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How childhood affects society

I was going to just share this link on the Renegade Feminist Facebook page but I just don’t feel like a simple share gives it the weight it deserves.

This article in the Independent, From care to incarceration: The relationship between adverse childhood experience and dysfunctionality in later life, is so illuminating and important, I feel the need to discuss it’s implications with you more thoroughly. This is the stuff that turned me from the right of the political spectrum to the left. This is the evidence, scientific studies that show that this anti-empathetic, super individualistic culture we live in is what is causing crime, mental illness and social decay.

It talks about the statistics of incarceration: “29% of the prison population have suffered childhood abuse, 46% came from homes in which they either experienced or witnessed violence, 15% were homeless immediately prior to incarceration and 62% have drug problems. 90% of those in prison show signs of a mental health problem and 70% have two or more disorders.”  In a hundred years I think we’ll look back horrified at how we treated our most vulnerable citizens.

As a reviewer describes the epic but very readable book on child development, Why Love Matters, by Sue Gerhardt “It’s not nature or nurture, but both. How we are treated as babies and toddlers determines the way in which what we’re born with turns into what we are.” And this what gets at the heart of why I have created this blog at all. Of course it’s all very personal to us who are parents – the idea that how we treat our kids matters their whole lives – but it’s SO incredibly important to society and policy decisions and we are getting it all wrong.

It breaks my heart every day.

It hurts to be a person who understands that the evidence shows empathy and care is what we need in droves all over our policy decisions, from welfare and unemployment to the judicial and prison system, and that instead we choose to be harsh and punishing in almost every case, securing further social decay. And why? Only because those in power do not care. They will have been told about these studies. They will have been briefed about what science says their policy decisions will do to us, but they do not care. In the same way they know that Nobel prize winning economists say that austerity keeps us in a recession, they do not care. It’s all about ideology, there is no evidence based policy.

The article in the Independent talks about the work of Gabor Mate, information I’ve shared before, about how the newest studies are showing that addiction is often about an underlying emotional distress; lack of attachment, lack of any social support, a deep dissatisfaction with self or life. This is all stuff that Sue Gerdhardt will say comes from a less than perfect early childhood. As the article perfectly articulates, “If we are serious about reducing crime, preventing reoffending, and decreasing the prison population, we need to understand the relationship between adverse childhood experience and dysfunctionality in later life. Ultimately this means acknowledging our own failure to protect vulnerable children, and taking responsibility for the suffering they have experienced.”

We need a revolution in policy. I will even be brave enough to be heretical and say that narrowing the wage gap is less important than making sure the children we have now are taken care of and have a real chance. That means wiping out poverty completely, because the stress of poverty on a person who wasn’t given a proper chance either is often impossible to overcome. Universal basic income can do that in an efficient and fair way, while also wiping out the stigma that accompanies receiving government benefits. We also need programs that help families cope when they need it; massive amounts of co-operative living buildings like Lilac Coop; free university for everyone; a humane justice and prison system, an evidence based education system for children. None of this would cause an enormously large budget, just a shift in priorities.

A lot of people worry about lazy people who don’t want to contribute and whether they are taking more than they are giving. But as I’m sure Gerhardt would say, those people are likely to have had a far harder time of it than you, and if they haven’t maybe they were just less able to weather it than you were. In either case, we should be doing what we can for vulnerable people, not punishing them for being vulnerable. Do we want a positive future for our community and our children or do we want to make sure certain ‘unsavory’ people don’t get an easier time of it than we do? Why is that even a question?

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Featured image credit Moyan Brenn on Flickr

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