reach toward their full potential, unhampered by society. For so many of us, this potential is only possible thanks to the members of our family who made choices that paid off not so much for them, but rather for us. Booker recognizes how much our lives are influenced by what happened before we were born and when we are infants, and he points directly to the benefits we enjoy that we did not earn.