Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Apparently, They Don't Even Care Which Women They Get Pregnant--The Washington Post on the New Book "Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City"

Did liberals and progressives surrender the battlefield after the 1960s because they assumed the best intentions on the part of their enemies? Or did they withdraw because of a reluctance to acknowledge some inconvenient truths?

From the The Washington Post piece on the new book "Doing the Best I Can":
The human realities of these relations were rarely given their due in the culture-war battles of the 1980s and 1990s. For a time after the controversial 1965 Moynihan report, poverty researchers became skittish about discussing obvious pathologies associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing and welfare dependence. Social conservatives rushed in to fill the void, wrongly blaming essential and meager welfare programs for pathologies that were actually caused by broader economic and social forces.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan is enjoying a second renaissance. Rejected and shunned, now even "liberals" are discovering that perhaps he was correct in his analysis of ghetto cultural pathologies and the long-term impact of broken homes on the black community.

I presented a paper at a conference a few years ago on black cultural politics. In that talk, I used the phrase "ghetto underclass". As far as academic talks go, I felt I did a good job based on the questions and feedback I received.

While I was packing up, an older black woman approached me. She was enraged. In the logic of a very journeyman student I thought that perhaps I had not cited her in the paper, or committed some other breach of academic etiquette. No. She was upset that I used the phrase "ghetto underclass". Enthusiastically and with finger waving in my face, I was told that the phrase was "inaccurate", "racist", and did the work of white people who wanted to "pathologize us".

I smiled, nodded, and move along.

I know realize from where the anger towards the use of ghetto underclass and the related hostility towards the work of Moynihan is partly rooted--at least within the black and brown community. I do not think it is an objection about the research or empirical findings about the varied nature of the human experiences that are the real people routinely collapsed into one catch all category known as "the black poor."

The culture of poverty thesis has been a cudgel used against all black folks by racists---both "benign" liberals and hostile neo liberals/conservatives--because it reinforces stereotypes about people of color where even "the best" of us are judged by the shortcomings of "the least" of us. The rejection of the ghetto underclass thesis is also an extension of how it is associated with black conservatives, specifically, and the Right, more generally.

Black conservatism of the modern Republican faux populist variety is an outlier in the tradition of black political thought. Moreover, I (along with others) would suggest that it is a hostile and foreign intellectual tradition that is invasive and designed to destroy the black body politic and black counter public by serving the interests of the Right and colorblind racists.

If black conservatives are indeed "Uncle Toms", then no respectable black person would claim the merits of their policy proposals or diagnoses. Thus, "the ghetto underclass" became verboten language.

There is a complication here. For black and brown progressives and those on the Left, Moynihan's conclusions, and those of folks like William J. Wilson, are to be rejected in public, but are often reluctantly embraced in private. The conversations in black private spaces, as well as in churches, hair salons, and barbershops could echo a conference panel at the Hoover or Cato institutes, and most certainly are in agreement with folks like Bill Cosby, who was viciously attacked by many black intellectuals for daring to call out the ghetto youthocracy and an inter-generational culture of poverty and dependence.

There has to be a third way, one which tackles institutional discrimination and inequality in the job and labor markets, as well as examining how people's personal choices serve to reinforce their own poverty. In all, an acceptance of how structures impact life choices and opportunities for all peoples does not necessitate a rejection of human agency on the part of the urban or "ghetto" poor.

Harold Pollack sums this up nicely in his observation that "Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City reinforces one’s instincts as a cultural conservative and an economic progressive."

I did not grow up in a poor community. I am lower working class. I do not propose to judge those folks in the ghetto underclass based on the internal logic of their personal decision-making. I can't judge you if I ain't walked in your shoes. But, I can ask folks how are the decisions they have made up to this point in their life working out for them right now?

I also have to accept that the thought processes of the men profiled in "Doing the Best I Can" are outside of my life world, experiences, and cognitive map. To point.
Still, most of the men chronicled in this frank book fail most of their children. Liberals may be taken aback by the huge proportion of nonresident fathers laid low by involvement in crime, infidelity, heavy drinking or drug abuse. Most pregnancies are unplanned, accidental or “semi-planned” within haphazard and brief relationships:  
Only rarely do such couples “fall in love,” get engaged, or get married before conceiving a first child together, though they may do so later on.…. Precious few men are consciously courting a woman they believe will be a long-term partner around the time that pregnancy issues a one-way ticket to fatherhood. Indeed there is little evidence that many were even attempting to discriminate much among possible partners based on who they felt would be the most suitable mother to their child.  
Couples love their child, and so make a go of things. Yet as Edin and Nelson put things, “having a baby is not a symbol of love and commitment; instead pregnancy and birth are often the relationship’s impetus.” A shared child becomes the glue holding together a precarious relationship. Most of the time, this just isn’t enough.
I was taught that if you have sex with someone then you must be prepared to be stuck with them forever. You should also ask if you want to ruin your life and future by having a kid you are not prepared to raise.

