Years ago, I was having lunch with the Chief Risk Officer at American Express. We were talking about potential customers being declined. He corrected my assertion that we declined some customers for bad credit. “We don’t tell customers no,” he said. “We tell them what it will take, and they tell us no.”
It was helpful framing, but by the same token we did obviously decline customers. I had a memorable guy escalate to me over his decline once. He owed basically every credit card company out there, and he was in arrears across the board. I explained this to him, politely, and he said, “But you don’t understand! I’m going to move all that debt over to your card! That’s why you should approve me.” Right, buddy. So, yes, he was declined, and if he wanted to be approved he needed to pay off some debt first. But to his point, it’s a circular argument: pay off some debt so you can be approved for more debt.
I mentioned in the comments last week that a homeless woman has moved onto the sidewalk in front of one of our offices, and I chatted with her and her cute little dog last week, running out to buy her some snacks at the local QT. I remembered Carolyn’s excellent post at BCC about whether homeless people get to make choices (in contrast to the old “beggars can’t be choosers” adage), and that if we are trying to help people, what they want should matter. If I were offering this woman a drink, all I had in our office fridge was Diet Coke, and what are the odds that’s her favorite too? Slim to none. It actually made me think about all the choices I make, and how they are informed by my own station in life. I might prefer a salad because I’m making up for the abundance I ate the day before. But if I were homeless, would I prefer a hot meal because it’s cold outside? Add to that the fact that people just like different foods, and it feels logical that we should buy people what they actually prefer if we are trying to bring them comfort and make life easier for them.
But we aren’t mostly trying to help the homeless in this country from what I can see. We mostly want them to either go away or be invisible. We want them to “get with the program.” Often, we are afraid of them. I was disturbed as I thought about her vulnerable situation, and I wondered what I would do if I were her. I was listening to a podcast series about how the homeless problem got so out of control in this country, and I was surprised to hear that this problem rose in the 80s, that it wasn’t as big an issue in the 70s. But in the 80s, part of what made the problem worse was our shifting values as a country. We adopted a paternalistic attitude toward the poor. The poor could have help, certainly, but only if they ticked all the right boxes. The homeless needed to deserve our help. They had to be drug-free. If they were mentally ill, they had to take their meds. If the poor received food stamps, they could only buy certain foods with them, not things deemed “luxuries” and also not things deemed nutritionally bad.
Where did we get this attitude? Although Reagan didn’t invent the idea of welfare fraud, he certainly used the term for all it was worth. He got a lot of mileage out of it and galvanized the nation against the poor, implying that most poor people were cheats and freeloaders, too lazy to hold down a job. They didn’t deserve our help, and he preached that “handouts” didn’t help anyone anyway because if you didn’t have to change yourself to get help, you were still going to need help endlessly; the person asking for help is always, always broken. Real people, whole people, never need help.
There’s a woman in Chicago, Reagan told voters, who “used eighty names, thirty addresses, fifteen telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four non-existent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.” And she wasn’t the only one. Reagan bemoaned a welfare system infested with fraud, although he kept returning to the woman in Chicago. She wore a fur coat. She drove a Cadillac. She paid for T-bone steaks with food stamps. He didn’t refer to her by name but by a sobriquet—one he didn’t invent, but which he repeated so often it metastasized into an ugly stereotype: She was the welfare queen.https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/josh-levin-the-queen-book-review/
We adopt this attitude with all sorts of problems. For example, if your BMI is greater than 25 and you go to the doctor, the notes from your visit will claim that the doctor talked to you about your weight, even if you don’t really have a weight problem. This is due to the “obesity epidemic.” Rather than address the root causes of obesity (corn starch and sugar in everything we eat now combined with sedentary jobs), we will instead shame and cajole people based on their weight, and blame them for being “unhealthy” regardless of their actual healthiness, just based on a number. It’s open season on larger people in this country. It’s generally acceptable to mock and belittle people for being “unhealthy” when it is literally none of our business what they eat or how much they exercise or whether or not they have genetic factors that contribute to their body type. A woman reported going to the doctor about her allergies. He told her she should eat more fruits and vegetables to lose weight. She said that wasn’t the problem that she was there about. Finally, in exasperation, she said, “What advice would you give a skinny person?” and she finally got the help she needed. It was just impossible for him to see past her weight to actually address the problem she was there for.
