In the “Poor and Foolish” thread, I put this Note From Rod on a reader’s comment:

[NFR: …If you are living in poverty, and cannot afford to have more babies, or your having babies would be a heavy burden on the children you already have, then you are a fool if you continue to have sex, or continue to have sex without contraception. Period. The end. I cannot even believe this is a point of contention. People are not animals; we have free will. — RD]

A reader named Maria filed this thoughtful and informative comment in response:

Rod, I agree with you on almost everything, but this is one of those times that I don’t (though of course people aren’t animals and have free will), after working as a yearlong, full-time volunteer/case manager for low-income pregnant and parenting women in Washington, D.C.

It all comes down to sex. There is a huge difference in the way most lower-income people with whom I worked thought about sex and the way my friends and I grew up thinking about sex.

I grew up in an upper-middle class family with two stable, loving, working, married parents. Besides learning in this environment and in Catholic schools that sex and marriage (or at least commitment) go together, I learned from a very early age that I have agency over my choices regarding sex, that having sex has consequences that could deter me from pursuing what I want out of life: an education, a career, a stable environment, a healthy family, spiritual integrity.

Most importantly, I learned by how I was treated at home and by the example of my parents that I have inherent value regardless of what anyone thinks of me, regardless of whether I’m in a relationship or not. I learned that I should HAVE goals in the first place.

The women I worked with in D.C. — many of whom continued getting pregnant and having kids after multiple fathers had ended up abandoning them or in jail — did not grow up understanding sex in this way, nor did they grow up cultivating a healthy self-esteem in the way I had.

Many of them did not grow up with fathers, and were never taught that “hey, you’re a beautiful person; you don’t need to have sex with the first guy who comes around and makes you feel special.” Many of them were abused – physically/emotionally/sexually – as children, which impacted how they viewed themselves and their own sense of agency. Most did not seem to know what a healthy relationship was or think that it was possible for them to have one.

The biggest thing – many of the young women had never seen another example in their own families or communities! They had never SEEN their mothers or sisters or fathers decide, “hey, these lifestyle decisions aren’t healthy, I’m going to make some better choices.” One woman – mother of 6 small children who had 2 or 3 different fathers between them- once flat-out asked me about my own experiences, and was utterly SHOCKED when I told her I hadn’t had sex yet, even though I have a boyfriend. She wasn’t disrespectful or condescending, she was just shocked; she hadn’t seen it done before. The choice not to have sex is never presented as an option! (It should also be noted that many of the men feel that condoms are emasculating or just refuse to use them, leaving the burden of contraception entirely on the woman.)

One 16-year-old mom who dropped out of school to take care of her baby and is living with her boyfriend (who also dropped out of school and works more than full-time) has birth control that is causing her to be depressed and even suicidal at times, but she said she can’t use condoms because she’s allergic to latex, and she thinks if she told her boyfriend she wanted to stop having sex for a while, he would dump her and move along to the next girl. Right now, he is the only support she and her baby have. She was born outside the U.S. but came here as a child, and because she didn’t finish high school, she’s not eligible for the Dream Act benefits for the right to work in the U.S. Meanwhile, she can’t find daycare for her baby, so she can’t return to school. She’s utterly stuck. What’s going to happen to her? Her baby is likely going to grow up thinking that “stuck” is default.

I don’t mean this as a lecture but just wanted to voice some of the things I’ve seen in this regard. I realize I’ve gotten away from the original thread discussion.

I totally reject the left’s “whenever you feel ready, consent is all that matters, just use protection!” approach to sex and agree with you that stable, two-parent families (assisted by economic opportunity and good education) is really the only solution to these types of problems. I just don’t think you can dismiss people as fools when they have grown up thinking in a completely different way about sex and inevitability.

I really appreciate this comment. It reminds me of something a friend of mine who taught in a rural school in the Deep South told me once about her middle-school students. All of them were poor, all were black. She herself was once a welfare mom during a hard period of her life, and felt a special burden in her heart to help these kids avoid what she went through.

She told me that it was incredibly despairing to try to reach them. None of them seemed to believe her when she told them that if they worked hard in school and stayed on the straight and narrow, they could go to college and better themselves. She said pretty much all the girls wanted nothing more than to get pregnant by some boy — they said so in class, without shame — and the boys saw their own manhood as tied up in getting a girl pregnant. Marriage was not on anybody’s mind. Your story, Maria, reminds me a lot of what my friend said. She told me she might as well have been talking to them in a foreign language. One day during a conversation about this, she told the female students that dropping out of school to care for your baby is almost guaranteed to condemn them and their children to lives of welfare dependency.

“They didn’t care,” my friend said. Welfare was a way of life for these kids. That’s all they had ever known. It was normal. That’s when my friend knew the power of what she was up against.

