I’ve mentioned here in the past conversations I’ve had with (white) teachers and others who serve the black underclass in my part of the world. The thing that always jumps out at me is how foreign the culture they describe is to me, and what I take as normative. “It’s like another universe,” one told me. The teachers I’ve spoken to, in particular, describe intense frustration trying to reach the black kids in their classrooms. They say the things that most middle-class people, white and black, respond to do not apply to the black underclass, by and large. In their various accounts, a picture emerges of people whose cultural values and beliefs lock them into chronic poverty. One teacher friend who quit her job because she felt she couldn’t get anywhere with the kids said that none of them believed that hard work, good grades, and self-discipline would make any difference in their lives. They were entirely passive, expecting nothing out of life, or from themselves, she said. The futility of her teaching efforts finally wore her down, she told me.
I understood better what they meant after reading this Dana Goldstein review of a new book about the lives of inner-city fathers. Here’s how it starts:
When 15-year old Andre Green found out that his ex-girlfriend, Sonya, was pregnant with his child, he was living with six members of his extended family in a small row house in Camden, New Jersey. His mother was a drug addict. His father, in Andre’s words, was a “dog” who had never even told Andre that he had several half-brothers kicking around the neighborhood. (The boy found out gradually, when he noticed similar-looking children in school and at the supermarket, and asked them who their father was.) Yet despite his poverty, lack of parental support, and the fact that his romantic relationship with Sonya had ended, Andre was excited—even thrilled—to become a father.
“I was like, “Yes! Thank you, Jesus!” he told sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson. Indeed, within several months of his daughter’s birth, Andre had dropped out of school to become Jalissa’s primary caregiver. He took great pride in keeping her well fed, nicely dressed, and even taking her to church. There, despite his youth and joblessness, Andre was celebrated as a devoted dad. “People say, ‘Oh Andre, you’re doing a beautiful job,’” he told the researchers. “They’re like, ‘Andre, I’m very proud of you.’”
Why isn’t unwed teen parenthood more stigmatized in low-income communities? Eight years ago, Edin and her writing partner, Maria Kafalas, overturned stereotypes about inner-city single mothers with their book Promises I Can Keep. That study showed that many single mothers celebrated and even planned their serial out-of-wedlock pregnancies, not because they were “welfare moms” looking for a government paycheck, but because in neighborhoods in which college, satisfying careers, and financially stable marriages seemed to be little more than fantasies from television and the movies, motherhood provided the crucial, emotionally satisfying transition into adult life.
Now, in Doing the Best I Can, Edin and Nelson have returned to the streets of Philadelphia and Camden to tell unwed fathers’ side of the story. The results, from a seven-year study of 205 men, all earning less than $16,000 per year, are no less extraordinary, calling into question the caricature of the “deadbeat dad.” Like Andre Green, many poor men will overcome daunting personal challenges to spend time with their children, even as they fail to live up to middle-class norms of the father as provider and moral role model.
Poor, single dads have a lot in common with their female counterparts. Both young men and young women in these neighborhoods see forgoing contraception as a key sign of sexual trust and fidelity, and they demonstrate little anxiety about unexpected pregnancy—a surprising notion for many middle-class Americans, who viscerally fear the loss of educational, career, and romantic opportunities that premature parenthood brings. Far from disdaining marriage, low-income single parents have fully absorbed mainstream cultural messages about what that institution should entail: two good jobs, home ownership, and a “soul mate” kind of love. Because these goals appear impossible for people living hand-to-mouth at the bottom rung of the American economy, however, men told the researchers that marriage is generally off the table as a realistic lifestyle. Indeed, they mistrust women, whom they see as enforcers of middle-class earning expectations they cannot meet. The love these men feel for their children is far stronger than any romantic connection they’ve made with those children’s mothers.
Goldstein goes on to say that this book “proves” that marriage promotion programs can’t work absent low-income men getting “the education, health care (both physical and mental), and jobs they need to contribute to family life.” So, we can’t expect men and women to marry and subordinate their own desires to fidelity and family until and unless material conditions change? It’s a wonder that anybody ever got married before we had free public education, good health care, and an industrial economy.