In this story, the doctor’s paternalism was on full display; he was not only a resource for the needs she had, but also believed that he could better diagnose what she really needed, what her real problems were. If she wasn’t asking the “right” questions, he was still going to force her to listen to those things as well. That’s fine if 1) there really is a health problem, 2) that she doesn’t know about, and 3) that can be improved. This situation didn’t meet any of these three criteria. A lot of people are just never going to be a “perfect” weight. Telling them to diet themselves into a personal hell isn’t going to lead to a happier, healthier life. Nobody who is overweight (aside from Trump, maybe) is unaware of it. Nobody is unaware that we should eat healthy choices and exercise more.
The podcast about homelessness that I referenced talked about a shift in the last decade or so, away from paternalism and toward choice. The shift was called “Housing First.” Rather than make people work to qualify for government housing, the focus was changed to getting those in the greatest need off the streets first, those with addictions or who were in physical jeopardy, those who were the most unsafe and vulnerable. It’s easier to quit taking drugs when you have a place to sleep, clean water, and plumbing. This was the first step away from paternalism and toward giving the poor and the homeless more say in solving the problems they faced.
This new approach wasn’t without problems. As I’ve frequently quoted Henry Kissinger saying “Every solution is a ticket to a new problem.” In this case, a side effect is racist outcomes. More white people who are homeless are placed in housing under this model because black people often become homeless due simply to poverty, but white people have more safety nets and fewer cards stacked against them. When a white person becomes homeless, there is a higher chance that they also have problems with addiction, mental illness, or other ailments that render them particularly vulnerable and in distress. They’ve had to make course corrections to how they evaluate homeless people to make the outcomes more fair (so long as there isn’t suitable housing available for all).
The next discovery they made was that some people who got housing eventually left it to become homeless again. They chose homelessness over shelter. The Reagan era mindset would say that they washed out because they were too weak to stay drug-free or they refused to take their meds or they didn’t have the skills to make it work in a real job. But when social workers actually talked to these people, they found that they had missed their community, their friendships. Living in government paid housing was often isolating in a way that living in their ramshackle mobile dwellings was not. This listening allowed those working to help the homeless to create alternate living arrangements rather than just the individual apartments that were the norm. There are some group homes. There are cities that simply provide an apartment or condo anywhere in the city that the person wants to live, and they have to pay 30% of their income toward rent while the city covers the rest.
My daughter and I were recently talking about what things we do today that in 30 years will be viewed the way sexism and racism are viewed today. I think paternalism is a likely contender of the attitudes that need to be relegated to the trash heap. Instead, we need to start listening to the people we are trying to “help” and actually work with them to design the solutions that meet their needs.
Paternalism is behind colonialism. It’s when privilege gets to decide what problems to solve and how to solve them. Privilege is frankly terrible at identifying and solving the problems of those who aren’t privileged. It ultimately ends up blaming those with problems for the problems because privilege doesn’t experience those same problems in the same ways. Paternalism is also behind movements like religious freedom. Don’t bake the cake, it whispers. If we can keep gay people from celebrating, maybe they’ll go back in the closet and quit being gay. What paternalism really hates is freedom and choice for other people, those that see things differently than you do or those whose choices differ from yours. Paternalism really really wants to compel them to follow the designated path, to check the boxes laid out for them, so that they resemble and preserve the paternalistic norm. Paternalism cures eyesight with only one pair of glasses, and if they don’t work for you, it’s your fault.
That’s the rub. People do need different prescriptions. There are exceptions to rules, and we shouldn’t be terrified that if we allow for exceptions suddenly it will be chaos and everyone will get what they need instead of what we are willing to let them have. The rule of law is a continuous investigation into our principles to understand something bigger and better than our predecessors count imagine or articulate. Paternalism hates change and hates when the illusion of timelessness is shattered because it’s a challenge to the power of status quo.
