They're both working, they're not meeting their payments and they're taking it out on each other."
BY MORRIS EDELSON
An interview with Charlene Torrest,
Sharon Hanan, and Sam Calderara, marriage and family counselors and psychotherapists at the Family Service Center.
Breakthrough: As counselors, how do
you see the economy affecting families,
particularly in the past six months?
Charlene Torrest: In marital counseling,
much of the time is taken up discussing
the money situation, arguments over
money and where money is being spent.
It's different from a few years ago, when
money wasn't tight. Couples are worrying about the next raise.
Sharon Hanan: Money problems don't
come up the first time a couple walks
in the room with a domestic problem,
but there's a general feeling of futility
that their efforts are not producing anything. They're both working and at the
end of the month they're not meeting
their payments and they are discouraged.
They take it out on each other. Their
frustrations are directed at the person
near to them and not on the job.
Sam Caldarera: Yes, statistically, family
violence has increased in the last year.
There is more fighting. People are angry
about a lot of things that happen in the
society and it boils over into their relationships.
Hanan: A feeling of helplessness to
change anything going on is at the
bottom of that and they reach out to
some other person for some kind of answer, and don't get it. Then they lash
Torrest: If it's a. one-salary family, there
is more burden on the breadwinner.
Shift workers are used to having eight
to 10 hours overtime, and they're not
getting it anymore. They're feeling the
pinch and they don't see how they can
pay for their bills. They get angry at
their wives, and violence occurs more.
Breakthrough: How do you deal with the
violence issue in your counseling?
Caldarera: We help people identify where
their angers arise. If people become aware
that they are really mad at their company, or that they are really mad about
prices going up, then they can avoid.
taking it out on their spouse. I work a lot
with men who have a tendency to get
angry and violent. I teach them to recognize it when it's still small and tell them
to get out of the house. Some of them go
Torrest: 'They 've lived in a plastic card socie ty.
jogging or beat on a tree with a baseball
bat, instead of beating up their wives
Hanan: When one person stays home,
that person is likely to see all the things
that aren't getting paid for. The woman
is usually in that position. She feels
frustrated and she expresses her frustration. The husband hears her saying he is
a failure. And really she is saying, "I
don't know what to do. I don't know,
how to handle my feelings." So one thing
we can do is help people hear each other's
feelings wifhout taking it as a personal
Breakthrough: Well, what about lowering
expectations? I mean, what if you just
tell people, relax, you can't afford it?
You can't have a new car. ..
Caldarera: I think people have already
faced that. It's not new cars. It's the
necessities. Rent has gone up. Food
has gone up. They are struggling with
utilities, day care . . .
Hanan: Day care costs a fortune. People
think, well, a second salary check will fix
our problem; usually the extra check
just barely covers the gasoline, clothes,
day care and expenses you have just in
order to show up at work. There's not
Caldarera: People are definitely spending
their money more carefully.
Hanan: They are sometimes forced to be
careful, because their credit rating has
been lost. We are getting many more
calls for financial counseling.
Torrest: But we are talking about people
who have never been through a depression, so they have an adjustment problem. They have lived in a plastic card
society where it has been easy to get
what they want, and a television sit-com
society where everyone has a new set of
clothes each week.
Breakthrough: If they aren't doing too
well, does the Houston boom depress
Caldarera: What I see about Houston's
expansion is that people are complaining about all the cars and pollution
more. Many of them are saying what a
hard time they have had on the freeway;
there is a lot of anger about it. People
talk about their fears of their houses
being broken into, of robberies. I have
had a number of clients say they won't
stay out after dark. Or walk in their own
Hanan: Sometimes we get people rushing
into town who think a job is just waiting
for them, a house is just waiting for them.
If they don't plan ahead of time, they can
get caught with some large bills. There
may be more jobs here, but costs are
high as well.
Hanan: Many people who move in are
already suffering depression because of
years of struggle somewhere else. They
arrive here in a bad state to begin with.
Caldarera: When we get clients, when
they finally call us, they are usually in a
crisis stage. We provide family and individual counseling and therapy. We ask
people to set their own goals and we try
Caldarera: "The family is coming back.'
to help them get to a place in their family, marriage or life that they want to be.
We try to make them aware of what is
bringing on their problems and what they
can do about it and what they can't do
about it. A lot of mothers, particularly
as single parents, have unrealistic expectations.
Torrest: The Super Mother syndrome-
attempting to be a wonderful parent,
available for carpooling, there when the
child gets sick, there when the child's
having fun, holding down a 40-hour job,
traveling back and forth, taking care of
the household as smoothly as when there
were two people in the house and
wanting about two hours a week for some
personal life. She comes to us saying,
"I don't know why I don't have time to
Hanan: A lot of men are supporting two
households, paying child support to a
previous set of children. And then they
have new children in another household.
Torrest: And as the economy goes down,
the child support check goes down, which
means more pressure on the single parent.
Breakthrough: So you try to help a
person become more realistic. Does that
help the client understand no matter
what they do, the economy is still bad?
