The People Don't Know What They Want: Social Support

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Social Support

The General Social Survey (GSS) is a long running survey of Americans that considers numerous factors  and capture’s the country’s general thoughts, feelings, demographics, and experiences regarding a range of issues. Sometimes the GSS is useful in distilling the American will, but sometimes it reveals how confused American’s are and the extent to which we don’t know what we want.
 
 
Surveying the public can be notoriously tricky and misleading. When individuals are surveyed about specific clauses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) – for example the requirement that insurances allow young adults to remain covered by their parent’s health insurance until age 26 – people are highly supportive of the policies. However, if you survey Americans about the ACA and  refer to it or any of its policies as Obamacare, then support drops substantially. What people want competes with political identities, and in the end people express a seemingly confused set of political preferences and desires.
 
 
The same happens with social support and welfare, as demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. The authors write:
 
 
“The largest, most representative survey of American attitudes, the General Social Survey, has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believes that the government is spending too little on assistance for the poor. However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled welfare in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.”
 
 
What the survey shows us is that people don’t understand poverty well, don’t understand social support programs, and don’t understand the role of the government in assisting the poor. The term welfare has been colored to represent lazy people who are taking advantage of the system. People don’t like welfare, even though they like the idea of being charitable and helping those in need. In America, the idea of social support is that it helps someone get back on their feet to provide for themselves, whereas welfare is seen as a system of dependence that devalues the individual receiving the aid and enables laziness and degeneracy.
 
 
This idea is supported by the primary way that many American’s prefer social support and charitable actions to be handled – through religious organizations. In my eyes, religious charity seems to have a quid pro quo element, where the individual receiving support is implicitly expected to attend the church or be more deferential to those who give, and donors also expect some sort of Divine reward. There seems to be more acceptance of strings placed on donations through churches, with the idea that it will be support provided based on the standards set by the church community. This can be a way to screen out individuals who use drugs, atheists, and those who are unwilling or unable to receive counseling that aligns with the worldviews of the donors. Welfare, on the other hand, is simply support from a government bureaucracy with seemingly little to push the recipient to change their lives to the standards of the donor.
 
 
This seems to me to be why people dislike welfare but support the idea of providing more social support. People don’t really know what they want with social support, but they know they don’t want to see homeless people around and want to look charitable. The result is a distrust of welfare, but a feeling that they and others (possibly through government but possibly through other avenues) should be doing more to provide social support to those in need, especially if that support can shape the needy to fit with the ideals of the person donating money or providing taxes to support the poor.

Paying with Time - $2.00 A Day - Edin & Shaefer - Joe Abittan

Paying with Time

“One way the poor pay for government aid is with their time,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day.  In the United States we are wary of people getting things for nothing. We have a social support system that ensures people are worthy of government aid before they receive any support. We often tie work requirements, job search requirements, and drug screens to government aid, ensuring that people who accept aid are still making efforts to contribute to society. Still, even with these requirements people who don’t receive any government aid (at least not in the form of direct cash or in-kind welfare benefits) dislike the idea that so many people can access government aid for nothing.
 
 
However, as the quote from Edin and Shaefer shows, government aid is not really free, and the costs can be significant and even counter productive. On one hand it is understandable that locations to access government aid for things such as food, housing support, or direct cash transfers, would not be located on every street block. It makes sense that service centers would be relatively limited to reduce the government costs for administering programs. However, while this can make fiscal sense for government, it can also be a deliberate strategy to limit the number of people who access welfare benefits and receive services that are available to them on paper. Having a single location that operates standard business hours will necessarily mean that some individuals and families are incapable of accessing aid that is only distributed from that one location. A failure to co-locate aid offices also means that individuals and families may be strained in trying to access the aid that they need. Time can be a limiting factor that prevents people from accessing the aid and services which should help them get to a more stable economic position.
 
 
If people are able to make it to the location, aid often comes after lengthy applications, long lines and wait times, and lengthy commutes. Politicians may deliberately design aid programs to have these time costs as a way to reduce fraud and reduce the appeal and dependence on government aid, but for those who need it, it may mean forgoing necessary aid to help get one’s life back on track or to help put food on the table for a hungry family.
 