- Do you agree that paternalism will be the future “outcast” behavior, something we will finally get away from in the next 30 years or so?
- Are there other social behaviors you see on their way out?
- What would the Church look like if it no longer had a paternalistic attitude?
 She did say food-wise “anything” was fine, but she prefers Squirt soda. And why shouldn’t she enjoy the thing she most likes to ring in the New Year?
 I think this is like when the people of Lost wanted to return to the island after being back in civilization. They found civilization depressing.
Privilege isn’t going away, but we are starting to understand the opportunity cost, and cost shifting that occurs with privilege. Like most everything else we try to define as a common denominator in society, privilege exists on a spectrum, and our own perspective is the numerator.
On your very last discussion question–“What would the Church look like if it no longer had a paternalistic attitude?”–I suspect it would be almost unrecognizable. I feel like paternalism, which as you point out is associated with thinking you know better what people need than they know themselves, is pretty much core to the Church. What are GA directives about how to spend our time and money, wear our clothes, even down to pierce our ears and (not) tattoo ourselves, if not paternalistic?
On this topic, I actually remember being struck once by an Ensign article (I think) about women serving missions. It quoted both women who had served and women who had not, and talked about how it was up to individual women to decide. It was striking because it was so out of the norm for Church-published stuff, which is virtually always more along the lines of “This is the one true path for everyone, and if you stray from it, you are damned.”
A couple years ago I was tapped to be a self-reliance program facilitator in my stake. I took the assignment enthusiastically, believing that I could do some good for the less fortunate. But after attending the training meeting and reviewing the program curriculum from the Church, I decided to bow out quietly. The program reeks of paternalism, treating poverty as a “lifestyle choice” some people make, that they can overcome with enough prayer and willpower (which sounds suspiciously like the way the Church handled LGBTQ members for decades). It is designed to be run like a 12-step addiction recovery program, which may have some merit in helping people overcome certain personal problems, but in this case it further stigmatizes poverty by treating it as a moral deficiency. Worst of all, it is designed to be run entirely by lay people, not social workers/counselors/financial planners or other relevant experts (I am none of these things).
As a ward clerk I have had many conversations with my bishop (a dentist) about the disbursement of Church funds for helping the needy. Though he is a well-meaning person and tends to err on the side of generosity, he still is sometimes constrained by a “prosperity gospel” attitude that he doesn’t even realize he has–“…if only these people would obey the commandments, pay their tithing, etc. their lives would be so much better…”. More than once, I’ve had to politely remind him to check his privilege at the door.
I would love to see paternalism become stigmatized in society like racism and sexism are becoming now. But I’m not sure what that means for the future of the Church, since paternalism is baked into so much of how things are done across the organization. For a possible outcome, look at the Church’s two-faced approach to dealing with LGBTQ people; it tries to make public overtures about being accepting and welcoming to gays, while doing nothing to change official policies that are downright hostile and discriminatory.
Social assistance programs is 6% of taxes and military is 54%.
I’d rather focus on the fraud going on in the military spending and having less wars and I say this as a former cheerleader for the Iraq war.
Jack Hughes: I too struggle to imagine what the Church would look like if it dropped its paternalistic attitude, but the phrase that keeps coming to mind is JS saying that it “feels good not to be trammeled.” Becoming less paternalistic feels inevitable if a Church is to succeed long term (we haven’t really been around that long). Ultimately, you can’t be “high demand” forever, which really just means too specific and requiring meaningless sacrifice based on leaders’ whims and hobby horses: the earrings nonsense, white shirts, focus on things like titles and hierarchy. None of these things are things Jesus preached. They aren’t Christian principles. They should all be relegated to the scrap heap.
Your points would be more effective if you left President Reagan out of the discussion. No discussion of the 80s and President Reagan should be made unless you do so in the context of Jimmy Carter’s late 1970s. The United States was really in a terrible situation back then and Reagan turned it around in so many ways. Probably better to leave politics out of this discussion.
