An unexpected bounce back?

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Popular cultural images take a dim view of adults who continue to live at home with their parents beyond their 20s. From the slacker male living in the basement sitting in front of a video game to the classic spinster female, the stereotype is of a directionless, socially awkward, eccentric who should have moved beyond the nest and struck out on their own long before.

These images aren’t likely to change anytime soon in American culture, but what of the so-called “boomerang” children who after completing college or facing a major life crossroads return to live with a parent? As far back as a decade ago the U.S. Census was reporting that approximately 56% of men and 43% of women aged 18-24 lived with at least one parent. The number leaps up to approximately two-thirds of recent graduates.

To the generations of the earlier 20th century, circumstances meant that adult responsibilities were thrust upon (or actively taken up) upon the finishing of school (often meaning high school) or taking on a full-time job. The job would usually provide a means to live independently and the independence led to marriage and the raising of children. Full-time jobs of the first two-thirds of the century generally would provide the ability for one wage earner to afford at least basic housing, food, transportation, recreation, etc. for a family. While this picture obviously does not take into consideration all members of society, generally young men did leave their parents’ homes for good by at least their early 20s. Unmarried women may’ve stayed longer on average but after the inevitable wedding they too usually did not return to their parents.

Sounds pretty good eh? So…what happened? Changing social mores and practices favoring individualistic impulses have had the greatest effect on the situation we have today- if perhaps indirectly. Marriage rates have gone down. In some cases they’ve been supplanted by co-habiting which would’ve been nearly unthinkable earlier in the 20th century. At the same time that marriages have declined, those that have taken place are much more likely to end in divorce than the previous generations. As today’s teens and young adults witness and grow up in a less stable household, they in turn are less likely (for a variety of reasons) to folllow with establishing their own traditional family units. The life-expectancy of Americans having risen well-above that of their forebears also seems to place less urgency on taking on adult responsibilities until a later and later age.

Economics plays the largest role in the return (or never leaving) to the family nest. More than ever before, debt for student tuition saddles many college graduates with a financial burden that can be hard to lift. Even with sheepskin in hand, the diploma does not assure the recipient of a (well-paying) job. Combine these factors with a society that suffers from a lamentable lack of  personal financial savings and you have a growing class of folks who simply can’t make it on their own. Even when a 20 (or more)-something may move out the financial strain caused by such painful events as divorce, poor health, or loss of a job can mean moving back into one’s old bedroom.

The recent Great Recession has had an unexpected salutary effect on society in that hard times have made millions of people re-think their priorities. Having less discretionary income has meant a greater interest in self-sufficiency, cutting wasteful spending and “consumerism”, and an interest in more collective efforts with others to be able to pool resources together to work for common aspirations. Ironically, the failures of a “me-first” society may be planting the seeds in which shared (or multi-generational) households may return to the forefront. Even if these changes may be mostly taking place for largely economic reasons, the possibility that Americans may embrace a culture that values shared duties, responsibilities, and connected-ness may offer hope for a more caring- and less callous and self-absorbed one that we’d been developing.

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A great act of altruism

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Adopting children from outside the U.S. has increased since the post-war era, often as an act of Christian charity and concern for the plight of others. However, reforms have been long overdue to rein in the abuses that exist internationally that have led to corruption involving some of the most at-risk populations effected by the process.

For couples who can’t begin families naturally on their own or would like to add to their households, adoption has always been an option. Adoption of any type though has always been awkward because of theory or perception that orphaned or institutionalized kids are “damaged goods” (“someone else’s problem” and/or have physical or mental challenges). It bears mentioning too that the “inventory” of children ready for adoption in the U.S. tends to be from poor, minority backgrounds that don’t visually or culturally match the often affluent white adoptive parents.

Despite the seeming paradox, adopting children from other countries has become a viable alternative ever since news reports after the Second World War and Korean conflict drove home the point that wars, famines, etc. around the globe made orphans of thousands of innocent children.

Adopting kids from another country often is a grueling, emotionally-charged experience for the parents involved. Locating a reputable agency or broker, navigating the complicated laws of the host country, preparing and receiving documentation, potentially making trips to the nation of origin, and paying a variety of fees and expenses can be draining- financially and psychologically. Even after the legal process has been completed, adoptive parents will need to work to socialize a child (that often doesn’t look like her guardians) into a new culture.

Unfortunately, as long as there has been international adoption there has been corruption and the exploitation of children that have gone along with it in some quarters. In some of the worst examples, rings of child traffickers in some countries abduct or coerce poor parents into offering up children and then pass these kids off as orphans. In nations where laws about adoption are sketchy or facilities to house at-risk kids are sub-standard the allure of accepting large cash payments from often wealthy American (or other Western) couples is a great temptation for illegal activity. The brokers or agencies that adoptive parents employ, too, can overcharge, or be too closely aligned with the authorities in the sending country to not have questions about their practices. The U.S. government has had to investigate the practices of a number of countries’ adoption systems and networks.