 
Often, the programs that provide aid are intended to temporarily support people until they can provide for themselves. However, if short-term aid is truly needed, to the point where the time costs are necessary to go through, then individuals may not be spending time looking for jobs, addressing child behavior issues, or otherwise using their time in a productive manner. These time costs are real, and can limit people’s opportunities in ways that actually make them more dependent on the governmental aid, and less capable of providing for themselves. The aid that people receive may seem as though it is free, but the time costs need to be considered, especially if programs are unwieldly and actually prevent people who do access them from taking steps to no longer need government aid.

Shifting Away From The Drug War

Shifting Away from the Drug War

In the context of supporting the war on drugs, Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, describes most people as, “admirable people who have a series of understandable worries about the alternative. They support the drug war out of compassion for all the people they fear might become victims if we relaxed the laws. They are good people. They are acting out of decency.”

 

However, Hari believes that support for the drug war is actually more costly in the long run, and damages the lives of those who use drugs to an unreasonable extent. In the book, Hari looks at recreational drug users who don’t develop addictions and don’t generally cause a lot of harms through drug use. He compares these individuals to those who do develop addictions, and who contribute to crime and public health problems as a result of their drug dependencies. A key difference between the groups is that many of the people who develop addictions also have severe trauma in their lives. They are often isolated, have had adverse childhood experiences, and are suffering from physical or psychological pain without a supportive community to aid them. Not all harmless recreational drug users are free from pain and trauma, and not all addicts have a traumatic past, but the frequency of past trauma and ongoing psychological pain is a substantial difference between the two groups. Punishment and making life harder for drug addicts who have experienced pain hurts them and makes it more likely they will feel stuck and isolated, with no alternatives to alleviate their suffering besides the temporary relief of continued drug use.

 

The idea of punishment for drug use makes sense when we think about recreational drug users who we want to prevent from causing problems as a result of drug use. But those individuals, aside from contributing to an illicit economy, are not  contributing to the major drug use problems that we see. We can see this in our alcohol policy. Responsible recreational drinkers are not problems, but people who either have trouble consuming alcohol responsibly or simply chose not to consumer responsibly (perhaps college binge drinkers fit in both categories) do create problems for the rest of us. Helping an alcoholic is often understood as helping them develop a safe social setting where they can avoid alcohol or use it responsibly with people who understand their addiction and/or other alcohol challenges.

 

At another point, Hari writes, “We all want to protect children from drugs. We all want to keep people from dying as a result of drug use. We all want to reduce addiction. And now the evidence strongly suggests that when we move beyond the drug war, we will be able to achieve those shared goals with much greater success.” Moving beyond the drug war means that we will develop real, meaningful treatments and supports for drug addicts. It means we can have safe, legal drugs that people can use in supervised settings. It means that people with a history of drug use won’t be barred from ever finding even the most menial of jobs, and will be able to reintegrate back into society, rather than being forced out into situations where continued drug use is almost inevitable. Our approach to drug policy via the drug war has had disastrous consequences, and Hari encourages us to reconsider the path we are on.
Addiction Can't be Fought with Pain

Addiction Can’t be Fought With Pain

With the exception of the copious amounts of caffeine I consume thanks to a high coffee intake, I don’t use any drugs and don’t really have any personal direct experience with the world of recreational drug use or drug addiction.  Nevertheless, our nation’s opioid crisis has always stood out to me as an important and intriguing policy issue. Despite not having first hand knowledge of drug culture in the United States, I have been able to recognize the changing landscape as more states provided legal avenues to obtaining marijuana, as policy discussions popped into my orbit about racial disparities in drug sentencing, and as prominent American figures opened up about drug addiction in their family. To better understand the issue I selected a handful of books to read to better understand drug use and addiction in America. One of the books I read was Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream.

 

Before my mini dive into drug policy and drug use literature, I didn’t have fully formed thoughts about our nation’s response to drugs. The idea that we would lock up drug addicts and those who tampered with or misused prescription medications seemed normal. I figured that putting people in prison where they would be away from drugs and monitored as they went through withdrawals made sense, and I had no reason to question the system and approaches we used to curb drug abuse and addiction. However, as the opioid crisis spread, I recognized how incomplete my understanding was, and sought out new information to better understand why our county has faced such serious drug problems. Across the books I read, what I learned was that drug policy has been racially biased throughout American history, and that drug use and addiction is often deeply tied to pain and trauma, and worsened by the loss of community.

 

These themes ran throughout the books I read and made me re-think the way we approach drug addiction and how we are so quick to punish drug abuse. My sense is that most Americans think along the same lines that I previously thought along – unaware of the deep social factors that run through so much of the drug abuse and addiction in our country.

