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Sigmund Freud, Welfare Policy and the Penn State Scandal

July 15, 2012

The conviction of Jerry Sandusky and ongoing investigation into who at Penn State knew what, when they knew it, and what they did about it may be an opportunity for reflection on how it is that a predator had so many potential targets to victimize.  Without delving into how a predator operates in every possible case, one can make some assumptions about the victims of this particular abuser.  His victims often came into his hands through ‘The Second Mile Foundation‘ that he founded.  Without knowing the demographic specifics of this particular population, one may infer that ‘at-risk’ and ‘underprivileged’ children often come from what used to be called ‘broken homes’ where the father is absent.  That such children are also at risk for abuse is something that many have observed, not the least among them being Sigmund Freud, who noted in ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ that the best protection for a child is a father in the home.

Public policy has encouraged, since the advent of ‘no-fault’ divorce in 1969 (pioneered in California and signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan) and changes to child support law culminating with provisions of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, passed by Republican majorities in Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.  Provisions of the latter law require a father to be named on every birth certificate and are intended to require the father to support his child.  so far, so good.  However, the law’s unintended consequences, in an age of out-of-wedlock birth and no-fault divorce, is to make it fairly easy for a woman to secure child support from her child’s father without having to marry him.  At least some of the economic benefits of marriage are available to her, along with an array of welfare benefits, without her having to trouble herself with maintaining a marital relationship.  This encourages fatherlessness.

Aside from  the variety of social pathologies associated with fatherless households, children raised in them are vulnerable.  They are easier prey for monsters like Sandusky than are children under a father’s protection.  Freud understood this simple truth, as do countless others without academic degrees.  it is merely a matter of common sense.  However, we often become blinkered by the convulsions accompanying long-running policy debates, often as divorced fro  the real world as arguments about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. (That question, by the way, was understood to be a purely academic exercise in logic, not a matter of serious theology.)  The end result is often, as in this particular situation, a policy ostensibly designed to help children but which hurts them (by encouraging fatherlessness), some of them very much (fatherless victims of child predators).

Child support and family welfare are policy topics encompassing many factors not touched upon in this brief discussion.  What is intended here is to show how the unintended consequences of a well-intended policy can lead to the opposite of what was desired, and to catastrophic consequences for some of those it affects.  The often esoteric realms of ivory-tower social science policy wonkage can often benefit from a dose of plain common sense, as is evident when the matter is so elemental as encouraging the formation and preservation of two-parent families.



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