Hanan: That's what we do. We help them
realize some things are in their control m
and some things aren't. It's facing reality.
Torrest: We're dealing with all sectors
here and you notice different reactions.
Poor people are always being thrown out
of jobs. The latest statistics say something
like 40% of black youths are out of
jobs. It's a horrendous figure and that
would be considered a depression certainly if that was across the board. But
we don't usually get those families-
they're used to hard times. We get families in the middle of changes, where
things were once good and are now not
so good. People that are used to it just
don't have the hopes that things can get
Caldarera: And we have professional
people coming in. Their income may
be higher, but their standard of living
is higher and on the inside they feel the
pressures, the same way. They have more
resources sometimes. But this trouble
is affecting everyone across the board.
I see a different attitude towards
marriage, a general feeling that two
incomes are better than one, so they are
staying in them longer.
Torrest: Sometimes the eonomic situation keeps them together, so they sort
out their problems, because they both
realize that individually they couldn't
have a house and car and the goodies
they can have together. So it's an economic motivation for them to stay together, and sometimes it's a negative motivation for couples that really would be
better off separated. Especially women
who may be in a physical or verbal abuse
situation and may have children and feel
no out because their skills are limited
and child care would have to be taken
care of. They feel trapped.
Hanan: We have been offering classes
in step parenting and single parenting
and people see that alternatives to the
family can be rough, that single parents
or step parents have a whole new set of
Torrest: Another economic effect we see,
it's so apparent we forget to comment
on it, is that people are a lot more
thoughtful about baby-making, because
they can't afford children just now.
Hanan: I think in the 60s people became
aware of population control efforts.
Breakthrough: How has this freedom
affected your women clients, as far as
their roles in the family are concerned?
Hanan: A lot of the women we see say
they are unhappy with their roles and
want to do something different. When
they start to question that, it causes
conflict in the marriage.
Torrest: I think it's the economic situation that pushes women into a working
role, but household attitudes haven't
changed, so she tries to be Super Mom,
Super Wife, Super Housekeeper. The
household forgets she is alread working
40 hours. She's expected to maintain
the house the same way. I had a woman
in my office yesterday who said, "My
mother-in-law keeps asking me why I
am not sewing, why I am not canning."
Then, we went through it. She leaves
the house at 6:30 a.m., drives an hour
and a half to work, drops the kids off
at a day care center. She doesn't get
back in the house until 6:30 at night.
For 12 hours, she is physically out of the
household. She gets a meal together,
throws in her laundry, takes a bath
and then it's bed time. And the other
generation expects her to can food.
Hanan: Men used to think it was a negative reflection on them if the wife
worked. Now it's, "I expect my wife to
work, but I also expect my wife to be
Hanan: "I have seen women running away.'
Caldarera: In some families, roles have
shifted. In a couple of cases, men take
kids after separations.
Torrest: Non-married couples are good
at that. But the few men that take on the
kids don't begin to equal the number of
single mothers who do.
Hanan: I have seen women running away,
just leaving husbands and kids, starting a
Breakthrough: Well, where are families
today? Are they all struggling to survive?
Or is there room for idealism, social
concerns and the general good anymore?
Torrest: Yes. It's a survival atmosphere.
Most are very family-centered. Very few
families come in with concerns that
override their own family situation, o
with concerns about the city, fo
example, other than the traffic on the
way to work. Traffic is a big complaint
Hanan: There is a trend to conservativ
politics and religion.
Caldarera: A lot of people are turning to
religion. And the family is coming back
into vogue as a place of security, a plac
where people listen and share. People said
the family was going down the drain, bu
it's evident that it is changing, bu
Hanan: One couple we had here has a
written legal contract, not a marriage
which describes in detail the partner'
duties and roles. That will be a different
but strong family.
Caldarera: People I see, either divorced
or single, are looking for someone to
hook up to. So human beings still have a
need to get together. Relationships are
still important. It's difficult to live in a
relationship and it's difficult to live
without it. That's a theme in most of my
single clients. They want support and
companionship. After the marriage, they
keep pining for the same thing.
The Family Service Center is currently
working with approximately 20,000
clients in the 13 locations and 14 social
service programs it operates. More than a
million people in the Houston area have
been introduced to its services which
include prevention of physical and sexual
abuse of children, marriage and family
counseling, a homemaker service for temporarily disrupted families and Plays for
Living with discussions to help organizations introduce discussions of problems
such as alcoholism, domestic violence,
and urban isolation. The FSC central
office is at 3635 West Dallas, and their
number is 524-3881.
them steadily. Even the majority of
poor female heads of household are
workers. On these, says Davidson,
"the present inflation crisis is having a
As for Smith's contention that non-
working welfare recipients remain unhurt by the current crisis, Davidson
points out that the typical AFDC payment has hardly increased since the
early 1960s, which means that continuing inflation has eroded the purchasing power of that payment by more
Economist Richard Parker, in a
Mother Jones review, identifies the
problem of recession as one of growing
economic inequality. Very few people are
still doing well in America, he finds: 2/3
of the national income and capital is held
by less than 1/3 of its population. If present trends of concentration continue, he
says, only 25 million people in the
country will receive 60% of the nation's
income. Parker places Americans in three
categories facing different problems worsened by recession: a "noneconomy" of
16 million people on welfare or retired; a
"subeconomy" of frequently laid off
iow-skilled workers, single women and
minority groups; and a middle class,
whose lives are slipping toward poverty.
