It takes a lot of families

by Janie B. Cheaney

Posted on Monday, December 29, 2014, at 4:22 pm

When candidate Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he took some flak for telling “Joe the Plumber” that his goal for the economy was to spread wealth around. Whether “spreading wealth” is a good idea or not, he clearly hasn’t done it. A new study from the left-leaning Pew Research Center indicates that the American middle class has been sinking steadily in income since 2007. Major news outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times have run articles suggesting the middle class is in serious trouble.

But, as Mark Twain remarked about the weather, everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Or rather, they propose conflicting solutions based on self-interest. America’s wealth was built on high-paying industrial jobs, say the labor unions—bring back industry and it will rise again. No, says the government: America’s wealth depends on enlightened federal intervention. But industrial jobs aren’t coming back and government intervention (it may be argued) is the very reason the middle class is sinking. If fortunes are to rise again, the foundation that supported it in the first place will have to be built up again.

That’s the family, of course. I say “of course” because the fact is obvious to most readers of this website, but a large number of public-policy experts seem blind to it. The benefits of family can’t easily be quantified on charts and graphs—they become apparent mainly by example and illustration. When I first began reviewing children’s books for, I discovered a lovely little novel written for middle schoolers that impressed me all the more with the necessity of family for any small-business model, and the economy in general.

In The Year Money Grew on Trees, 13-year-old Jackson receives a business offer from his elderly widowed neighbor: If Jackson would take over her late husband’s neglected hobby orchard of 300 apple trees, she’ll split the profit with him 50-50. Jackson knows nothing about husbandry; he gets his information first from books and then from experienced orchardmen. The advice is valuable, but equally vital to the enterprise is family: two siblings and two cousins who will work for the promise of reward and don’t demand anything up front. They’re a team—not always affable, but still a team, with a strong bond they barely understand even while it’s in operation. Employees are paid; family is compensated in ways that don’t show up on a ledger sheet, such as the strengthening of their bond through shared labor, adversity, and finally reward.

Building a business requires delayed gratification and mutual commitment—so does building a home and a steady income stream. These are family virtues that created the American middle class, and the only way to re-create it is to restore their glory.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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