The point I was trying to make is that the only real way any of this changes is for kids to come to believe that they aren’t fated to live that way. There may be no one in their lives to offer them a way out, and even if someone does, like my teacher friend, the pressures on them to reject the message in a bottle they’ve found are powerful. I think about the young black woman I wrote about in Little Way who had to leave her family far behind in order to pursue her education and break the cycle of poverty (which she did), because they wanted to tear her down and prevent her from succeeding.

From what you’ve seen, Maria, do you have a better solution? I’m not blaming these kids for reacting to the world in the way they have been conditioned by the adults who have failed them, but I am saying that the culture they carry in their heads, their habitus, condemns them to repeat the mistakes of their parents, and sets their own children up for the same thing. Income redistribution is not going to change that. How could you possibly redistribute income enough, and invent government programs sufficient to ameliorate the direct and secondary effects of single parenthood on a child’s long-term economic well being (e.g., given that their educational achievement will have something to do with their own financial success and stability)?

UPDATE: Great comment from reader RB:

I am trying to see things from a hypothetical poor student’s point of view, as much as I’m able, because I’d want to help such children, too.

The analogy that popped to mind was that of a college professor exhorting students to what they must do to grow and succeed, because otherwise they’ll be stuck in a middle-class lifestyle. I know I would remain unimpressed and unconvinced.

I’m so accustomed to how I relate to my husband, procure and prepare food, and raise my children that I likely could not go back to the Japan of my father’s birth even if my father and grandmother convinced me it was best, and even though I spent years there as a small child.

Heck, I haven’t even taken my big family camping, because even that feels like changing to a different life, different tribe. I think, taking care of 7 kids, including the two diapered toddlers, is challenging enough in my nice middle-class home–can I do this, while pretending to be homeless, in the rain? Most days I feel like I work hard enough without feeling cocky enough to say, Hey, time to level up and make it twice harder for a totally unknown result!

My friends who camp with their families assure me that everyone feels closer to God and learns self-reliance, and it’s totally possible to do with babies, and their happy attitudes and personal success are just enough for me to be willing to learn more, but not quite enough to take the plunge in the current cold weather. I’ll wait for sunnier skies before risking it.

A teacher can exhort her kids all year, but it’s when she loves them, and with her concern welcomes them into her different country, invites thrm in to see what it’s like, that they may consider emigration, because they’ve seen what life is like there, and how people get their food and make it.

This is what I do with friends who are nervous about not having baked bread or sewn things before–I just invite them into my home and apprentice them for a few hours.

I think this is why we are called to break bread with different people, because sharing that taste of life, and how to bake it, is more convincing than lots of passionate description of it, and warnings about the unsuitability of the old bread, and disapproval.

At least, that’s what it would take for me. The boy on the other thread sounds like the sort of son that yesteryear families woukd have been lucky to have. My FIL grew up in a large, poor family on a farm, and as a kid was able to drive tractor with one hand and shoot a pheasant for dinner with the other. He acquired his master’s degree based on an athletic scholarship and supported by coyote pelt bounties. (He’s shot that many.)

My husband has the same skills, same coked-up-mule work ethic, STEM college degree, middle-class job, we live in the same town, but are half as successful. My FIL is having to partially support his children, who are, like him, smart, hard workers. Like the boy’s family on the other thread, we still have economically obsolete values and we regard our kids as our greatest joy even if by newer values we should have had only two, or none at all. (Which is so sad. These are my favorite people–I can’t imagine life without them.)

So what would it take for me to give up my current family/resource management values? A great deal. I liked butchering a deer with my husband last night and baking bread. I like helping friends with their garden. I like the old ways because I think they nourish human families and spirits, and I’ll cling bitterly to them ;) even despite the economic reality that it’s become nearly impossible to provender a family through legal hunting and fishing in the manner people could a generation or two ago might. Like the boy on the other thread, my FIL values family and that helps us a great deal. Family is everything. Many consider me no better than the boy’s mother, for all that I am married and my husband loves me and provides. I’m still economic deadweight, to the new way of thinking.

So there is the question of converting people from unhappy chaos to happier order, and my answer is through one-on-one friendship. I think churches and 12-step recovery has that well addressed. But how to persuade people to leave family behind, avoid family formation, for the sake of economic success? Especially when the delays in family formation get longer and it becomes a new normal to expect people to become secular monastics so as to be better workers? I’m not convinced. I wouldn’t be able to persuade someone to leave their family for economic reasons because I am just as “bad” as they are. I’m with Erin Manning on this. I’d rather put my energy into changing to system to better reflect values that lead to human flourishing, than in trying to turn kids into economic cogs and trade one kind of bottom-rung servitude for another. Sheer economic self-interest wouldn’t work at this point anyway; those whom I know on welfare often live as high or higher than the frugal families I know who refuse assistance because they value work. Only their antiquated values keep them off the dole.

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