“Honey Boo Boo” and the underclass

I never heard of the reality TV show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” until I came happened to come across a mention by Rod Dreher, a blogger who lives in small-town Louisiana and writes for The American Conservative magazine.

The show is about a dysfunctional white family who in Georgia.  The matriarch, Mama June, is 33 years old and has four daughters out of wedlock by four different men, three of them convicted felons and one unknown.  She has been in the welfare system all her life.

Mama June is not an evil person.  She evidently loves her children and cares for them as best she can, but she doesn’t know how.  She doesn’t give her children a healthy diet.  She doesn’t teach them anything about how to function in the larger society because she doesn’t know herself.  Her youngest daughter, seven-year-old Honey Boo Boo, is a child beauty contest competitor.  Her oldest, 17-year-old Chickadee, herself has a baby daughter out of wedlock.  I hate to think where Mama June’s daughters will be 15 or 20 years from now.

The so-called Learning Channel holds up this happy-go-lucky, hopeless family as a source of amusement, and maybe as an alternative lifestyle.  Dreher is appalled, and so am I.  But I found through a Google search that the show has a wide following, and there are critics who defend Mama June’s lifestyle against the middle-class values of people like Dreher and me.

I would never say that such people are typical of Southern white people in general, any more than their black counterparts are typical of African-Americans in general.   And I would never call Mama June’s family “rednecks.”  The word “redneck” originally was a word for Southern white farmers who worked all day in the hot sun in long-sleeved shirts—hardworking, churchgoing people at an opposite pole from the Honey Boo Boo family.

But I don’t have any good ideas as to what can be done on a societal level to change the way people choose to live.   The only force that is capable of really changing people is religion.

Click on Honey Boo Boo Nation for Rod Dreher’s complete post, which is well worth reading, and a good discussion thread.

Click on Things I Learned from My Foster Children for thoughts on the perspective on work of children from chronically poor families.

I doubt if I would have turned out well if I had been born into a family such as Mama June’s.  I had the good fortune to be born to middle-class parents who taught me to respect work and education.  I also had the good fortune to grow up in a small American town where my parents’ values were reinforced by neighbors, teachers and churches.  And I had the good fortune to spend my working life during the greatest era of prosperity my country has ever known.  I know people who grew up in bad neighborhoods without good parental guidance, and nevertheless turned out all right, but I’m not sure I could have been one of them.

Here’s more from Rod Dreher, talking about a conversation with his liberal friend N.

N said … … that her cleaning lady is constantly desperate for money.  N said she gives her extra when she can, but the cleaning lady’s dilemma is what you might call a systemic one. The cleaning lady is not married, and had a number of children outside of wedlock … ….   N said there’s no way that the woman, hard as she works, will ever get out of poverty with so many kids, and no husband.  N said the woman’s life is such a mess, and is a mess in large part because of bad choices she has made, and continues to make.

… …  This woman was formed in a culture in which the things that keep her life impoverished and chaotic were normative.  Another friend of mine, a middle-class white woman who taught in an all-black public high school in a poor part of Louisiana, said that what struck her the most about the kids in her class was how they didn’t expect to do better.  They were passive and fatalistic.  All of them, she said, seemed to assume that they were either going to get pregnant, or get someone pregnant, and be involved with the welfare system.  And this mentality is spreading rapidly among working-class whites — which is to say, it’s ceasing to be a racial thing at all.

via The American Conservative.

The low-income people I happen to know are not like that.  They are elderly widows trying to get by on Social Security checks, and under-employed men in their 50s trying to stitch together enough part-time and temporary jobs to get by, and people with real physical and mental disabilities who can’t compete in the modern economy.

But I have heard of people who regard living on disability payments as a reasonable life ambition.   I remember visiting San Antonio earlier this year, and seeing signs everywhere advertising lawyers to appeal turndowns of disability claims.  And I remember, years ago, my friend on the Democrat and Chronicle who gave a talk on “career day” in a school in a poor neighborhood of Rochester, N.Y.  One student told her that there was no point in planning for a career, because he did not expect to be alive after age 21.  What do you do with people who have simply given up on themselves?

Sharon Astyk, a foster parent, wrote this about how her foster children from poor big-city neighborhoods see education and work.

[Their parents] have a series of miserable jobs they hate that end frequently due to unemployment.  These are largely irrelevant to education or training.  Nobody goes to school and works hard to get jobs cleaning office toilets, flipping burgers or selling auto parts.  Thus, most of my foster kids never really understood what the connection would be between their education and their adult future.  This is true although many are bright kids who find school to be a haven from a hard home life.  The idea of education as a track to security simply does not connect – and the idea of work as a profession, vocation or pleasure is utterly alien.

Moreover, both children have learned, as have others in our care, that work doesn’t help you.  Their experience is of having work be intermittent, jobs be lost on a regular basis, layoffs and salary cuts that stress their parents out.

via Casaubon’s Book.

One way to diminish this kind of hopelessness would be to have a full-employment, high-wage economy, in which hard work and a high school education were certain to get you somewhere.   Demanding people such as Mama June simply go out and get steady employment is not realistic, when so many people with good qualifications and strong work ethics are unemployed or working at poverty wages.

Beyond this, the strongest force for changing human behavior is religion.  History tells me that there were times and places, such as the London slums in the 18th century, when people were even more demoralized as they are now, and they recovered.  They were changed by not by government, but by religion.  It is a fact that fundamentalist and conservative Christianity is strong in the parts of the United States where divorce rates, crime, poverty and other signs of demoralization are highest.  I do not regard this as a reason for mockery.  As Jesus is quoted as saying, it is the sick, and not the healthy, who have need of a physician.

I have a friend who is the mother of three grown sons—one serving a life sentence for murder, one who is gay and the third who was a hopeless alcoholic until he decided to join the strictest and most extreme fundamentalist church he could find.  Since then, she said, the third son has not drunk a drop of alcohol, smoked a cigarette or spoken a civil word to his mother.  I don’t advocate this kind of religion, but I recognize as a fact that it may take a new religious movement, or a strong revival of religion, to change people’s values.

To be clear, I have not watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” on TV.   I only get basic cable TV service, which does not include The Learning Channel.   I have watched enough of the program on YouTube, including the segment where the little girl gets drunk on Mountain Dew and Red Bull energy drink, to feel able to make a judgment.  Anyhow, my post is more about what this family represents than the family itself.

There are worse people in the world than Mama June.  She is not a psychopath, she is not malicious, she is not consumed by greed or envy, but her life and the lives of her children should not be held up to the world as a source of amusement or an acceptable alternative lifestyle.

Why is this kind of life so much more common among native-born white and black Americans than it is among immigrants?  What is it that enables so many immigrants from disparate cultures to hang together as families and move up the economic ladder generation by generation?  Is there something toxic about American culture?  If so, what is it?  The welfare system?  Hollywood moral values?   And what is it that enables American families in hard circumstances to hang together and resist the negative aspects of our culture?  I have more questions than answers.

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