Big Think Interview with Richard Gelles

Big Think sites down with Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Transcript


Richard Gelles: Richard Gelles, Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania.


Question: Can you explain some of your most recent work on social safety nets?

Richard Gelles: Well, the new book is titled “The Third Lie,” and it's based on an old and not very good joke: that there are three lies, and the first one is -- this is the older part of the joke, of course—I'll respect you in the morning; and the second lie is, the check is in the mail; and the third lie is, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you. And it spends about two-thirds of the book developing the case that government social programs -- not public works programs, not highways or national parks, but social programs like welfare and child abuse and special education, domestic violence, food stamps, housing -- are essentially as bad as people think they are; that they're terribly ineffective; that the government does a generally a poor job of delivering the help it is expected to deliver and the authors of the programs want it to deliver. And there are a variety of reasons for that. From a college professor's point of view, one of the reasons is there's a disconnect between research and government social policy. So there's one chapter called "The Drunk and the Lamppost," which says policymakers use research the same way a drunk uses a lamppost, much more for support than for illumination.

But underneath that, the real issue is that as a society we're really ambivalent about [if] we really want to help, and who we want to help. So we set up programs that are safety net programs, that almost always have a means test. Welfare, the means test is, well, just how poor are you? Housing, the means test is, well, just how much housing do you need. Special education, what's your disability and do you in fact require special assistance? For domestic violence, unfortunately the means test is, are you the victim of a form of violence of criminal? For child abuse, the means test is, are their caregivers inadequate in terms of neglect or medical neglect or physical abuse or sexual abuse? But almost every government program has this means test, which means there's an enormous bureaucracy hired to decide when the gate gets opened and when the gate gets closed. And that diverts monetary resources and energy that would otherwise be spent on the program itself.

The second ambivalence is in fact that bright line: who gets the services? And in a market economy, we're really reluctant to help everyone because we think, well, you don't want to exactly reward behavior that we think is inappropriate. So why would you have a welfare benefit increase with the second out-of-wedlock child, when in fact we don't want children born out of wedlock to folks who aren't able to support them. So we spent a great -- and domestic violence is a perfect example. What is domestic violence? Is it physical abuse? Is it emotional abuse? Is it sexual abuse? Is it yelling? Is it males exerting power and privilege? You know, in the beginning of the crusade to look at sexual assault, I think Andrea Dworkin once said that ninety-five percent of all men are rapists. Well, that's a bit excessive, and in essence what she's saying is, we don't need a safety net; we need a complete cultural change, which in fact was her point. But that's not going to get you very far in an environment where the social policy is means-tested.

So, you know, I spend about two-thirds of the book on that, and then stop and say, has there ever been a government program that's worked? Can you put a lie to the lie? And it's not going -- I'm not going to give away the whole book -- and we don't have time to give away the whole book -- but essentially, the government programs that work are the ones that don't have means tests or have really simple ones. You know, when I turn sixty-five I can ride on the bus in Philadelphia for free. What's the means test? I turn sixty-five. I'm eligible for Medicare. And nobody comes and says how much money do I make. Why? Because we decided in 1965 we are entitled to good health care. Nobody else is, but the elderly are. Can you in fact build social policies based on that principle? And that's going to -- you have to buy the book to get the last part.

Question: How should we talk about universal healthcare?

Richard Gelles: I think we need to decide what are rights and what are privileges. I'm not in favor of big government handout redistribution of wealth. I think it's not going to work in our society. It's not going to get votes. But there are certain things that we might want to have a discussion about, such as, is health care a universal right? Is a quality education a universal right? Is having decent housing a universal right? And how do you fairly -- in a market economy -- achieve that cost-effectively? And I think we can do that, but I think there are other areas -- I think safety and wellbeing are universal rights, but other things probably not. I mean, we're not going to go to a socialistic society where each -- you know, going back to Marx -- each according to his or her needs. It's not going to happen. So this right and universality discussion has to be done in a society that is a market-driven society, where we don't want to reward certain behaviors because we think they're counterproductive to the kind of economic system we have.

Question: Has the welfare reform bill worked?

Richard Gelles: The welfare system -- and I worked, when I one year worked in Washington, on the welfare reform bill -- the welfare reform bill worked because it has a time limit, because it says welfare is a temporary right, not a permanent right. So even in this economic recession with unemployment going up, the welfare rolls are lower than they were in 1996. I think that's about as much reform as you're going to get. Where you need the reform, I think, is to -- people have to have a stake in society, and they get that by having home ownership. I'm -- I look back to the 1950s, and I think the American economy did the best when people were able to buy homes, and the consumer society thrived not by buying an extra plasma TV, but by buying all the utilities and appliances that go with home ownership. One of the great disasters of 2008-2009 is the decrease in home ownership as a result of the financial problems, the financial scandals, with the subprime mortgages.

Question: What is familicide?

Richard Gelles: Familicide, as we understand it, is when one family member -- and not typically the man, but almost always the man -- kills the spouse, all of the children, and then himself as an act of suicide. It is pretty rare. There seem to be two forms of it. One form is the kind of coercive "I own my wife and my children, and therefore I have a right to take them with me if I no longer want to live."

