Blessed are the poor . . .

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Matt Frost on the pernicious notion that the coming economic hardship will somehow be good for the national soul:

The article goes on; according to Kotkin, our anomic communities will also be knit back together by high energy and food prices. A good pandemic flu, presumably, is all we need to complete the rebirth of American localities.

Hoping that austerity will force us into solving our social problems seems incongruous with what I know of Kotkin and his work, and it's a lousy mistake for anyone to make. A world of fewer jobs and higher prices will mean longer commutes, a frayed social contract, and tired grandparents. If we arrange our families and our living spaces poorly when affluence gives us choices, we are unlikely to suddenly flourish when those decisions are forced upon us. Hard times won't compel Americans into becoming their better selves, and if we are heading into some bleak days, it's best that we all understand that in advance.

It would be nice if Joel Kotkin had offered some evidence that previous spells of economic hardship had knit families into one big huggy bear collective.  Though I'm certainly no scholar of the Great Depression, as far as I know the economic hard times often devastated family life.  People put off marrying because they could not afford to support their own household, much less children.  The children they did have were often left with relatives as they were forced to move in search of work.

Moreover, the sociological evidence is quite clear that poverty is bad for families.  Poor people have higher rates of marital breakup, and much higher rates of child abuse.  Part of this is selection--people with violent tempers and impulse control problems are more likely than average to become poor.  But even people without such temperamental handicaps find it harder to sustain a good family life.  Economic hardship is, to state the obvious, very stressful.  Stressed people have less patience for difficult children or spouses depressed by their inability to find work.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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