Social inheritance: Does it really dictate your life?

Social inheritance: Does it really dictate your life?

December 10, 2010
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There’s a saying in Sweden that goes “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and this is usually believed to apply to one’s lot in life too. There’s no general belief in the ability of the aspiring individual to through his own effort leave his background behind and climb the social ladder, or to successfully pursue his goals. Instead it has to be the government that enables this class journey, and for it to raise you up, it has to have faith in you in person.

This poses the question: Is this really so? Certainly looking at statistics from the last half-a-century or so, one can’t find any traces of anything resembling a “Swedish dream,” where people lift themselves up by the bootstraps and achieve great success. When I was contemplating just who was the last Swede to do so, multi-dollar billionaire Ingvar Kamprad came to mind, the entrepreneur who founded world-renowned furniture chain IKEA, with a personal fortune of $23 billion according to Forbes magazine, or roughly $65 billion according to Swedish Veckans affärer. Before looking him up, I was largely unfamiliar with his personal background, which as it turns out was quite an affluent one.

Nevertheless, already as a teenager, Kamprad started his business in 1943 – at first not even selling furniture, the endeavour he added a couple of years later in 1947, which would bring him his great success. With the fortune he’s made since then, his career must be considered nothing less than an outstanding success. Since then, however, few men or women have followed in the same footsteps. With a brief interlude during the so called Dot-com bubble, few individuals have been able to escape what has to be considered an iron law of Swedish society: You don’t become rich unless you inherited the money.

The main question I’m asking myself in this article, however, is what options does a person born into poverty have of leaving it behind? And will children of substance abusers themselves turn to drugs? To whom does the responsibility of getting out of an unwanted life situation belong – the affected individual or the government? There’s a field of research called social work which argues that it’s government’s role to effect this change. Sweden has proceeded far along this path, and has extensive public facilities in place to provide the poor, disabled and ill with their lot in life. Probably more than in any other society, social work here is highly regulated and institutionalized – just what rights and privileges an individual is entitled to is clearly specified, and the country takes pride in formally enabling everyone to live their life to the fullest. It truly looks good on paper.

In practice, however, in spite of massive government resources being channeled to this enterprise, social problems keep on escalating, and few people are able to escape their supposed lot in life. Why is this so? It’s my firm belief that the government can never work out the specifics on what an individual needs or should do, and how to accomplish this. It can never give an individual the drive or the self-worth required to make a change. I’m actually a firm believer in that the very efforts society is making are outright counter-productive. The reasons I believe this are mainly these two:

1) By describing problems facing an individual as society’s problem, one sends a signal to the individual that his life isn’t his own responsibility.
2) By intervening in someone’s life and declaring him to be a helpless victim of circumstances, naturally you deprive him of his dignity.

Scholars within social work may discuss “the support the person needs,” “the care the person needs” and so on all day long, but it’s my firm belief that whatever help the individual can gain from the services, the two factors above make sure nothing will be gained. By stating the individual’s lacking ability of acting on his own, it easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; there’s even something called labeling theory, which discusses how society’s treatment of a certain group can come to define it. If you believe in yourself and your own abilities, yet society defines you by the category in which you have been place, for how long can you maintain your own view of yourself? Undoubtedly, being identified as a member of a “weak group” will harm a person’s self-esteem, and this is bound to happen when the government states that the group needs government help.

It’s true that people not belonging to the group in question may have doubts whether individuals from this group will be able to achieve anything in life, but as long there are no special policies towards the group, those are mere words. “You’ll become a drunk just like your dad” are words that shouldn’t bother anyone, but having the government intervene in your life due to supposed risk factors is a far more intrusive encroachment of your right to form an identity of your own. Who gave the government the right to put an individual into a certain category.

Sadly, this is where the matter at hand touches upon my own personal experiences. The family I grew up with started out seemingly functional, yet all the three other members of it succumbed to substance abuse during my childhood, so before I had left my teen years behind, I was living with my mother in a house frequented by half the town’s bums, and the social services was present in our family life. As the rest of my family was crumbling, I myself was dead set on leaving it behind and not letting it define me. I had not ever been intoxicated or used any narcotics, and this is true still today, so I didn’t see why I should be the target of any measures by the social services.

