I hadn't realized just how widespread the concept of "filial responsibility" is in American jurisprudence. It turns out that 28 states have laws on the books that state that children are responsible for the care of their elderly parents. A brief NYT post explains:
The rationale, which you can trace back as far as ancient Roman law, is that children have a duty to care for parents. The law sees this as a matter of ethics and reciprocity: Your parents took care of you as children; now it’s your turn to take care of them.
At one time, filial responsibility laws were far more common. As recently as the 1950s, 45 states and the federal government had them on the books. They began to erode during the New Deal, when the Social Security Act passed and the concept of government rather than familial responsibility started to take hold.
But 28 states still have filial responsibility laws: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.
Sixteen of these impose civil penalties — they can come after your assets or income if you fail to support your parents. In the eight states where filial responsibility entails criminal penalties, a prosecutor could actually put you in jail. Four states take both approaches.
In Massachusetts, for instance, someone who “unreasonably neglects” to support a parent who is destitute or too infirm to maintain himself could face up to a year in prison plus a $200 fine.
Who knew? As a Massachusetts resident. I guess I should be relieved that I did not "unreasonably neglect" my mother and her end of life care. At the time, I was wholly ignorant of the law but struggling to do the right filial thing. It would all depend, I imagine, on how the lawyers define "unreasonable neglect"...
The article goes on, however: "But filial responsibility laws are very rarely enforced; 11 of the 28 states that have them have never used them."
"Filial responsibility," would seem to be more of a principle than a practice, at least in the legal sense. And if that is the case, then the US is not a Confucian society (surprise!) because Confucianism requires that we actually perform our duties.
But in fact Americans, quietly and out of the media spotlight, do perform their familial duties. A 2009 survey (pdf!) suggests that "caregiving" is very prevalent in the US:
In the past 12 months, an estimated 65.7 million people in the U.S. have served as unpaid family caregivers to an adult or a child. About 28.5% of the respondents surveyed reported being caregivers.
"Caregiving" here is defined as caring for an adult or a child with special needs, not routine child care.
So, maybe we are more Confucian than we realize. Maybe "filial responsibility" laws are not enforced because most people most of the time do what they can to care for their family members. Of course there are instances of neglect and abuse, and these must be attended to by legal authorities. But for most of us it might be that this excerpt from Analects 1.2 rings true:
The noble-minded cultivate roots. When roots are secure, the Way is born. To honor parents and elders - isn't that the root of Humanity?