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Aging Parents and the Limits of the Welfare State

Recently the Washington Post ran a heart-rending story about Chinese parents, too old to conceive, whose only children have died:

In quiet and often-tearful interviews, more than 30 parents who have lost their only child described lives of emptiness and depression so deep that some have contemplated suicide. Almost all characterized their child’s death as a crippling financial blow because China’s elderly tend to depend heavily on their children to supplement modest government pensions. Many noted bitterly the enormous resources that the government has plowed into the enforcement of the one-child policy, creating a new wing of bureaucracy down to the township level.
America, thankfully, is not China, where government policy dictates the number of children a couple can have. But I hope that this scenario in the Post is not a portent of the future here. Our national birthrate has dropped in the last few decades, leading to a diminished social security worker-beneficiary ratio. In 1950, there were nearly 17 workers for every one beneficiary. Today, there are two workers for every one beneficiary. Fewer children, a diminution of funds paid into Social Security and the sky-high costs of Medicare call into question the long-term financial ability of the nation to provide for the material needs of our senior citizens. But there is another, deeper issue here: even if the welfare state perfectly assumed the financial burden of caring for the elderly, it cannot fill the void left by the absence of filial love. As deeply concerned as these Chinese parents are for their material condition, their truer, deeper pain comes from the absence of a loving child-parent relationship, one characterized by companionship, conversation, grandchildren, etc. The question pounds in their head: who will take care of me when I am old and alone? The situation in China illustrates a major problem of the welfare state: the presence of a government safety net, while providing for an immediate material need, discourages the type of long-term beneficial personal relationships that no government program can replicate. The other obvious example of this pathology in America is the inner-city black family. 73% of African-American births today are out of wedlock, a trend that Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan first began to notice in the 1960s, as the federal social safety net expanded. Accompanying these out of wedlock births are high rates of crime, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and imprisonment. And as Nick Schulz outlines in his new short book “Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure,” the trends Moynihan first noticed in the 1960s now ring true for white and Hispanic families in America today. Is it a stretch to suggest that an absentee father is more comfortable fleeing the nest precisely because he knows that the government will provide food, healthcare and housing subsidies to his children, even when he won’t? Likewise, as public assistance for the elderly has grown significantly, I suspect many boomers and Millennials pacify their conscience with the notion that the government will be the primary caretaker for our parents in their old age. This is especially true when we consider the high level of geographic mobility that American citizens enjoy. The notion that children must care for their parents is affirmed in scripture. In 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “The church should care for any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God very much.” James 1 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” I saw this lived out when I was 17, when my parents took in my 83-year-old grandmother to live with us. At the time, she was sick with kidney disease, frail and failing. She thought the TV remote was the telephone. She told confused, endless stories about World War II. Though it inconvenienced everyone in my family, and though it would have been easier to let Medicare pay for a nursing home and visit her occasionally, there was no other conscionable choice but to let her come live with us. My grandmother just wanted to die a dignified death at home, where she belonged, and she passed on within the month. Afterward, my respect for my own parents grew. How I will care for my parents in their old age will prove just how much.