What I find much more interesting is your implication about paternalism in the Church. Indeed it is alive and well. Whether it’s the missionary program with its “tame the savages” attitude perpetuated by 18-year-old boys who know almost nothing or the “rescue” calling card that was initiated by Presdient Monson and dripped down to every PEC and Ward Council meeting, there is indeed a very paternalistic mindset in the Church. That’s what you get when your 5-year-olds chant “follow the prophet” before they even know what they are singing.
I have recently started reading D. Ostler’s “Bridges”, and the OP reminded me of something towards the end of chapter 3. Regarding one of his survey questions about the factors contributing to an individual’s faith crisis, he compared the results from a survey of (local) Church leaders and a survey of members in faith crisis. The contrast was rather striking. Ostler was trying to make the point that a bishop/leader cannot hope to really help “cure” (a very paternalistic attitude) people’s faith crises if they strongly misunderstand the factors that are triggering the crisis.
I’m not sure exactly how it fits into the cogs of Church growth or health or “rightness” or whatever yardstick we measure the Church by, but it seems that this paternalism somehow fits into whether the Church is “big tent” or “small tent”. The more the Church sees itself as a parent here to fix broken people or sees people as sheep to be shepherded into specific fields of orthodoxy/orthopraxy, I think it will trend towards a “small tent” (and it seems there are many of the conservatives (wheat) that wish the progressives (tares) would get a clue already and leave). The more the Church chooses to abandon these paternalistic urges, the more it will trend towards a “big tent”.
The hymn teaches to “choose the right, let the consequence follow”, but which of these directions is “the right” direction?
Why did I have a negative and visceral reaction when RMN told Africa to pay tithing?
Homelessness is growing explosively right now, and it’s especially visible in sun-belt cities like Phoenix. I see many more street folks than I used to, and more often I see people who don’t look homeless, or are perhaps new to their homelessness, except for the different things they carry. Women without purses, backpacks instead.
I don’t know what solutions exist, but the ones we’ve tried are not helpful. I know that the past decades of housing policies have exacerbated the problem, but there are many more factors and complicated sources of this. Our present ways of dealing involve criminalizing homeless behaviors, such as public urination/defecation, and sleeping in public, and assigning police to manage all such problems. It’s not surprising that police intervention is ineffective. The de facto solution is that homeless folks meeting their needs are overlooked by police as long as they congregate in certain areas and stay out of “respectable” neighborhoods in large numbers. However, I know people who live and run businesses in the alternative neighborhoods, and they are under siege. Businesses lose customers, landlords have lost tenants and homeowners are fending for themselves with all kinds of dangerous problems. I don’t have answers, but I agree the paternalistic approach doesn’t help. Imagine if we had the wisdom and compassion to ask people what they need, and the NIMBY parts of our communities were willing to accommodate solutions that address the failures of segregating large numbers of homeless people into designated areas.
Josh h, paternalism is a political issue. If there are 2 versions of politics, and one has 20% women politicans, and the other is 50/50, one is much more paternalist than the other.
If our church were alligned with the less paternalistic party it would be very different.
If democracy still exists in America, meaning those who voted for the loosing side then join in support for the winner as a united country America will progress? Judging by the news not sure this can happen?
I expect with the change of government, that America will become less paternalistic. The culture of the country will become more supportive of equality, the poor will be raised, healthcare more universal, society more equal, and inclusive etc.
I expect this will create an environment where the church will realise it is not contributing to zion. I believe the church is influenced by it positions, on women, on gays, and culture by its connection to republicanism. If republicanism survives, its influence will hopefully be reduced. Surely what is happening in washington must damage the R brand, certainly the trump brand.
I did not see all of Lee’s speech, but he appeared to be advocating the rule of law. Good not sure he would.
MDearest. We are told there are homeless people in Australia. Part of the virus response was to provide accomodation for homeless in hotels which were empty, because of gov policy.
When we come to America amazed at the number of people begging. Have never seen one in Aus. Hopefully this will be addressed by the incoming government. They have a lot to do.
As far as future outcast behaviors go, my money’s on unsustainable consumerism. We buy things without a thought for where they come from and we discard them without a thought for where they go.
It is this ignorance that allows for the cruelty of sweatshops and factory farming as well as the continent of plastic forming in the Pacific.