The writer does not suggest that foreign adoption is inherently a bad idea nor would I posit that American couples looking to assist a child from areas of the world in which war, political instability, poverty, or cultural practices won’t usually mean a healthier, more pleasant way of life for those involved.

International agreements like the Hague Convention that was updated several years ago aim to standardize practices, and report unscrupulous or exploitative actions of what has often been an unregulated and dangerous “market” to enter. Couples looking to adopt will still need to be diligent in selecting only reputable representatives to work with.

I would suggest however that Americans looking overseas for a child to raise might strongly consider a domestic adoption or provide foster care to an at-risk youth here. The growing income disparity and dysfunction in our society at home sadly means that American orphans can suffer plight approaching their peers away from these shores. Babies that have been spared the fate of abortion need loving homes too that can provide for them. While all types of adoption prayerfully entered into are means of providing faith, hope, love, and benefit to all involved we should remember those in our communities as well as the high-profile cases beamed on to our screens.

Kids on Drugs

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s become a sad fact of life in our modern world that depression affects not just adults but youth. Many youth also have problems with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which poses problems for concentration or acting out impulses.

While we’ve moved well away from a view that hyperactive behavior is not just an inevitable by-product of youth or an outcome of poor parenting but an actual dysfunction, there remains controversy over how to best treat ADHD and other mental and behavioral problems in our youngest population.

Increasingly, and sometimes exclusively, children are being prescribed medications to combat mental or behavioral disorders. Studies suggest that as many as a couple of million youths are on some kind of behavioral medication. Perhaps as many as a fifth of American children could suffer from some sort of mental or behavioral problem. Some of these patients are now under the age of 2.

I don’t mean to suggest that ADHD, depression, or other types of mental health problems can’t appear in youth or that medications shouldn’t be prescribed for them. I do believe however that other types of complementary approaches are needed to avoid a “meds-only” movement.

Behavioral drugs generally have achieved a good record in terms of safety and effectiveness when taken by youth. Still we need to remain concerned about the potential risks and side-effects that children might face who take them. For instance, some medications that are acceptable for adults or teens may not have been approved for younger kids. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has required labeling of a range of the anti-depression drugs warning that in some cases thoughts of suicide could increase through usage. Also, the FDA suggests that ADHD drugs may cause heart ailments in some youth. As widespread as prescriptions for drugs have become among children it may be early to to know yet what other side-effects may occur.

Another concern is “over-prescribing”. The rate at which doctors and other non-psychiatrists have prescribed mental/behavioral drugs has increased at a much higher rate than that of the mental health practitioners- the traditional gate-keeper for this type of diagnosis. Physicians often do not require- nor seek- a psychological assessment of their young patients to bolster or confirm their case prior to writing prescriptions. Without additional consultations of this kind, it stands to reason that at least some youth ingesting medications may not have been correctly diagnosed.

The bottom line suggests that a complementary approach of adding psychiatric counseling, and/or behavioral therapy techniques used in concert with drugs offers the best and most well-rounded plan for kids with mental health challenges. At the very least, employing other tactics may simply mean cutting down on average daily/weekly dosages.

In short, let’s not become alarmed at the sheer ubiquity of youth prescription meds since the drugs can and do provide relief to many. However, let’s stand on guard to make sure that kids are receiving all the options available that may help in the long-run.

Just Teach No?

April 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in a 2005 study that more than 90% of the pregnancies to those aged 15-19 were unplanned.

The USA has a disproportionately high teen pregnancy rate for an industrialized nation- reckoned to be 5 times that of Netherlands and 3 times that of France as a comparison.

Polls suggest that approximately 70% of those aged 18 in America have had by that time at least one sexual encounter.

More than 90% of married couples have had pre-marital sex.

These points illustrate a culture that certainly is absorbed- obsessed?- by sex and often expresses it in ways that have a detrimental effect on our society.

Due in part to the alarming rise in teen pregnancy and deadly sexually-transmitted-diseases (STDs) like HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, schools began offering regular sex education programs. Sometimes these were soft-pedaled into general units on Health but often were specifically and openly about sex. One might conclude that a public school system that has routinely returned poor results when American students’ achievements are compared to foreign competition may not be the best provider of this instruction. Parents in all cultures had been the obvious imparter of sexual education and mores up until very recently.

If sex ed. is going to be part of the curriculum just what should it teach? Modules tend to be based on two different outcomes: Abstinence and Comprehensive. Abstinence initiatives posit the idea that abstaining from sexual activity is the only foolproof means avoiding the negative social, physical, and health risks that can result from sex. Some abstinence programs would go further to promote sex only within the confines of marriage. Comprehensive programs may hold abstinence as an ideal but also instruct about birth control methods and practices that will minimize contracting STDs.