But, what if you do not have a sense that there is a future? And what if you have not been taught the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate cause and effect?

Culture has famously been described as all of the stuff we do not think about and just take for granted. If material circumstances frame individual realities, social networks are truncated, and life goals and life chances are limited, then what to an outsider seems maladaptive and pathological may make perfect sense to those whose lives are bounded by a five square block area, are trapped in rural America, or are stuck on the res.

How do we help folks to dream, and in dreaming of the future, to make intelligent choices in the short-term that can positively serve their long-term goals?


SunKissed said...

I come from the "ghetto underclass" and while I cant speak with full authority on why folk do what they do I will share some insight.

When I was old enough to be cognizant that I was a living thinking entity I was already saddled with the consequences of my forbears. My father was gone before I could say daddy, my mother was a drug addict, we were homeless. However, I was surrounded by single mothers and fatherless children in my neighborhood. There is this mindset you fall into where life is crap, will always be crap, so any I crap I choose to do wont effect my already crappy life. So do, or sell drugs, have sex make a baby, drink alcohol to you pass out, who cares.

I don't think or live that way anymore but I lose sleep at night trying to think of what I can do to help break that mindset. I needed Jesus (not the white surfer), I pray my brethren find Him too

! said...

This is at least partly the mentality that children are always "a blessing" and that unplanned childbearing is simply part of life... Right? Having grown up in a rural community that definitely had some of that same kind of logic of childbearing as being acted-upon by fate, God, etc. rather than undertaking a conscious act to create a life, I can't quite imagine a cultural shift away from that view. Even as one of those who left and still has no kids, it is hard for me to see myself as a real adult and whole person without a baby on my hip. Perhaps this is overly romantic, but how could we dream up a world in which an unplanned child doesn't automatically ruin a person's life and future?

grumpyrumblings said...

In terms of a third way... in public finance (and labor) economics, we draw sterile graphs that show what happens to labor supply when you provide different forms of welfare (lump sum, negative tax, wage supports etc.). There are always trade-offs. We also talk about type I and type II error. (Recommendation for Jon Gruber's Public Finance text if you want to read up on how we think about these things.)

These behavioral reactions are universal, not black or white, but for everyone. And there are reasons we give aid and reasons we don't give it. Public policy is not easy and it is full of trade-offs.

(Also, when I hear ghetto, because of my academic jargon base, I don't immediately think "black" just "segregated group", though obviously black ghettos in the jargon terminology are prevalent because of race discrimination in housing markets. But then I remember that in regular parlance people use it as a negative adjective rather than a descriptive noun.)

chauncey devega said...

Jewish Ghetto, Italian Ghetto, etc. Funny, we don't talk about the white suburbs as a ghetto as Brother Malcolm joked.

in terms of your expertise, what would a bundle of public incentives and goods (as well as disincentives) that could do something about this problem look like?

chauncey devega said...

I never got that either. You got no money, no jobs, and no prospects but a kid is a "blessing?" Didn't God make condoms and other birth control too?

Is this a coping mechanism born of religion trying to work through fatalism?

chauncey devega said...

You are good folks. How can that cycle be broken? Triage?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I have a cousin the exact same age as me. She got knocked up out of wedlock and dropped out of college at age 21 (although did get married to the dad before the baby came out). I finished my degree and went on to graduate school in the big city. My relatives started treating my cousin like an adult. They still treated me like a child, and kept telling me I needed to spend time in the "real world," even though I had taken the responsible precautions in my private life, and my cousin hadn't.

In the rural culture I come from, children are a kind of symbol of maturity, a form of cultural capital. Having kids young also means you're stuck in hicksville, which is what folks back there want. They see any alternate path as a rejection of a way of life that they want to see validated. (I think my family feels like I have rejected them by taking the path I have.) I wonder if the children as cultural capital/children as anchor and validation phenomenon is going on in other contexts, too.

grumpyrumblings said...

We're doing a lot of research now (not me personally, but some of my friends) on which of The Great Society programs actually made a positive impact and which did not. So this is an area of really active research. I don't know off the top of my head where that is, but there's a book coming out next year from some people at UMichigan that should be putting everything together.

We do know that high quality early (preschool) interventions work, and work long-term. We know that a lot of interventions work better for girls than they do for boys.

We know that the earned income tax credit and the changes from welfare to TANF helped decrease negative incentives, though they aren't perfect.

There's always going to be people who need to be getting help who won't and people who shouldn't be getting help who will. We do things like targeting, stigma, in-kind transfers, hurdles and other things in order to cut down on the people who change their behavior in order to qualify for the programs. And different programs use different mechanisms-- WIC is targeted easily and gives in-kind so there's very little stigma, and you can think about what other programs do.