Yet I was. I had a very good self-image, with school being trivial (even though I never put in more effort than to get more than average grades), and I had friends who enjoyed my company. For all I could see, I had a perfectly functional life and was not failing in any area. The social services didn’t see it that way, however. Though I was dismissive of even attending meetings with them, my mother having to plead with me to come along, they definitely took an interest in me. For me, everything was perfectly clear: I didn’t have any serious flaws, being in a missbrukarfamilj (Swedish for family of substance abusers) didn’t define me, I needed no help, I simply wanted to be left alone in my life. Apparently from the very first meeting with them, they, however, started identifying pathology in me. After moving out of my mother’s apartment, the social services followed me for some two years, making up ever more disabilities that I was supposedly suffering from – not making any actual tests to truly establish that I was, but more or less simply writing down their subjective observations in their journal.

According to them, I couldn’t relate to people, I couldn’t keep time, I lacked social skills and I couldn’t manage a job (they decided that without ever having witnessed me at work, my work experience at that point being limited to a couple of summer jobs). Needless to say, communication between me and them didn’t work at all, with me simply wanting them to get lost. They kept pursuing me, however, over and over attempting to get me to receive the care I “needed,” in accordance with the directives on their operations. When I refused to go along, they often became infuriated and harassed me for it. This was the worst thing that had ever happened to me back then, or that has happened to me since – it felt like a rape on my identity, when they attempted to convince me I was disabled and needed to be in their programs. It was humiliating to have them interfere in my life, and it made me feel embarrassed – which I’m sad to say came to define me, even though our family’s problems had not.

As I’ve learned lately after in depth having studied Sweden’s social policies over the last century, this is all part of a care ideology where one believes the individual is helpless to overcome his own lot without the government’s help. One of the ideological dogmas have been the idea that society can and should identify problems as early on as possible in a person’s life, condemning that person to a bleak future if he doesn’t get the “necessary” care and support. For quite a few, this policy has resulted in the government taking them from their biological homes and placing them in institutions, without their parents’ consent. If the child or youth “in need of care” doesn’t comply with the measures, this can mean placement at a ungdomshem, a facility for juvenile offenders where they get to live alongside the worst criminals imaginable – murderers, rapists and such. Placement here doesn’t require any actual crime having been committed, but can be legally justified with the behaviour of the minor.

Reading a book (Vård av ungdomar med sociala problem – en forskningsöversikt) on the research that has been done within the realm of care of minors with social problems, I came across some really interesting statistics. A researcher named Sarnecki had studied 749 individuals placed at juvenile facilities in Stockholm during the early 90’s; he had divided them into five groups depending on their characteristics: the crime profile, the substance abuse profile, the mental illness profile, the sexual problems profile and “profile group 0,” for the ones not matching any other category. This last group constituted no less than one third of the institutionalized minors, even though it was quite hard to make out just why they had been placed. The group had not committed any crimes to speak of, didn’t abuse drugs or do anything destructive or disruptive. They had been placed with such reasons as “emotional disorder,” “problems in school” etc, vague justifications for being deprived of one’s liberty.

What they had in common with the other groups was the social inheritance, however. Though they had not failed in life so far, their parents had. They had parents in prisons, on welfare and such, though the parents had still managed to raise these children well enough to so far not end up the same way; it was noted that the parents had successfully set boundaries for their children’s behaviour.

Then the government intervened, and the children found themselves placed with the worst sort of juvenile delinquents, out of reach of their parents. During the follow-up two years later, “profile group 0” was as involved in crime as the crime profile group, and their future now looked bleak. Ah, how the system ruined their parents’ efforts at giving them a chance at a better life than they themselves had enjoyed. For research data on the dismal outlook of children taken into care, see this blog post.

Interestingly enough, there’s plenty of data that suggests that people with a bad start in life can still recover on their own. Research quoted elsewhere in afore-mentioned book mentions that

Rutter M. (1985) “Resilience in the Face of Adversity. Protective Factors and Resistance to Psychiatric Disorder”, British Journal of Psychiatry 145:598-611

shows that internationally, some 50% of these children can still do well in life, and

Garbarino J. etc (1992) “Children in danger. Coping with the Consequences of Community Violence”

suggests that as large a portion as 80% can do so. Though this article is naturally not an exhaustive study, you get the impression that children are generally better off not being “saved” by the government. Indeed, there are many accounts out there of orphans and such have used their bad start to push themselves harder to succeed. Some have been condemned to fail due to the social group they belong to, and some even based on how they’ve performed in school, yet they’ve still found their own niches in life in which they can be successful. You certainly don’t see any inescapable curse of social inheritance. What you do however see is the government intentionally creating the very problems it pretends to solve.

To sum it up – I consider the Swedish social services an outright abomination, and I don’t believe it should fall upon the state to raise children. I also believe people should be responsible for their own lives, and not rescued from the mess they themselves have made out of these lives.

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Daniel Hammarberg

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