It’s no secret that health professionals prefer the Comprehensive approach since it provides a full-spectrum of the topic. Abstinence programs have been looked at with skepticism since they appear to be incomplete and (shudder!) preachy.

Let’s look at the mechanics and precepts of the Abstinence approach. In 1996 Congress and then President Bill Clinton passed the Welfare Reform Act which contained a provision to allocate funds over a period of time to institute abstinence-only sex ed. instruction in public schools. Curriculum needed to be supportive of the following points:

Kids should wait until marriage (or at least self-sufficiency) before having sex. After marriage, remaining faithful to your spouse is the only acceptable standard of sexual ethics.

How to avoid sexual advances from peers and adult predators

Out-of-wedlock pregnancies- particularly to teens- usher in often harmful effects to the child, young parents, and society at large.

Abstaining from sex is the only sure way to avoid unintended pregnancies, STDs, and other health and mental health problems

These themes seem eminently sensible, accurate, and reasonable to this writer for the smooth running of the culture.

The supporters of Comprehensive sex education counter that polls have determined that kids that have graduated from abstinence-only programs haven’t shown any less likelihood to have avoided sex than peers who’ve not had that type of curriculum. Only by giving students the full-range of coverage of the topic can they make healthy decisions.

The problem with comprehensive sex ed is the general lack of a consistent moral voice to weigh against the “facts”. Undoubtedly some of its backers enjoy that aspect. But does it do any good to give young adults a confused ethical message? Ultimately, the take-away from comprehensive sexual education is that you ought to avoid sex unless you can’t- and if you can’t here’s some help. If we really want to treat future adults with respect don’t we owe it to them to offer an ideal first and foremost? No matter what is taught in the schools some students will fall short of it. A caring and supportive network will be needed to aid those who have problems in any event. However, a system of instruction that inherently plans for a lowered standard of conduct inevitably may get that very result.

Given that so many areas of public instruction have riled up parents it’s very surprising how many have aquiesced on the hot-button topic of sex to the schools. It’s hard to know why. Anyone who’s had awkward, confused, and perhaps even incorrect sexual information delivered from Ma or Pop (or been the one to have to give the speech) might long to be able to hand the job off to someone else especially if that person appears to have better credentials. However, this can’t excuse a parent’s responsibility to do one of the key tasks of raising their children- providing ethical lessons and moral direction for the future leaders of society. I’d move that parents and guardians can do this at least as successfully as the “experts”.

Keep up the Fight (smartly)!

April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

2013 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark “Roe v. Wade” ruling which paved the way for more than a generation of legalized abortion in the U.S. Although all of the justices that participated in this sad verdict have either retired or died in the interim, it would be wrong to suggest that abortion’s days might be numbered simply because a new group of judges could lean against the practice.

After 4 decades or precedent, practice, and the entitlement that grows with it, the thought that a simple majority of the Supreme Court or state legislatures could legislate away abortion seems misplaced. Ultimately abortion and other pro-life concerns are moral issues that can only be protected and defended by those who are conscientiously bound to them- no matter of law-making can change or instill them.

While pro-life activists may work for or try to influence a legislative or judicial end to abortion, the only way to really reduce the numbers of women seeking abortions is to show compassion, respect, and support to them.

All pro-life organizations must renounce violence, take a less confrontational approach, and in my opinion, reduce the amount of graphic imagery often displayed on placards and literature.

The simple act of abortion- the deliberate elimination of an innocent unborn human being is chilling enough to need be gainsaid. If that weren’t enough, many women who’ve had abortions carry pain- physical (from injuries during the abortion procedure) and/or emotional for long periods of time afterward as they inevitably must come to terms with their actions. Simply and respectfully talking to the often poor and frightened women who seek out the clincs without raised voices is a better approach than looking for conflict or passing judgment. Funding or volunteering at an abortion alternative clinic is a powerful option for a pro-life activist. These centers can provide real help to the women in need by making available the myriad of resources they will need (counseling, adoption choices, pre-natal care, etc.) if they have a change of heart or just need support. If foes of abortion still need to rely on powerful testimonies about the horror of the practice, organizations like Pro-Life Action League have collected the stories of former abortionists, nurses, and clinic owners who became disenchanted with their involvement.

Pro-lifers would also do well to connect their opposition to abortion to other issues in which the dignity of life is being whittled away at. A society that treats its most vulnerable members- be they babies, the disabled, the aged, etc.- with disdain is not a healthy society.

Going still further, compassion for the most at-risk members of our country may also mean directing our efforts towards the inequalities in society that can lead to unplanned pregnancies.

