Volunteering with the children of migrant workers, I get to see the human side of the grinding, global capitalist engine – the unceasing movement of labor and capital and the power of creative destruction. In Israel, the boom in the construction and service industries raised demand for labor, a demand that could no longer be met by the indigenous Arab population. Now, migrant workers from Africa and Southeast Asia perform difficult labor in the burgeoning industries of building or caring for the elderly. It’s a common story: the economic needs of the West are met by the flow of labor from the global south. But it’s also part of another, more familiar story about the changing nature of employment in an era that values innovation and entrepreneurship.
The entrepreneurial spirit, hailed by well-meaning liberals in TED Talks and well-funded conferences, and the fetishization of innovation demand the constant movement of labor and capital. A climate conducive to entrepreneurship requires a flexible labor market. In practice, a flexible labor market means shorter terms of employment, fewer benefits, and frequent firings and re-hirings: a routine familiar to migrant workers and the precariously employed. Firms accept rapid and drastic personnel changes as necessary measures to remain competitive in the global marketplace. For investors, members of the creative class, and consumers, the changes in the labor market and the increased emphasis on innovation mean increased profits and more options in the stores. For the working poor, flexible labor means increased precariousness and unpredictability – fewer employment benefits, frequent changes in employment status, and general economic uncertainty. In promoting innovation – in real estate, high tech, and other industries – on a large scale, the liberal capitalist West has increased volatility and consequently imperiled children’s futures.
In “Beyond Cumulative Risk: Distinguishing Harshness and Unpredictability as Determinants of Parenting and Early Life History Strategy,” development psychologists Belsky, Ellis, and Schlomer found that “more paternal transitions, moves, and employment transitions and lower income-to-needs ratios were associated with greater maternal depressive symptoms, less maternal sensitivity, and more adolescent lifetime oral and sexual intercourse partners.” The very conditions capitalism and innovation require – flexible labor, frequent moves, and personnel changes – negatively impact the children of workers.
Precariousness and economic unpredictability, which are now felt both by Western workers in today’s knowledge economy and by migrant workers in countries like Israel transitioning from industrial to post-industrial economies, directly lead to maternal depression and risk-taking behavior by children. “Low income-to-needs and greater environmental unpredictability in the first 4.5 years of life,” show Belsky, Ellis, and Schlomer, “each uniquely predicted increased maternal depressive symptoms across the toddler and preschool years, which itself predicted less maternal sensitivity during the middle-childhood years and, thereby, increased sexual activity in adolescence.”
The authors aren’t talking about the effects of trauma on mothers and children; they’re talking about common, nearly mundane facts of life under capitalism. Environmental unpredictability (paternal transitions (changes in the male parental figure), household moves, and parental employment changes). Environmental harshness (operationalized in terms of limited income relative to family needs (defined by number of individuals in the household) and environmental unpredictability in terms of, collectively, paternal transitions, residential changes, and parental job changes). And low income-to-needs ratio (an index of a family’s income as a proportion of the official federal poverty line for a family of that size).
We’ve known for a while that capitalism is depressing, but now we know it isn’t just hurting us: it’s hurting our kids, too. “Depression,” write Belsky, Ellis, and Schlomer, “mediates the effect of economic pressure on parenting, which in turn mediates the effect of both on child functioning.” The very attributes of the free market lauded by politicians, businessman, and liberal entrepreneurs are the characteristics that harm our children most, and leave them predisposed to risky behaviors that jeopardize their futures.
When I teach math to the children of migrant workers I see the effects of precariousness and environmental unpredictability first hand. You can’t care to memorize your times-tables if you don’t know if you’ll be living in the same place next month. You can’t worry about doing your homework when your household finances are deeply in the red. You can’t focus in class when your mother is depressed and your father is chronically absent. And no amount of charity can change this. The suffering will continue as long the champions of innovation and global competition, who sustain precariousness and economic unpredictability, dictate the terms of economic life.