If I were in charge of the world I'd eliminate segregation, provide free or low cost high quality childcare for everyone and top quality schools everywhere, including top quality counseling in high schools. And for God's sake, keep feeding the kids year-round. (And police in places where kids are still getting shot, though I don't actually know if that works.) But how to get there in our current political and economic environment... Like my mom says, we could use another LBJ.

grumpyrumblings said...

Oh, and YES, free and easy access to reproductive technologies!

kscoyote said...

I have been seeing this study reverberate. We have several friends in common. Call me sometime, and I will explain it to you, and how it works post-Welfare Reform. Imani, Joy Ann Reid, etc can direct you to me.

kscoyote said...

I do wish to discuss this, and I'm perfectly fine with doing it openly, in an interview if you wish - But I fought 11 years just to be able to see my son, culminating in a year-long fight to be able to take a lesser paying job to be able to see my son. The County Attorney was trying to imprison me for taking the position.

I am degreed, had a fellowship from UC Berkeley, and numerous Post-Grad opportunities, all blocked by the County Attorney, because it would hinder my income in the short run.

Imani is probably the best way to get a hold of me.

I do have all of my receipts, files, etc. I'm not going to go public until my son reaches 18, but I am willing to let you see them and talk to anyone around me, including my advisors, laywers who did and did not take the case, and whatever else may make you knowledgeable on the subject.

chauncey devega said...

I have female friends who are African American and very successful who often get grief from their less financially successful friends and family who accuse them of "thinking you are better than us" because they chose not have kids (if at all) till later in life.

I wonder too, about women I meet who automatically think I am gay or somehow defective because I do not have children as I do not have the necessary resources. I am old school. I ain't married so why would I have kids?

Is this coming from the same place I wonder, as is what your hometown folks are expressing?

chauncey devega said...

Now I am curious. Email me.

chauncey devega said...

As is my standing offer, if you want to write up a guest post of 500 or so words send it along.

grumpyrumblings said...

Well, we do have a blog of our own. I tend not to want to write about work stuff on it though because at some point I feel like I should be getting paid.

Here's one post on moral hazard:


There's another one in there somewhere on why we have a progressive tax system.

Really, I think everybody should have to take Public Finance Economics in college just to get an understanding of why we have government, what government can do and what the limits of government are. It provides a good framework for thinking about these issues even if it cannot provide any easy answers (because there really are none).

SunKissed said...

The belief that all children are a blessing from God comes from Psalm 127:3 "Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him." NIV

However the same book later on says "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." 1 Timothy 5:8

The problem comes when some think that children being a blessing means that the circumstances which brought those children into existance were ordained by God. There is no support in the bible on this. Especially if we take into account how God chastised King David for impregnating another mans wife and having that man sent to his death. Yet one of David and Bethshaba's sons, Solomon, became King in Israel and is considered one of the wisest men ever not because of what his parents did but in spite of it.

The opposite of blessing is a curse, and no child, who did not ask to be born should be considered a curse because his parents brought him into this world through idiocy.

As I stated above I come from a single parent home. But, through the years I was determined not to bring a child into this world that I could not take care of. Partly for religious reasons but mainly because I refused to put a child through what I went through growing up. I wouldn't be able to live with myself. Currently I'm married and have two beautiful girls whom I love dearly and by God's grace I'm determined to be to them the father I never had.

kscoyote said...

All I see is twitter for contact information. I have enough trolls atm.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Maybe Shaw or whoever said it was right: Morals are for the middle class. The rich don't need them and the poor can't afford them.

But if A is housed, fed and clothed at B's expense, B's patience with A's incapability and/or criminality cannot be expected to be infinite.

The Sanity Inspector said...

There is a complication here. For black and brown progressives and those on the Left, Moynihan's conclusions, and those of folks like William J. Wilson, are to be rejected in public, but are often reluctantly embraced in private.

Didn't someone recently say that "The luxury to lie is a luxury of the privileged."?

splinter said...

Ay, there's the rub, the catch, the hitch, the fly in the proverbial
ointment. Not only are we expected to put up with uncouth barbarian and
subhuman behavior forever, we're also prohibited from saying anything
about it by the racial services machine of which the host of this blog
is a mouthpiece.


chauncey devega said...

They are relatively privileged in many cases, which is the point. And that is not a simple blanket rule, i.e many in the subaltern most certainly deceive as a survival strategy. Talking amongst yourself in your own spaces is different from what you choose to share with the White Gaze or Power more generally. I wouldn't call it a lie; I would call it smart practice.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Okay, I buy that. It's just that so many well-meaning white people have tried so hard to help over the decades, that it hurts to have them dismissed as insincere or even nonexistent.

chauncey devega said...

Of course there are solid white allies who have been on the right side of history. I just don't need to pat them on the head and throw them treats. They know who they are and of the blood a select few have spent for justice.

kscoyote said...

I've sent three ways to contact me via twitter DM, though I rarely use twitter anymore (It just reposts my facebook posts) and I rarely check my work e-mail from home, incase my machine is hacked.

I'll check twitter every now and again...