Recently, the media has used the term “rolling recession” to describe what’s happening in business. It refers to a different type of recession that does not impact the entire economy. Instead, it hits different markets at varying times. So while not every business feels the pain, specific industries are hit for a limited period.
The rolling nature of this downturn is related to the push and pull of the pandemic, the drop-off of demand in some areas and a surge in others. There are situations in which some companies thrive, while others suffer. It’s like sitting on a bean bag chair where there are constant displacement and levels of discomfort depending on where and when you are sitting and how you are moving.
The somewhat good news about rolling recessions is that they are not permanent. The laws of supply and demand create new circumstances that change the fortunes of business sectors, altering the circumstances of those who were down and setting the stage for a comeback and renewal of opportunities. Additionally, businesses rebound because there are resources for their entrepreneurial efforts.
In my four decades of family support-related projects, I’ve seen the counterpoint to this phenomenon. One of those most disheartening lessons is that in those communities where child welfare agencies tend to make frequent visits, the recession rolled in decades ago and never left. And the reason is that while everyone springs to bold action to fix the economy, we lack both an enterprising spirit and agility when it comes to child welfare.
Generational poverty grinds down a person’s ability to move forward, resulting in hopelessness and depression, combined with the very real inability to put food on the table. Immobilized for years, even generations, poverty begets sameness.
Poverty does not in and of itself define any standard of parenting. Caregivers who are poor aren’t better or worse parents.They are neither noble nor neglectful simply because of poverty, but they are deprived of critical elements — resources, alternatives and options — the same elements that allow business to slip out of a recession and back into a modicum of prosperity.
Business people have a wider option of choices and pathways that will allow them to emerge even stronger from a slowdown. They are not encouraged to play it safe, nor are they second-guessed by a chorus of bureaucrats and advocates. But that is not the case for how we conduct ourselves in child welfare, especially when it comes to families living in generational poverty. Until recently, it’s been a random exception when an agency offered an alternative, holistic approach to supporting families. That’s because government agencies reward routine, stability and avoiding risk.
I was reminded of this recently when I facilitated a conversation with two ministers, the Rev. Darrell Armstrong of Trenton, New Jersey, and the Rev. Awood Jones from Salem City, New Jersey. The topic was the role of spirituality as a healing force. They highlighted that real progress is only possible when we act boldly and support people in body, mind and spirit. That support comes in many forms, shapes and sizes like food pantries, after-school programs and any activities that promote social connections. For his congregation, the Rev. Armstrong substitutes Biblical passages for the protective factors language when discussing the church’s active role in the community with his congregation. The Rev. Jones uses social events to “feed the body, mind and spirit” of families who are otherwise isolated. Both believe that family empowerment comes when helpers talk less about what we don’t have and spend more time on how we work with what we do. In partnerships, all things are possible. They encourage and invent alternatives and focus on being supporters, not saviors.
Unlike a business in a temporary rolling recession, families can spin their wheels for years, mired in historical and family trauma, as well as a deeper level of physical and spiritual hunger. But listening to my two clerical friends, I thought about the many neighborhoods and community-based programs that are addressing these issues successfully every day. Some programs are faith-based, but most are not. All of them are highly functional collaboratives.
After hearing them, I wondered, does any public agency have the capacity to support family life without the help of community partners and the people they serve? History makes clear that the answer is no. There are almost no examples of public child welfare agencies going it alone and succeeding.
What if we continue relying on a single government entity to keep kids safe, families strong and communities supportive? With all that has happened to decimate our workforce in the last few years, how well do we trust the capacity of those entities to assess risk and prepare the most suitable environment for kids to be reunified after placement, while simultaneously offering alternatives to traditional investigative approaches? How well can inexperienced, inadequately seasoned public agency caseworkers fashion a response to the constant messaging of “support, not surveillance” if they are operating without community partners? To what extent can any one organization provide an array of relevant opportunities and choices for parents and children in households decimated by material need and emotional stress?
Child welfare is different than business, but there is something to be learned from the reality of rolling recessions. Our professional helpers and families need options, choices and partnerships. Bureaucracies, constrained by government mandates, staff shortages and the fear of lawsuits and the media will always struggle to be inventive, flexible and responsive to the complex challenges and opportunities within a community. When a government agency’s starting point with a family is “whatever we have” versus “whatever it takes,” it’s almost certain that a family’s wheels will continue spinning in place.