Parents still matter

March 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Statistics suggest that perhaps as many as 1 in 5 of the legally perfomed 1.2 million abortions which take place in the United States each year are to minors below the Age-of-Consent. Consent varies by state but generally speaking we are identifying young women below the age of 18 for the purposes of this discussion.

Roughly 35-40 states have some form of parental notification- and/or consent- requirement that a minor seeking a legal abortion must obtain before proceeding. Some states do better than others at enforcing these varying laws. In 1992 the Supreme Court ruled in “Planned Parenthood v. Casey” that states with such laws must not create an “undue burden” on the young woman if they are unwilling or unable to communicate with their parent(s). Setting aside the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this ruling, the court’s remedy has set forth the alternative of seeking a court order to obtain the abortion instead of parental consent.

While there may be legitimate reasons why a minor is recalcitrant to receive permission or counsel from parents (i.e. she became pregnant through rape or incest from a member of the family; parent(s) may be absent or legally defined as not competent) the alternative of court sanction strikes at the heart of the family as the seat of counsel, caring, and instruction in favor of the State.

Many teens may be ashamed or worried about the negative reaction and anger their parents might have upon hearing that they have gotten pregnant. However, other types of age-inappropriate or anti-social behavior teens might get involved in (i.e. drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, bullying, breaking curfew or other family rules) don’t come with any expectation of privacy as the SC’s diminishing of parental consent does. Similarly, teens seeking other types of invasive medical procedures (i.e. plastic surgery) require permission. The morality of the act of abortion is just one of the thorny issues that a teenager must weigh before proceeding. Besides the psychological scars that some receive there are also possible physical effects such as infections, reproductive system injuries, and a later inability to conceive (among other health risks). Providing a confidential access to abortion outside the knowledge or consent of a parent could lead to emboldened sexual activities without censure or consequences.

Can the average adult effectively navigate through such a painful process without a sturdy support network? If the answer is “not likely”, than the difficulties would seem to be even greater for a youth.

It is parents or guardians that ultimately must communicate with, instill their values, and be advocates for their dependents unless we are contemplating a wholesale change in the way human society operates. While no family is perfect, parents are still likely to be the best counselors and advisors a pregnant teen will have. Parents are not simply a caretaker providing monetary support, shelter, and food- they must be allowed to be much more to prevent the further splintering and dysfunction of our society.

One small step in rebuilding the primacy of the family is to sharpen- not weaken- parental consent or notification laws for guidance in a teen’s most difficult hour.

Don’t call it FREE speech!

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Money and its influence on the American political scene has been a long-lasting problem that many initiatives have tried to tackle.

527 Groups have grown exponentially since their unwelcome spawning as a result of the hoped for reforms of the post-Watergate Federal Election Campaign Act in the 1970s. What makes 527s so attractive is their tax-exempt status allowing the legal ability to roll up untold amounts of “soft money”.

No one pretends that money is anything other than the mother’s milk of politics- as a means to let the public know of a particular candidate or issue’s pros- or more commonly- cons. However, in our attempts to build a fair and democratic society for all, shouldn’t we fear the possibility of well-funded special interest groups or wealthy individuals having an unfair advantage in tilting politicians’ ears and votes to their particular concerns?

527 Groups have become popular because they at once provide tax benefits to their backers (because 527s are regulated by the IRS not the Federal Elections Commission) while evading the regulations of the FEC. This means that neither the type nor amount of contributions to a 527 have limits. 527s also aren’t burdened with spending restrictions as a group regulated by the FEC would be. Given the potential for abuse, Congress has required some documentation by 527 administrators to the IRS which can then be a matter of public record.

However, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in “Citizens United v. FEC” may have opened the floodgates even wider for those fearing the influence of money in politics. The SC in-effect overturned long-standing FEC regulations against direct general treasury funds that will now allow big corporations, labor unions, and ideological groups to make election-related donations. The result means that some of the biggest spenders could have even more opportunities to influence the political process.

If that’s not enough, the “Citizens United” ruling may create loopholes that have already seen unusual amounts donated by non-profit 501 (c) groups which also don’t have obligations to follow the disclosure rules expected of other political organizations.

Some may suggest that as long as the side you’re supporting can raise money as well as your opponents than it’s a level playing field. However, the fact that so much of the trend in political funding is currently on the margins of what is legally (and certainly ethically) permissible should give reformers pause.

Those of us that feel that keeping a strict limit on the types, amounts, sources, and uses of money in politics should be brought under some sort of control should continue to work for laws that a) regulate contributions and b) bring more political organizations under the FEC.

For Democracy to thrive and the public interest we must demand a system that is accountable and fair to all- not just well-heeled groups and individuals.