Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In Mother Jones, Of All Places

Radical activist, the original Mother Jones
     Back in my secular, radical college days I used to enjoy a leftish publication called Mother Jones, your proverbial Left-Wing Rag.  I had not so much as gazed upon said publication since somewhere around the transition between President Reagan’s first and second terms, when the other day  I happened across a recent copy, and decided to look inside, for old times’ sake.  There among the expected articles about the balefulness of the sinister plastic companies, and a hit job aiming to show that Louisiana’s Republication Governor Bobby Jindal is a wacko because he’s a believing Catholic, and so on, I found a most unexpected piece called “What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong? [link]”  I say unexpected not because everything I know about poverty is wrong, necessarily, but because the factual content of the article actually validates much of what is being said about poverty on what its author, and the magazine, would consider “the right”.  I take this as a hopeful sign that maybe, maybe, we can start having a conversation about poverty that rises above the usual political divisions.
     The article, written by Stephanie Mencimer, is a profile of poverty researcher Kathryn Edin, a Johns-Hopkins University sociologist who decided she could better understand the poor if she moved into the most poverty-blasted area of East Camden, New Jersey (although herself a Methodist, one of Edin’s long-time heroes is St. Francis of Assisi).  The article would have us believe that in doing so Edin discovered things previously unknown:

. . . Unlike academics who draw conclusions about poverty from the ivy tower, Edin has gotten up close and personal with the people she studies – and in the process has shattered many myths about the poor, rocking sociology and public-policy circles.

 What are some of these explosive findings? Here’s a sampling:

-. . .most moms on welfare were already working under the table . . . they didn’t get legal jobs because  of a straight-forward economic calculus: Low wages drained by child care, transportation, and other expenses would have left them poorer than they were on welfare.

-In a society that increasingly saw marriage as a choice, not a requirement, low-income women were embracing the same preconditions as middle-class women.  They wanted to be “set” before marrying . . .

-The low-income women in Edin’s study reported that decent, trustworthy, available men were in short supply in their communities, where there were often major sex imbalances thanks to high incarceration rates.

-They believed that if they waited until everything was perfect, they might never have children.  And children, says Edin, “are the thing in life you can’t live without . . .

And what did Edin learn about the fathers of the children?

-“Rather  than viewing fatherhood as a burden, the men almost uniformly saw it as a blessing . . . ‘these guys thought that by bringing children into the world they were doing something good in the world.’”

-“When the babies were born, most of the men reported a desire to be a big part of their lives.  Among black men, 9 in ten reported being deeply involved with their children under the age of two, meaning they had routine, in-person contact with their  kids several times a month.  But that involvement faded with time.  Only a third of black fathers and a quarter of white fathers were still involved with kids older than 10.”

Why do these initially well-intentioned fathers lose interest in their children over time?

“Among the reasons, Edin identifies unstable relationships with the mothers . . . the men also frequently struggled with substance abuse and stints in prison

A factor not referenced in the article itself, but which comes up in the comments is that a father of children with a series of mothers is naturally going to pay more attention to the children of the woman with whom he is currently involved.
     Of course, there’s also a third party involved in these relationships, the government:

Government rules also stood in the way of meaningful fatherhood.  The welfare system tends to view an unwed father solely as a paycheck, not a co-parent . . .

“At every turn an unmarried man who seeks to be a father, not just a daddy, is rebuffed by a system that pushes him aside with one hand while reaching into his pocket with another,” Edin and [her husband, sociologist Tim] Nelson write.

     What I find most interesting about this article is that, when you take out the leftish rhetorical flourishes (e.g., swipes at Ronald Reagan and the Clinton era welfare reform), what the author is describing is not that different from what someone like conservative economist Walter Williams is saying, as I discussed in an earlier post [here].  Even when the article tries to rebut the very argument Williams is making it doesn’t quite work.  For instance:

“You hear people say there’s not material poverty in the Us,” says Nelson;  census data, the argument  goes, shows that most of America’s poor have TVs and air conditioning.  But the people their finding in Cleveland and other study sites, says Edin, “aren’t in the census.”

Aside from the fact that by simply discounting the census data you’ve thrown out the only quantifiable evidence you have, this misconstrues the actual argument.  Walter Williams and others aren’t saying that there’s not real material poverty, rather that the causes of poverty in the United States are not primarily material.  Williams say:

What we have in our nation are dependency and poverty of the spirit, with people making unwise choices and leading pathological lives aided and abetted by the welfare state.

Now compare that with what Kathryn Edin has discovered: people working “under the table” because the welfare system penalizes employment, government incentives and social pressure simultaneously discouraging marriage (“One of the women had even been chewed out by her grandmother for marrying the father of one of her children”) and encouraging the bearing and rearing of children out of wedlock; fatherhood denigrated both by the system and society; men and women who really do want to be good mothers and fathers, but repeatedly making choices that have the opposite effect. For instance:

The low-income women in Edin’s study reported that decent, trustworthy, available men were in short supply in their communities, where there were often major sex imbalances thanks to high incarceration rates.

The social science research tells us that children raised in single-parent families are more likely to be unemployed, drug-addicted and imprisoned, and because of the consequences of that mothers are making choices that perpetuate and multiply the problem.  Could Williams have come up with better examples of “unwise choices” and “pathological lives aided and abetted by the welfare state”?
     The question now is “where does this leave us?”  That’s a huge question.  Today I’ll just point out that seeing this particular article in Mother Jones gives me some hope that we can start to treat poverty less like just another arena for political combat, and really look at it for what it is.  It seems to me that it is beyond the power of any government or political program to solve the problems of persistent poverty.  The culture of poverty in the inner city is really just one manifestation of a spiritual problem, or collection of problems, that is affecting our entire society.  Lord Acton famously said that “the vices that addle the rich devastate the poor”.  Outside the inner city there’s a whole lot of addling going on, and it’s doing real damage up and down the social scale, even if it doesn’t look as dramatic in the suburbs as it does in East Camden.  While both government and private charity have an important part in alleviating the short term consequences of social disintegration,  the long term the solution is up to us.  A good place to start is to lead lives grounded in prayer, strengthened by the Sacraments, tempered by virtue, and exemplified by our love for our neighbors, and most particularly the least fortunate.  The means making choices we may not want to make. As we enter upon the Paschal Triduum this year I’m making a special effort to offer my own prayers and sacrifices for my brothers and sisters caught in the cycle of poverty.