Life­styles of the poor and anony­mous

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

Life­styles of the rich and fa­mous have never been the same as life­styles of the poor and anony­mous, but for a while we acted as though they were. As Kay Hy­mowitz re­minds us in her per­sua­sively doc­u­mented book called “Mar­riage and Caste in Amer­ica,” a typ­i­cal sin­gle mother is nei­ther the fic­tional ver­sion of Mur­phy Brown of sit­com fame, whose kid prac­ti­cally dis­ap­peared in the show be­cause the writ­ers didn’t know what to do with him, nor An­gelina Jolie, who is con­sid­ered half a cou­ple with Brad Pitt, with their nat­u­ral daugh­ter and sev­eral adopted chil­dren, but so far with­out a mar­riage li­cense.

Few peo­ple to­day think di­vorce and sin­gle par­ent­hood are equalop­por­tu­nity mis­for­tunes in a house on the beach of Mal­ibu or a trailer camp in West Vir­ginia, but we’re still slow in find­ing so­lu­tions for the dis­as­trous con­se­quences of sin­gle par­ent­hood in the un­der­class, which more than any other sin­gle in­gre­di­ent con­trib­utes to a caste sys­tem in Amer­ica.

Wel­fare re­form did much to re­move fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives for poor women to con­tinue hav­ing il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren, but il­le­git­i­macy re­mains a big prob­lem for poor blacks, and the caste sys­tem widens for chil­dren who grow up with­out fa­thers. Poor sin­gle moth­ers gen­er­ally lack mar­ketable skills that will carry them into a higher fi­nan­cial bracket, and their chil­dren are at a ma­jor ed­u­ca­tional dis­ad­van­tage when com­pet­ing with chil­dren of mid­dle-class fam­i­lies.

Th­ese sin­gle moms have lost con­sid­er­ably more than a man in the house. They’ve lost the mid­dle-class script for plan­ning for the fu­ture, they’ve lost the tra­di­tional in­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ment that’s re­quired for up­ward mo­bil­ity, made all the more cru­cial in a knowl­edge econ­omy when a col­lege dropout can no longer find a job in man­u­fac­tur­ing.

When Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han, as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of la­bor in 1965, sounded the call of a prophet, draw­ing at­ten­tion to the soar­ing num­bers of fa­ther­less fam­i­lies in the black com­mu­nity, he was ex­co­ri­ated by so-called revo­lu­tion­ary schol­ars, rad­i­cal fem­i­nists and civil rights lead­ers who branded him a “racist,” who was blind to the pos­i­tive power of the black ma­tri­arch “role model.”

Well that was then, and this is now, and de­spite wel­fare re­form, the ghetto is still reel­ing from cul­tural at­ti­tudes that con­trib­ute to a black youth’s rap­per vo­cab­u­lary that cel­e­brates ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior of boys in the ‘hood, who look at women as “ ‘ho’s.” When the white rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the ‘60s nar­cis­sis­ti­cally val­ued inde- pen­dence over bour­geois mar­riage, they over­looked the im­por­tance of mar­riage as a so­cial in­sti­tu­tion. Ide­o­log­i­cally, we moved from a child-cen­tered na­tion to an adult-cen­tered one, sep­a­rat­ing chil­dren from par­ents, func­tion from form.

Mar­riage is not only a private con­tract, but a pub­lic one, too, with at­ten­dant laws gov­ern­ing care and re­spon­si­bil­ity for chil­dren. Tradi- tional mar­riage, at its best, fos­ters so­cial at­ti­tudes to help build sel­f­re­liant, com­pe­tent, in­dus­tri­ous, self-gov­ern­ing cit­i­zens. “The foun­da­tion of na­tional moral­ity must be laid in private fam­i­lies,” John Adams wrote in 1778.

We don’t have to read about soc­cer moms and dads and all those am­bi­tious white and black mid­dle­class par­ents who to­day fight to get their chil­dren into the best nurs­ery schools to re­al­ize that many men and women have re­cov­ered from the bad old days, but it’s also clear that the black ghetto fam­i­lies have not made the same re­cov­ery in re­dis­cov­er­ing the ben­e­fits of mar­riage.

“The old-fash­ioned mar­ried­cou­ple-with chil­dren model is do­ing quite well among col­lege-ed­u­cated women,” writes Kay Hy- mowitz. “It is pri­mar­ily among lower-in­come women with only a high school ed­u­ca­tion that it is in poor health.” Chil­dren in this en­vi­ron­ment don’t get an ed­u­ca­tional mes­sage that teaches them so­ci­ety’s man­ners, pro­vid­ing the struc­ture to learn from what Brigitte Berger calls the “fam­ily’s great ed­u­ca­tional mis­sion.” Ed­u­ca­tion is the daily drip, drip, drip of de­tails that en­gen­der in young chil­dren the as­pi­ra­tions and the tools to make a bet­ter life for them­selves in their pur­suit of hap­pi­ness.

Nei­ther of my par­ents, for ex­am­ple, grad­u­ated from high school, but they were de­ter­mined that their two chil­dren would go to col­lege. That was and is the mes­sage in many fam­i­lies to­day, but it’s a mes­sage lack­ing in the ghetto. That’s what Bill Cosby meant when he told par­ents: “You’ve got to straighten up your house! Straighten up your apart­ment! Straighten up your child!”

Many crit­ics, of course, ac­cused him of blam­ing the vic­tim. But he wants to en­cour­age a counter-revo­lu­tion, a gen­er­a­tional back­lash against lost op­por­tu­ni­ties. That will re­quire a sense of “can do,” and “I do.”

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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