We have in our office an immigrant from Sierra Leone, a small country on the Atlantic coast of Africa. We had a lunchroom discussion one day about the various differences between how kids get raised in Sierra Leone versus how they're raised here in the US.
One of the points he brought up is something I've known for awhile: in more "traditional" societies, the whole family takes care of the children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, even cousins all take part. In fact, he said what you had to be careful of was to make sure you got a chance to raise your kids. Apparently, if you let them, your relatives will raise your kids so well they won't know who the hell you are.
America used to be like this. Big extended families, which stayed in the same place for generations at a time, were commonplace, especially before WWII. If a mother was having trouble with a baby she simply walked over to her own mother's house for help. A cousin could be drafted to watch the toddlers while an uncle took the oldest son to the fields or store to learn the family trade. Daycare was a non-issue, since you had a huge supply of free or nearly free family members who wanted to help. The elderly didn't need to worry about their future either, as the web of family relationships formed a safety net as they stopped being able to care for themselves.
The changes began slowly, with the invention of the automobile and accellerating in the 1930s, as a national roadway system started to be built, first with privately owned turnpikes and parkways1, and then later with the national interstate system.
It was this freedom of movement that created suburbia. Before, a new family starting out, say, in a big city would first move into a small apartment, all they could afford with the high housing prices so common in an urban environment. Only slowly, with increasing incomes and the demise of older generations, would larger and larger houses that are the hallmark of the American dream be within reach.
The automobile and the improving road network short-circuited this process. What would get you a one bedroom apartment in a fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan was more than enough to secure a two bedroom freestanding house, complete with enough land to form a sizeable yard, in Levittown.
Of course, the elders of the family already had what they wanted in the cities or the farms, and they weren't about to move out just because their kids found a cheap house. Suddenly your mother and aunts and uncles and cousins weren't next door, they were a two-hour drive away. Childcare became a real issue because you didn't know and couldn't trust neighbors with your kids.
At first life was cheap enough that you could halve your income and leave one member of the family, mom, home at all times. But without the support net of the extended family mom slowly went insane. I often wonder if the women's movement arose in part as a reaction to the sudden and unprecedented requirement of 24x7 childcare from a single human being. And of course as life got more and more expensive you simply couldn't afford to have half of your income potential working for free at home.
Mobility didn't just affect individuals; it affected the corporations that employed them. Suddenly you didn't need your entire factory in one spot. You could distribute it in pieces wherever costs or environment or opportunity presented the best deal. The company would usually offer to move your family where the work was, but now instead of a two hour drive you had a two day drive, and now the kids were only seeing grandma twice a year. Sometimes you didn't get moved and the only place you could find work was on the other side of the country.
This affected the other end of the family as well. Before modern medicine, grandparents would usually stick around long enough to help get the grandkids past their first eight or nine years, and then move on to whatever reward their religion promised them. The ones who stayed around longer were always healthy enough not to be a burden, the ones who weren't, well, died.
Advanced geriatrics changed all that. Suddenly families were confronted with the task of taking care of an elderly member who was every bit as much work as the kids they were supposed to be helping out with. Rest homes aren't callous warehouses for inconvenient elderly, they're daycare for people whose problems are too complex for a family with children to handle by themselves.
Of course, the cities didn't just dry up and blow away. For immigrants, they are usually the start-point of the American experience.
One of the reasons why immigrants seem to do so well in the inner cities where "natives" seem to fail is it allows them to transplant their own support net of extended family members into an environment that was grown to suit it. Everything's within walking distance and there's plenty of relatively small, tolerable places to live. The parents can hold down three jobs each because they've brought the grandparents (healthy, otherwise they wouldn't have survived in the old country) to take care of the kids. And in spite of what you may have read in the international media, if you're willing and able to work that hard there's very little America can do to stop you from becoming successful, even if we wanted.
And that's the engine that drives this place. That's why we're so amazingly powerful and innovative and resilient. Every gangster or terrorist or malcontent the papers bray about hides the dozens of Asians and Africans and Europeans who are busting their asses to make it here. At one point we may have been a dumping ground, but the miracle of America is how we've managed to turn that on its head. Today we're the recipient of every hardheaded self-starter who couldn't make it back home because they were the wrong class, the wrong caste, the wrong color, or the wrong family.
Before America these people would've ended up on the discard pile, never even allowed the chance to fail, let alone succeed. Not everyone does. This is no paradise. Nothing is ever given to you and there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of clever people doing their level best to make sure you don't get anything for yourself. But you are given a chance.
And for some people, a chance is all they need.