 

Johann Hari writes, “The core of addiction doesn’t lie in what you swallow or inject – it’s in the pain you feel in your head. Yet we have built a system that thinks we will stop addicts by increasing their pain.”

 

So many of the people who fall into drug addiction originally turn to drug use and misuse as a way to ease some sort of pain stemming from a deep trauma. America’s suburbs have reduced our sense of community, and furthered isolation in our country. People with pain and trauma have minimal support for mental and emotional challenges, and as a result, often turn to drugs to attempt to manage the psychological or physical pain they live with.

 

Our response has been punishment, not support. People with deep pain and trauma cannot be healed by making their lives more painful, more traumatic, and by putting more barriers in front of a successful and healthy life. We assume drug addicts need to face more severe consequences to scare them away from drug use, but that is because we fail to see the common threads I have been writing about over the last several weeks. The result has been disastrous for those who find themselves misusing drugs and facing a road to addiction. Punishing the thing we are afraid of in an attempt to stamp it out only entrenches it further, and makes it worse for all of society. We have to recognize the reality of pain and trauma combined with a decimation of our sense of community in regard to addiction. We have to solve those problems first before we can ask people to work with us to fight through drug abuse and addiction.
Addiction and Community

A Final Thought on Addiction and Community

In the afterword of his book Dreamland, author Sam Quinones includes a quote from an obituary written for a 24-year-old man who lived in Avon Lake, a town of about 24,000 people just west of Cleveland. The parents of the young man who died from addiction wrote in their son’s obituary, “They say it takes a community to raise a child. It takes a community to battle addiction.”

 

Everyone, including those of us who are not parents, know that it is true when we say it takes a community to raise a child. Historically, new parents have been in their early to mid twenties (this is changing now – possibly for these communal reasons), and with lower incomes in early stages of their careers and fewer immediate resources, new parents have relied on family members and friends to help with child rearing. As kids get older, they enter public schools, where everyone, parents and non-parents, contribute financially, typically through local property taxes. We know that it is hard to raise a kid on your own, and that it makes a big difference to live near family, to have close friends who are raising kids at the same time, and to have supports from work for the times when our kids are sick and need extra love and attention.

 

The quote from the parents in their son’s obituary, and all of Dreamland demonstrate that the same is true for how we should approach addiction. Asking someone to overcome addiction on their own is like asking a child to raise themselves. It can happen, but it doesn’t often turn out well. People battling addiction need supportive relationships in their lives. The family members and friends of people with addiction need help, because it can be challenging and taxing to help someone else stay sober and find meaning in life beyond addiction. We need communities where we can help each other, watch out for one-another, and provide support in times of need. Many of us have lost this along our way, as our culture has pushed us toward staying inside, watching TV in our own homes, and filling our lives with stuff rather than with the people we love and care about.

 

This is a tough time to find new connections and community as we work to prevent the rapid spread of a new virus, but we should be thinking forward nonetheless to a time where we can better connect with those around us and find new ways to live in community with those who matter. It might just save the life of someone we know whose struggle with addiction has been hidden from us.
Our Efforts to Avoid Pain

Our Efforts to Avoid Pain

I had an amazing track coach at Reno High School. His name was Mark Smith (everyone called him Smitty) and like all great coaches, he knew what high school students needed in their workouts and in their heads in order to be successful both in sports and in life.

 

Some of the neighborhoods that Reno High School draws from are among the nicest and most expensive in all of Reno. Many students have very dedicated parents who will do anything to help their children succeed, be happy, and avoid pain and suffering. However, these parents often miss an important point, a point that Coach Smitty would always remind parents and athletes, “you can never eliminate suffering, and you can’t protect your child [or yourself] from all pain.”

 

Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland would certainly agree. In his book he writes, “In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain.”

 

Our society, in TV shows and commercials, continually pushes a narrative that we should be happy and have lots of consumer goods in our lives. We seem to believe that every moment of our lives should be nothing but entertainment and enjoyment, and we pursue that, continuously trying to buy our happiness and avoid any possible pain or suffering. As Coach Smitty said, however, this is not possible, and as Quinones shows throughout Dreamland, this can lead to dangerous consequences. Part of the opioid problem in our country, Quinones argues, is that we place too high a value on never feeling pain and suffering, and we under-invest in the real things that would help us actually overcome and reasonably manage and respond to pain and suffering.