Parker says that developments in the
economy may signal a coming collapse,
especially if trends toward inequality
continue. Among these he notes that
cost increases for necessities have run
as much as 25% higher than the increase
of the official measurement, the Consumer Price Index. Also white males in
their 40s continue to win income increases, alone of all the work force.
And taxes on business have fallen
in the past decade, while taxes on personal consumption and other levies on the
individual have risen proportionately.
We Have Bit the Bullet And It Is Us
Smith agrees that there is inequality.
Banks have greater market power than
individuals and companies. The institutional arrangement of the economy,
the laws of banking, makes it almost
beyond individual capability to stop
recession. Sacrifice is foolish-savings
"The public bit the bullet already
to stop inflation. It did slow in 1975
under Ford, and Carter came into office
with a very low rate. We should never
have gotten back into this problem."
No incentives, no savings, inflation
continues. Smith says, "We haven't
had an incentive to save in this country
for ages. We can't get the prime rate
for our savings--we can't even get a
return that matches the rate of inflation.
Thus, our savings rate in the Unitec1
States is only 3-5%, compared to moie
than 20% in Japan and 10% in West
Europe. So we spend, inflation goes
on until the government decides to use
unemployment as a way of slowing us
down. Unemployment is a heck of a
way to fight a recession!"
We can pull out of it, and even improve, says Smith. "Everytime something
bad happens, it is a chance for us to learn
something. We should see our system not
as the status quo, but as an evolving process, a changing way of doing things.
Even our banking system learns things.
We've come a long way from the 19th
century when banks printed their own
money. Even the Federal Reserve is better than what we used to have. Unemployment has focused us on the problem
so we should be able to change things
for the better, not just take up some
quick, superficial solution."
A Tunnel at the End of a Light
Smith even sees a slight improvement
immediately ahead, before the election,
and a recovery in 1981. But he is apprehensive about the more distant future:
"1990 looks bleak to me. I am concerned about the quality of life waiting
for me there. If prices and incomes are
going to triple, my retirement is going to
be peanuts and my life insurance worthless. I want a major step forward in the
economy, not a short-term solution,
influenced by politics that is no real
change and will make more suffer."
Our economic problems were avoidable, he says. "Recession is not inherent
in our system. It is always the result of
some specific policy. We get sucked in.
And the country is .not like our bodies.
We notice pain in our body immediately. The country doesn't notice it is
wounded until it gets faint."
Phil Russell, an Austin economist and
author of Mexico in Transition, calls recession an integral part of the American
economic system and bound to recur:
"When times are good," he says, "business bids for labor. Employment and
wages rise, so salaries cut into profits.
Productivity tends to fall during periods
of high employment, since workers who
are pushed or speeded up, can quit and
find another job. They walk off and get
something else across the street."
The falling rate of profit and the
saturation of available markets forces
companies to cut back. They can't sell
and can't produce for profit. Then the
recession comes on, when no new buyers
can be found and when productivity is
down. Recession is a way of disciplining
the work force:
"People on the streets will take anything, do anything, just to get a job and
they will try hard, be productive, to keep
Russell reminds us that recession is
not the only way to discipline workers.
Giving them a share of the business can
work just as well-in Germany and Japan,
where all energy needs are met by import,
there is presently negligible inflation and
unemployment, compared to the U.S.
Only a very small segment of business
would use these countries as a model,
since most corporations fear a power
struggle with their work force.
Change of some sort, Russell says,
agreeing with Parker and Smith on at
least one point, is inevitable. A severe
downturn always affects the quality of
life in America. "At the turn of the century we had a severe business failure
they called The Great Depression, until
the 1930s taught us what a depression
really was," he said. "From that first
near-collapse came the strong monopolies
that dominated our business
until the second Great Depression. The
New Deal response to that second period
of joblessness and production stoppage
was an increased government role in
which the government "regulated" or
assisted big business. Some call this
period state monopoly capitalism."
"Now," concluded Russell, "we are
at a new crossroads. The U.S. position of
absolute power, after World War II destroyed its possible rivals, has eroded. The
dollar is weak and exchange rates have
not worked. Something new is on the
way. The Tri-Lateral Commission, for
example, speaks openly of there being
too much democracy and thus inefficiency in some countries. American industry has not been proven competitive
against Japanese and German products.
New social developments certainly must
come in to restore even a minimal functioning of the market."
And all the experts agree primarily
that the one thing promised the American
people by the candidates, laissez-faire
capitalism, is the last thing the country
needs. People may either pray for a
sudden enlightment on the part of the
oil companies and others (after all, they
do bring us PBS!) or may hope that the
candidates don't intend to fulfill even the
most often heard pledges.