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While the nuclear family will certainly do in a pinch, it is far from being the ideal social environment for youngsters to grow up in. The presence of additional adult family members gives any youngsters in the family additional sources of supervision, which can be very important if both parents of those youngsters have full-time jobs outside of the home. Also, the presence of additional adults in the household tends to act as a "brake," or limiting force, on any disagreements between, and/or abusive relationships between, members of the extended family. Finally, the presence of additional adults will also tend to reduce proportionally the expense associated with each household member as the cost of many so-called "fixed" expenses will be amortized over a larger number of income producing individuals.
For the last several decades, various groups have experimented with very large extended families, usually calling them "communes" or similar names.92 Virtually all of those experiments were carried out in rural environments. Part of the reason for this is that building codes and other laws are somewhat hostile towards individuals and nuclear families who choose to group themselves into extended families by choice, rather than by blood or marriage. An example of such hostility is the placing of lower population limits on residential units which are inhabited by "unrelated" individuals, as opposed to related individuals, and the failure to produce low-cost housing which in any way provides for the possibility of having more than two adults in a single residential unit (roughly ninety percent or more of all apartment units have two or fewer bedrooms, and most landlords of such units would be hostile towards renting any such unit to a family unit which had more than two adults, and where any adult was unrelated to the remainder93).
But one of the principal functions of the family is the socialization of youngsters so that they become integrated with society as a whole. Dividing our society up into a group of nuclear families which have little contact with one another actually contributes to an anti-social atmosphere that, in turn, tends to produce anti-social individuals.
The contributing factors to the nuclearization of our families have been: a) the great wealth which Western Civilization has produced in the masses, which wealth has led to a financial ability for each couple and many individuals to afford to maintain households which are independent of one another; b) the high mobility of these nuclear families, where moving every few years tends to destroy relationships with neighbors on a semi-regular basis; c) the increasing state of fear in which our nuclear families live, contributing a motive for enhancing the natural reticence of most of us, which leads in turn to a failure for most of us to even establish any relationship at all with the majority of our nearest neighbors; and d) an attitude of not wanting to get involved, which attitude infects our society with a great sickness of not caring for our fellow man, a sickness which in turn allows the evil elements in our society to operate with virtually no fear that they will be caught or otherwise called to answer for their crimes, except quite by accident. Each of these factors deserves some further discussion.

a. Wealth Priorities

It is quite natural for young people to wish to be independent of their parents at some point in time. The old Roman patriarchy went too far against that natural force by making the younger generation(s) into virtual slaves of the patriarch.
But society ought to ask itself if the maintenance of separate households for nuclear families does not have enough negative side effects that society ought to develop some alternatives. Roughly 40 percent of income is allocated to housing and other extra expenses associated with maintaining an independent household for each nuclear family. In other words, it is very expensive for society as a whole to encourage independent living arrangements for its population.
The United States is currently grappling with a peripheral part of this issue in the context of the welfare debate. Present law makes it very advantageous for young girls with children to set up an independent household. We have discovered numerous ill effects which are caused by encouraging the formation of such independent households. As I write this, a welfare reform bill is working its way through Congress which will require under-age women to live with a parent in order to be eligible for welfare. This is definitely a step in the right direction, and if anything, it validates my overall thesis.
But this book is designed to look at larger social issues. One of those issues is the allocation of the wealth which our society produces. Why is it necessarily true that the ill effects which we have identified for young welfare mothers automatically cease when that young mother reaches the age of eighteen? The truth is, that there is no reason at all to believe that they would.
So, the larger question should be, is society actually causing many of its own ills by encouraging the use of such a large percentage of its wealth for the formation of those independent households for all of its nuclear families? I believe that it is.
Think of any great things which society ought to accomplish: better education for the young; a reduction in homelessness and poverty; increasing the accomplishments of our space program; or whatever. Each of those great ideals is limited by the availability of funding. At its most fundamental level, this becomes a question of the allocation of some additional portion of the wealth of our society towards the accomplishment of societal goals, as opposed to allocating it for the day-to-day living expenses (including any savings) of individual citizens. That is what is really at issue when tax rates are being discussed.94
So, if society wishes to accomplish any of the great ideals which presently are short of funding, it must somehow re-allocate its wealth to do so. One obvious source of wealth is the present fixation that every nuclear family is entitled, almost by right, to own their own home. Clearly, there are lower cost ways for a nuclear family to live, and those ways clearly include the combining of resources with other nuclear families to live much more cheaply than if each such family has totally independent living accommodations. If this reduction in spending by the family is encouraged, it could be accompanied by an increase in taxes to contribute funds to whatever social goals that our society sees as most desirable to have met.