 

Our mental health, counseling, and therapy services are under-developed and costly. Our economic system doesn’t provide people the support they need in difficult times, and we don’t do a good job of helping get people into jobs that actually feel meaningful. We have built suburbs and isolated ourselves from community, and when we face hard times, we are afraid to admit it and don’t have many close people to turn to. We seek avoidance from these challenges with chemicals like alcohol, opioids, marijuana, or worse. We try to blunt the pain and reduce the suffering artificially, which doesn’t work, and doesn’t help us feel happy or fulfilled.

 

We have a myth that we can eliminate all the suffering in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. However, the reality is that we must work to overcome that suffering together. As a team, we can support each other, train each other to be strong during adversity, and learn how to put in hard work and lean into the uncomfortable reality of the world to find a place where we can accept and appropriately respond to suffering and pain.

 

Coach Smitty passed away on October 12th, 2018. He was a truly great influence in my life and in the life of others. I hope everyone has a Coach Smitty in their lives, and please reach out to say hi and thanks if you do.

Criticism Backfires

I have a hard time understanding where the balance between being critical of someone versus being supportive and encouraging of them lies. There are many things we all fall short with, and in many ways, what we need is not a kick in the rear, but some guidance and support to be better. However, sometimes the kick in the rear or some tough love is what people need to be spurred to action and to be pushed out of a mopey comfort zone. I generally don’t find myself to be a good judge of when we should use which approach.

 

Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, seems to be more supportive of the encouraging route versus the critical route. He writes, “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”

 

Carnegie’s quote suggest to me that I might be looking at the contrast incorrectly. Perhaps, the right approach is neither coddling nor criticizing, but understanding how to challenge people with honest feedback that highlights what is working well and what could be improved. Carnegie’s book mostly focuses on the workplace and in people management. In that setting, criticizing an employee who you need to continue working for you, but who you also need to be more productive is likely counterproductive for your own ends. Criticizing them will lead to a shut down, they won’t listen to what you have to say honestly, and will defend the decisions they made, rationalizing potentially poor choices and behaviors. Instead, Carnegie would suggest an approach that is more collaborative with the employee to help encourage them to put forward a greater effort without the need for harsh criticism or babying.

 

I don’t see why these relationship and motivational strategies would be limited to a work environment. I don’t know exactly how they might look at home or with a child, but I can see a team-work like strategy being more effective than pretending that major problems really are not so bad, and more effective than direct criticism of another person.

Reputation

How do norms shape our behaviors? As social animals we rely on a good reputation which helps us gain allies, build coalitions, and have close bonds between family and friends. A good reputation increases trust, convinces others that they should invest in our friendship, and tells the social group give us a hand every now and then if we need help. When it comes to building and maintaining a good reputation, norms are crucial.

 

As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “It’s rarely in people’s best interests to stick out their necks to punish transgressors. But throw some reputation into the mix and it can suddenly become profitable. Someone who helps evict a cheater will be celebrated fro her leadership. Who would you rather team up with: someone who stands by while rules are flouted, or someone who stands up for what’s right?”

 

Standing up to point out things that are wrong can be dangerous. The person breaking the rules could fight back, people close to the rule breaker might retaliate, your time could be wasted, and you might lose social status if people don’t really care about the rule breaker’s actions. Being the person who enforces norms is not always the best on an individual level.

 

However, as a social group, our reputation helps us maintain the norms and institutions which help us function and allow us to have whistle-blowers, police, and people who generally care that rules, laws, and regulations are actually being followed. We often have a temptation to slack off, to do something that we enjoy but know to be bad for ourselves, or to engage in some sort of activity that is fun but reckless. Knowing that we will have to interact with people in the future, that we will rely on social groups in the future, and that we will need others for anything we want to do later constrains our actions and behaviors in the moment. We try to be the type of person that society favors because we know it will benefit us at a future time. We care about our reputation because we might need substantial assistance from others at some point in our life, and we know that if we have a negative reputation, people are less likely to trust us and assist us in our time of need. As social creatures, developing an invisible system of reputation is what helps bond our norms together and hold them in place.

Self Sufficient

Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.

 

This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.

 

Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.

 

Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”

 

My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.

 

As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of ourselves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something  special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

Holiday explains the problem with pride by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the – when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from the right college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people. It gives us a reason to believe we are special, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving “others”.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people in our positive lifestyles and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with everyone who supports us in our lives.