Opinion: One Child Spells Need To Rewire Our Future

To understand what has happened and why, we need to begin with an everyday reality in the story of one elementary student.

Mary is obviously intelligent and last year was fun to be around. This year is different. Now, she is withdrawn and too often absent entirely. Her teachers are concerned so they contact a local community agency working in the neighborhood. 

The agency sends a community health worker to Mary’s apartment, who finds a family in trouble. Dad had an amputation a year ago because of severe diabetes and has been out of work since. Mom is working three jobs while trying to hold the family together. Mary is the oldest of four siblings, the two youngest haven’t started school. Dad is watching the younger children while Mom works but he is increasingly despondent and has begun drinking. They no longer have a connection to the medical community. They are increasingly alone in their neighborhood. Soon they will not have a place to live. 

No matter how much accountability we pile on schools, education can’t fix this problem. No matter how many medical referral systems and resource lists we supply doctors, medical science has little to offer. Human service agencies can restore community health, but they are fragmented, rule-bound, underfunded and alone. 

Mary’s family has complex problems that grow from loss of opportunity. Nonetheless, the best system to care for Mary is her family. The best system to support her family is her community. In better times, communities were stronger with more accessible pathways to opportunity. 

A 2018 World Bank Group economic mobility report showed upward mobility in the United States dropping from 90% for my generation to 40% for those born in 1980. Mary’s generation of 2010 will be much lower. None of this was intentional but it was predictable given what we know today.

Since the mid-1980s, communities everywhere have been increasingly unable to create opportunities for a growing segment of their people. The importance, duration and scale of this failure is daunting because community is the primary developer of human capital - the source of everything we value.

From our prior position leading the world, the United States fell to ninth place by 1990 and in 2016 ranked 27th. Human capital is a composite measure of the health and the actual capability of our workforce. It defines our maximum potential as a nation. As it falls, our future falls with it. 

In August, Gabriel Zucman in the Annals of Economic Review showed wealth inequality as high as it was in 1928. The disparity between economic productivity and family income continues to increase. 

Systems work against good people who find themselves with no reserves and falling into desperation and homelessness. A permanent underclass is forming in communities across the country. 

We began this journey in the 1970s with the rise of a strain of individualism positing that everyone was personally responsible for themselves and an economic philosophy that equated money as real value. We believed in competition at all levels; the powerful and wealthy were beacons of success to follow in our solitary journey to self-creation. 

This was nothing more than the philosophical musings of a small and influential group of powerful people. What we know from empirical science is quite different: the best scientific model of reality is not independence. On the contrary, the natural world at every level is interdependent. 

As individuals, we have varying levels of autonomy, but our survival is completely dependent on relationships. Relationships with the natural world, our institutions and each other create our choices. 

The biology humanity comes from builds on mutually supporting networks of real value. Real value has specific content and context that helps the organisms involved. Survival requires “fitting in” more than dominance. Species not useful to others go extinct. For human networks, real value is usefulness to others. 

Biological and human systems are robust and resistant to failure when they are resilient (many different ways to do the same thing) and redundant (many doing the same thing). As robustness falls, networks are prone to cascading failure in which weak links break while transferring unsustainable loads to the adjacent network.

The potential of failure grows in places we think insignificant – and can rapidly take down everything. This is why our destruction of nature is so dangerous. It is why the holes created in the fabric of community by the loss of opportunity for average Americans is so risky. Both lead to cascading failure. 

The real problem in all of this, and why we have grown systems leaving 29% of the population behind, is our relationship with money.

Contrary to widespread belief, money does not have a real value. It has no intrinsic content and context; it is whatever its holder chooses. Money in human society is a physics analog of energy when stored, or power when used. All relationships require power to work but as a required resource, not a purpose. A focus on money can make a lot of money without producing any real value.

When we favor big business with energy and power while community languishes without resources, we put the entire edifice at risk. At every level, our focus should be on creating and supporting networks of real value; these are nature’s way to true prosperity. Aggregation of power alone is inherently corrupting because its displacement of real value leads to cascading failure.

The good news is we can use today’s knowledge of systems and digital networks to rewire our community. New systems supporting collaboration around shared care plans can align real value toward opportunity and desired outcomes. Little by little we can move the primary focus from finance to a more productive and stabilizing focus on real value. We can incrementally tune human networks to create real opportunities for everyone, and in the process create a sustainable future. 

Or we can do nothing, and let nature take its course.

Either way, Mary is our future.

Michael Rohwer is executive director of Curandi and a member of The Lund Report's board of directors. You can reach him at [email protected].


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