You Can't Say It's Half Full When it's Three Quarters Empty

I like a lot of what Joel Kotkin has to say about American settlement trends. His vision of suburbia as a ‘self-sustaining archipelago of villages’ has a certain appeal, especially. But his recent Washington Post op-ed (posted at The New Geography) misses no opportunity to commit what I’ll call the “Nothing But Flowers Fallacy” after the Talking Heads song: the tendency to count on economic disruption to bring about salutary social change.

Says Kotkin:

…the effects of this meltdown won’t be all bad in the long run. In one regard, it could offer our society a net positive: Forced into belt-tightening, Americans are likely to strengthen our family and community ties and to center our lives more closely on the places where we live.

Maybe so. Or we could, for lack of better options, work jobs even farther from home, driving even longer distances on the same clogged highways to the same metropolitan cores and office park exurbs as always.

For one thing, [more limited economic options] may strengthen those long-weakening family ties. We’re already seeing signs of that. American family life today may not look like “Ozzie and Harriet,” with its two-parent nuclear family, but it reflects a pattern of earlier generations, when extended networks helped families withstand the dislocations of the westward expansion or of immigration.

With a majority of married women now working, parents are frequently sharing child-rearing duties, and other family members are getting into the act. Grandparents and other relatives help provide care for roughly half of all preschoolers in the country. As the cost of living rises, this trend could accelerate.

Sounds great! When I’d spend the night with my grandmother, she’d wake me up at 10:30 to watch Hogan’s Heroes, and in the morning I’d eat those little boxes of cereal that you could cut open and pour milk directly into. Just think how great it would have been if necessity forced my parents into leaving me with her all the time:

Researchers have documented high rates of asthma, weakened immune systems, poor eating and sleeping patterns, physical disabilities and hyperactivity among grandchildren being raised by their grandparents (Dowdell 1995; Minkler and Roe 1996; Shore and Hayslip 1994). Grandparents raising grandchildren also appear to be in poorer health than their counterparts. Small scale studies have noted high rates of depression, poor self-rated health, and multiple chronic health problems among grandparents raising their grandchildren (Dowdell 1995; Minkler and Roe 1993). On a national scale Minkler, Fuller-Thomson, and Driver (1997) found that grandparents raising their grandchildren were twice as likely to be clinically depressed when compared to grandparents who play more traditional roles.

Kotkin’s austere wonderland continues:

At the same time, difficulty in getting reasonable mortgages and the realities of diminished IRAs will force baby boomers and Generation Xers both to prolong their parental responsibilities and to delay their retirements. This, too, is already happening: According to one study, one-fourth of Gen-Xers still receive help from their parents. And as many as 40 percent of Americans between 20 and 34, according to another survey, live at least part-time with their parents.

This clustering of families, after decades of dispersion, will spur more localism, which has a simple premise: The longer people stay in their homes and communities, the more they identify with and care for those places.

Unless, of course, we end up with neighborhoods full of “accidental landlords” who rent their houses to occupants who can’t get enough credit to buy homes of their own, in which case the housing stock will suffer the fate of any resource under absentee control.

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.