b. Mobility Practices

Business has always encouraged mobility, as the natural flows of the business cycle tend to cause jobs to appear and disappear with great regularity. Some regions will have an excess of jobs while others will have an excess of unemployed workers. The overall economy balances itself by encouraging unemployed workers to move. Also, the natural career path for many people frequently involves relocating on a regular basis, almost as a matter of policy for many employers. Anything associated with the military is usually subject to that sort of dislocation on a semi-regular basis.
What we have never considered is the effect which a high degree of mobility has on our social structures. Moving tends to be very disruptive of social contacts. You leave one residence where you had some degree of contact with at least some of your neighbors and you enter another residence where none of those contacts exist.
The frequency of moving which is prevalent in our current society has naturally destroyed its former novelty. In the past of a century ago, a family might move once in a lifetime, and it was usually the biggest event of one's life. Whether you are getting into a covered wagon to migrate across the plains or getting on a ship to migrate across the ocean, you are undergoing a major change in lifestyle with the move, and it is not likely that you will ever choose to do it again. Because moving was formerly a rare event, our social structures were naturally oriented towards making any new arrivals welcome and quickly integrating them into the community at large. This is the traditional concept behind such organizations as the so-called "welcome wagon," which in its present form is nothing more than a way for local businesses to extract excess funds from the new arrivals.
Because the novelty of moving no longer exists, there is no longer any automatic reaction to new arrivals that motivates the existing population to do anything special for any new arrivals. Society now basically leaves new arrivals alone to form whatever friendships or other contacts occur naturally through such required exercises as beginning a new job, enrolling your kids in school, or finding a compatible church. If none of those activities produce any friendships or new contacts, for whatever reason, then the act of moving will contribute to the overall isolation of the relocated nuclear family.
By making communal living relationships a more natural part of our social order, we will quite naturally encourage the formation of contacts with the existing population in the new residence and its surrounding community. In other words, this will to some degree amount to a re-socialization of the nuclear family.
Just as we now recognize the need to socialize our young children, I believe we must also recognize the need to socialize our nuclear families. It is psychologically unhealthy to promote living in a private universe. While basic survival is possible in such an environment, the overall result tends towards a return to our own animal tendencies (i.e., the Law of the Jungle). To the extent which we now fear the animals living among us, we must to some degree blame ourselves for raising those animals by failing to socialize them properly. This also extends to a failure to socialize nuclear families, particularly when they relocate.

c. Fear Of Contact

xxx.

d. Fear Of Involvement

Probably the most insidious change which our modern society has undergone is the promotion of a fear of getting involved in the affairs of other individuals. My own "worst example" of this fear is the stabbing death several decades ago of Kitty Genovese. She was killed while many in her own neighborhood heard her screams; but nobody wanted to get involved, so nobody even bothered to call the police. I guess they were happy when her screaming stopped. Of course, that meant she was dead, or at least near death.
As shocking as that story still is, it is merely symptomatic of what our society has trained us all to know, deep in our gut: if we get involved, we are more likely than not to regret our involvement. There are many more aspects to this. If we report a parent for investigation of child abuse, we could find ourselves sued for making a "false" accusation of abuse. If we help out someone who appears to need help, we can later discover that we have been conned, and that the person we helped was a professional scam artist.


92 The Israeli kibbutzim fall into this pattern, so it is erroneous to only picture hippie communes.

93 This may have as much to do with the perceived need for landlord profits as anything else.

94 For the purposes of this discussion, I am ignoring the effect of governmental debt, which is merely an inter-generational transfer payment. In other words, if you assume that the debt will be paid eventually, it is our descendants who will be stuck with the bill, plus a great deal of interest. On the other hand, if you assume an eventual default, it is our descendants who will be stuck with whatever consequences might accompany a default, which may well include the total destruction of society as we know it. In either case, debt is merely a postponement of consequences.

Copyright 1994-1999 by the Agnostic Church

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