Look, I get that material circumstances have a lot to do with marriage and marital stability. But Goldstein dismisses the power of culture. Why are these men so poorly educated, such that they are unemployable? Goldstein writes that middle-class readers will be “confused” by the the social mores the inner-city people embrace, especially “the rampant unprotected sex and joy at news of unplanned pregnancies.” Well, yeah. If these men and women value sex without contraception so much, and welcome childbearing out of wedlock, then they should not be surprised that one effect of this is to lock future generations into the same cycle of poverty and disorder. All the sex education and free condoms in the world won’t matter a bit against a culture that tells people that condom-free sex is a sign of emotional trust and intimacy.
Almost nobody who lives like this ever rises out of it to build a stable, prosperous life for themselves and their families. As Goldstein conceded “doing the best that I can” is a cop-out, because it’s not good enough: these guys are putting all the hard work of raising a child on the women they impregnate, but do not stick around to help.
A few years ago, in Dallas, I wrote a story about Trey Hill, a white Christian man who had been raised in wealth and privilege, but who lived in one of the poorest parts of Dallas, serving as a missionary to poor black and Hispanic children. Read the whole story. Here is the part I’m thinking about this morning:
The despairing public school teacher contends that school authorities constantly lean on him and his colleagues to be culturally sensitive, but nobody has the courage to tell these kids that the hip-hop culture they’ve embraced – one that idealizes sex, drugs and gangsters and looks down on hard work, study and self-restraint – all but dooms them to failure.
“Yeah, I see that,” Trey says resignedly. He prefers the term “poverty culture” but agrees that hip-hop artists are evangelists for a toxic, self-defeating worldview and that their youthful converts are legion. We concede that the same hedonistic materialist values many north Dallas whites disdain in hip-hop music are embraced north of the Trinity too, in a more socially acceptable guise.
Still, Trey insists, public school teachers and other adults of all races who know right from wrong, and who have daily contact with urban minority kids, can’t abandon the fight. If they won’t tell these lost kids the truth in love, and let them know there’s more to life than what he calls “ghetto nihilism,” who will?
“The culture you grow up in is stronger than a lot of people realize,” Trey says. “If I had been raised in this community in a single-parent home, with few examples of success around me, I probably would have dropped out of high school, like 65 percent of our [West Dallas] kids will do. Culture is captivating. It’s powerful. There’s a force behind it that seems to capture all of our kids.”
In the end, he emphasizes, it’s difficult for people north of the river or in the suburbs to understand the degree of dysfunction in inner-city lives. Eighty-five percent of the kids Mercy Street ministers to have no father in the home. How do you tell people to bootstrap their way out of the ghetto when they don’t even know what a bootstrap is?
“The only way [for these youths] to succeed is to say, ‘OK, there is injustice in the world, but now we have a chance, and the only way we can take advantage of that chance is by studying hard and working hard and making wise choices,’” he says. “But I don’t see a lot of people saying that.”
Trey no longer identifies exclusively with the GOP, and, unlike some Republicans, he has come to believe that government has a role to play in the inner city. But he also says that what the poor need most, the state cannot provide.
“The government cannot change a heart and a mind,” he says. “You look around here, you see a lot of nice new rooftops. They razed a lot of the old projects. They’ve replaced those with nice, townhouse-style housing developments. I’m grateful for that, but the statistics in our community haven’t changed a bit. You have to ask why.”
Hill also told me that the mindset of the inner-city black and Hispanic kids is one of the things that holds them back the most. They see the success of middle-class, mostly white, people on the other side of the Trinity River, and they believe those people achieved success by exploiting poor minority communities. They think the game is rigged, that they have no chance at improving their own lives by changing their own ways of thinking, and their own behavior. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How do you save young people from their own culture? What is the solution here? I have no idea, but I know that any real solution has to start by recognizing the nature of the problem.