On American Norms of Familial Support

Roughly a week ago I found out I’d gotten an on-campus job for the upcoming academic year, letting me take advantage of my eligibility for Federal Work-Study (FWS). As I would have otherwise been operating sans-income for a minimum of 9 months, I was ecstatic. Even just 20 hours per week of minimum wage(ish) convenience store clerking will be the difference between comfortably making student loan payments and enjoying a decent beer every once in a blue moon and holding on for dear life while eating nothing but instant noodles.*

But there is something a bit perverse about me being on FWS, and I’m wondering if the fact that I am isn’t indicative of a, from a social utility perspective, sub-optimal (and possibly incoherent) set of social norms in America regarding personal responsibility and independence. As an independent tax-filer there’s no question that I’m eligible for FWS, and I’m phenomenally grateful to be able to take advantage of its existence in order to minimize the amount of debt I have to take on and the amount of financial worry I have to experience. But as my parents’ son there’s really no need for me to be on FWS – they could easily afford to spot me the extra cash I’ll earn.

So isn’t my taking Federal money a socially sub-optimal outcome? Wouldn’t the U.S. population as a whole be better off if I took my parents’ money, leaving my FWS grant available for someone else without access to family support? But of course I have no intention of doing that, because I have deeply internalized the narrative that this is a country in which getting by on handouts from one’s family is an unacceptable way to achieve success. Making it through an undergraduate degree with some level (full, partial, etc.) of parental support seems to have been reasonably well-integrated as part of the American Dream, insofar as parents aspire to be able to afford to send their children to expensive prestigious institutions of higher education. But subsidizing the life of somebody in their mid-twenties seems to be definitively beyond the boundaries of acceptability. We’re adults by then, and the cultural expectation is that we will be supporting ourselves and living lifestyles commensurate with however much it is we happen to be able to make. The potential disconnect comes when you mash this up with American views about government aid – deeply-embedded in the American psyche is the idea that support from the state should only go to those who truly need it.** And if you consider me as part of my larger family unit, I definitely do not, but if you consider me as part of my larger family unit at this age, then I am just another mooch, living beyond his means thanks to parental largess.

If you limit the scope of inquiry to something like “financing graduate education” then it seems pretty clear that a socially optimal set of norms would allow for better-off families to support their children’s further education without marking those offspring as lazy dependents. At the very least the result would be a more useful distribution of limited state resources. But I wonder if it would be possible to adopt the norm of parental support deeper into adulthood without costs in other areas. How deeply does the vaunted American entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm for risk-taking that’s credited with underpinning our dynamic society and economy depend on a culture that prizes independence and self-reliance in all areas? I don’t really have a strong intuition one way or the other – perhaps a norm of greater parental support deeper into adulthood would act as something like start-up capital, allowing young people to pursue all kinds of riskier projects that nevertheless carry greater economic or social benefits. I suppose in a few years I might be one data point in service of an answer; in the meantime I will profusely thank Uncle Sam for FWS.

*I perhaps exaggerate slightly for dramatic effect
**As an aside, you could argue that much of the difference between Conservatives and Liberals when it comes to government social programs is in defining what counts as true need