The Invisible Order of the Black Family: Part 2

Part 2: “Swapping” as an Entrepreneurial Response to Poverty

(Read Part 1 here.)

The central response to poverty observed by Carol Stack in All Our Kin was the formation of kin networks based on de facto acts of motherhood and the willingness of fathers to take responsibility for their children, whether in or out of wedlock. These kin networks formed the basis for the use of reciprocal exchange to extend the effective size of the household in “The Flats.” An interesting exercise for EconLib readers while reading this book is to find the ways that Stack might have better understood those exchanges if she had a background in basic microeconomics.

Stack devotes an entire chapter to what she terms “swapping.” Faced with deep deprivation, nothing can go to waste or sit idly, whether a physical object or the time of residents. The solution is what Stack terms an “intricately interwoven” system of exchange through which resources, including time, are given to others in the community with the expectation that they will reciprocate at some point in the future. It is tempting to see this as mutual gifting or barter, but the swapping of The Flats is better understood as a sophisticated form of credit. If you received resources from other members of the community, the expectation was that you would reciprocate. Stack defines the swapping process as the exchange of “any object or service offered with the intent of obligating” (1974, 34). These exchanges could involve anything from household objects like a TV or coffee pot, to things like clothing or cash, but also to services such as childcare and housing. Most strikingly, children were frequently moved from house to house over the course of their childhood as it became easier for one or another relative to care for them. Note how this challenges the standard idea that a family exists within one household.

The economic function of swapping is that it became a way to reallocate resources to those who needed them most at any particular time. Stack sometimes implies that this swapping wasn’t “productive,” but from a subjectivist perspective, all of these exchanges were mutually beneficial and utility-enhancing. Economically, this sort of exchange behavior can be seen in three complementary ways. First, it is a form of credit, as Stack’s use of the phrase “with the intent of obligating” suggests. Those who have objects or time or space that is greater than their current needs can “save” by providing those resources to others with the expectation of being able to draw on that saving later in the form of resources from the recipient. Second, swapping can be seen as a way of minimizing the “idleness” of resources. A typical middle-class family might think nothing of having a closet full of clothes that are there in case we want them. In a poor community, unworn clothes would be seen as wastefully idle. They could be put to a more valuable use by being worn by other members of the community. Clothing not currently being used was fair game for swapping. One can extend this analysis to other household objects as well as household space and the time of community members. If some kin find themselves with the time to care for the child of other kin who are struggling, they will do so with the expectation of reciprocation down the road.

Finally, swapping’s main economic effect was extending the effective size of a household to the entire network of kin. What swapping does is to enable people to draw on a larger range of other people and resources as inputs into household production. Whether taking the form of financial resources, objects like a couch or clothing, or time devoted to child care, swapping enables residents of “The Flats” to not be limited to what is available within the four walls of their homes for household production. Living space, childcare, and other resources can come from anyone or anywhere within their personal kindred. The combination of large personal kindreds and swapping enabled families to have access to more resources, both human and material, than a superficial approach might suggest.

The message of All Our Kin was not that the Black family was “just fine.” Rather it was that in order to understand how social institutions actually operate, we need to be willing to challenge our pre-existing categories, and try to understand how the people themselves see their situation and what sorts of steps they are taking to ameliorate it. The synoptic, statistical data-driven perspective of governments, often combined with an uncritical acceptance of their own experiences of institutions like the family as both descriptively and prescriptively “normal,” can hide the myriad ways that entrepreneurial humans respond to the challenges of poverty. The result in the 1960s was an overstatement of the dysfunctionality of Black families, creating a problematic cultural meme that would persist and negatively affect policy making for decades.