And there's a second type, which is a little bit more rare, and that's the shame familicide that occurs during economic downturns, when you're no longer able to support your spouse and your children, and you love them so much that you don't want to shame them by exposing them to this failure of yours, so you take them with you. From a social scientific point of view we call it “overenmeshment.” but it's basically an inability to see that your wife and your children have separate existences from your own. Now that's where it begins to -- I'm not going to use the word "bleed over" because it's going to be too metaphorical -- but that's when it becomes -- it looks a lot like the kind of power and control homicides where you're taking everybody with you in an act of anger. These economically driven familicides aren't particularly violent. They don't leave -- they're not brutal. They use poison, they use gas, they use suffocation. The power and control familicides can be pretty brutal and pretty bloody, essentially sending a message: you failed me, and I'm taking you out.

Question: Would you consider this a cultish activity?

Richard Gelles: It's not a bad argument, the cult argument. It's a different kind of cult. It's a cult with the father/husband seeing himself as the head of the family, the king, the Jim Jones, and everybody's going to drink the Kool-Aid because Jim Jones doesn't want to be around any longer. I hadn't really thought of it till you asked the question, but the cult mass killings seem to be also male-driven. I can't think on my own of the last female cult leader who had a mass killing involved with her. They tend to be, again, males who do this.

Question: Why is the bulk of brutal domestic violence perpetrated by men?

Richard Gelles: Well, there are a variety of hypotheses about this. Underneath almost all of it is the desire to control the other people, the desire to be the person who achieves the benefits and reduces the costs of intimate relationships. I think there's a -- the more complicated answer s, we've cast men in a role that they can't all fulfill. You're the head of the family; you're the breadwinner; you're the key decision-maker; you're the king of the mountain. And the resources to fulfill that role -- the psychological, economic and social resources -- aren't handed out evenly to every man, so that a good number of men are left with the only resource they have is their physicality. And they use that to compensate for the lack of other resources. And I think there's an argument to be said for the shame that goes with not being able to live up to a fairly widespread cultural view of what men are supposed to be like.

Question: Is this the result of social forces?


Richard Gelles: You're right; it's not innate. There's no extra Y chromosome out there; there's no birth defect out there. The psychological factors -- and there clearly are psychological factors -- can't be viewed independently of the social environment in which men are brought up. And I've seen men who are really sociopathic, who really don't know right from wrong. You say, well, where did that come from? Well, go back into their childhood, and you find out that they received a good deal of head trauma at the hands of their fathers, or growing up. And so the clear and significant psychological problems that they have have a social genesis.

Question: Who should our social programs be aiming to protect?

Richard Gelles: I think that in the area of men and the problem with men, and the area of domestic violence. There's an intersection of the politics of social life with the realities of social life. And in 2009 a goodly number of the advocates and those in the research community are sort of putting their heads together and saying, who should we really be protecting? We spent a lot of time in the 1970s broadening the definitions of child abuse and broadening the definitions of domestic violence to convince a pretty apathetic public and pretty apathetic policy community that domestic violence was a legitimate social problem that deserved a place on the policy agenda and the funding agenda and the institutional agenda. And to a certain extent we succeeded. We probably succeeded beyond our expectations, although it did take thirty years.

Having then succeeded, we now look and say, gee, you know, maybe we're diluting our efforts. Maybe the police don't have to show up to every household where there's screaming and yelling and hitting. Maybe in the effort to create this social problem we've lost sight of the battered women. In child abuse, it's do you want to keep kids from being spanked, or do you want to protect children who are at risk of being killed? And in domestic violence we're now grappling with that issue. You know, it's 2009, and we face the fact that resources are finite. They're never going to be -- I think we've now given up the idea that there'll be unlimited resources to deal with social issues and social problems. So now we have to be realistic about what is it we want to prevent? It gets back to when I started at the beginning: what are people entitled to? They're entitled to be safe. They're not necessarily entitled to live in conflict-free households. Kids are entitled to adequate parenting, but they're not entitled to great parenting. And the idea that government has a role in assuring great parenting or conflict-free marriages or equity between men and women I just think is not a viable position any more.

Question: Should healthcare reform have a public option?

Richard Gelles: Oh, I think the public option is essential. Everyone is entitled to health care. Everyone isn't entitled to every test under the sun. When you dig down and look at Medicare, it's pretty obvious the biggest funding, the biggest cost of Medicare -- which, by the way, is an efficient program; let's say right now the administrative costs of Medicare are two percent. You find me a program that runs on a two percent overhead rate, and I'll say that's an effective program. But the money spent on health care is all back-ended; the majority of the money is spent in the last two years of life. And are we making that investment in quality of life, in extending life, or is it defensive medicine to make sure we don't get sued? And you know, I'm not talking about death panels, but I'm talking about evidence-based medicine. And also for the first two years of life, in Medicaid, evidence-based medicine. There's not a lot of point in investing millions of dollars to create a low-quality life. So the front end of life and the back end of life, yes, health care is an entitlement. But every possible form of health care isn't an entitlement.

Recorded on: October 29, 2009