A History of Poverty in America: Chapter 3

A History of Poverty in America: Chapter 3

Poverty in Urban America: Its Causes and Cures by David Hilfiker introduction ¦ Chapter I ¦ Chapter II ¦ Chapter IV ¦ Chapter V ¦ Display All Chapters
David Hilfiker

Chapter III: Ghetto-Related Behavior Poverty, of course, is a result not only of societal structures but also of individual shortcomings. Poor persons can make poor choices and those choices can aggravate poverty. Living in the highly individualistic American culture, most of us tend to lay the blame for poverty on those individual choices. "Well, that person who is still stuck in poverty came from the same social background as this person who made it out," we think to ourselves, "so individual differences must be more important!" It's easy to slide over the structural causes of poverty. But there are important relationships between structural and individual causes. Certainly many, usually most, residents of ghetto neighborhoods continue to work steadily at whatever work is available despite the disadvantages of their environments. They have high aspirations and substantial initiative. Most poor people are not addicted to alcohol or other substances, they do not engage in criminal behavior or drug trafficking. Most poor people are not on welfare. They take good care of themselves, their families and their property. They ascribe to the same values as the rest of us: hard work, self-reliance, sacrifice, and respect for others. They are simply poor. At the same time, one finds in the ghetto disturbingly high rates of unemployment and welfare dependence, addiction and poor motivation, drug trafficking and other forms of criminal behavior. These behaviors seem to be so self-reinforcing that observers have talked of an "underclass" existing in the ghetto, a group of people whose behavior is virtually incorrigible; neither they nor their children have much chance of escaping poverty. It is tempting to look at these behaviors, shrug, and say to ourselves, "Well, no wonder they're poor!" But where do these behaviors come from? Why do we find them more frequently in the ghetto than in other places? As mentioned above, the behaviors that we commonly associate with the contemporary black ghetto (which sociologist William Julius Wilson has named "ghetto-related behaviors") were not part of black ghetto life through the first century after Emancipation. (Even single-parenthood-which has always been higher among African Americans than European Americans-was "only" 17% among blacks in 1950, less than the current rate of single-parenthood among whites.) And, as we have seen, forces far beyond the control of individual African Americans led to high rates of joblessness, high concentrations of poor people living in close proximity, inferior education, poor health, and discrimination against poor black people. In this context, ghetto-related behaviors can be seen as understandable behavioral responses to environmental conditions, some of which evolve into cultural patterns. "This is not to argue," writes Wilson,

that individuals and groups lack the freedom to make their own choices, engage in certain conduct, and develop certain styles and orientations, but it is to say that these decisions and actions occur within a context of constraints and opportunities that are drastically different from those present in middle-class society.16

Unfortunately, these responses also perpetuate and aggravate the poverty of the poor in a vicious cycle that currently shows few signs of abating. Single-Parenthood The "feminization of poverty" refers to the increasing proportion of poor people (especially children) living in households headed by a single woman. Single-parenthood is an important variable because it is deeply associated with poverty. While only one out of ten married-couple families live below the poverty line, more than two-thirds of families headed by never-married women (of any race or ethnicity) live in poverty. The rate of single-parenthood among black inner-city families has grown alarmingly in the last forty years. In Chicago's ghetto areas, for instance, more than five out of six parents (aged 18-44) are single. Nationally, more than two-thirds of African Americans babies are now born to single mothers. Over half of all black families are now headed by women, half of whom have never been married. Single-parenthood is both a cause and an effect of poverty.

  • Most obviously, single-parenthood means that there is only one breadwinner in the family.
  • That one breadwinner is usually a woman, and women's work pays less well than men's work.
  • Among black women, single-parenthood is associated with lower levels of education, which results in even poorer paying jobs.
  • Childcare becomes an overwhelming issue. It is simply not possible to pay for childcare costs that would consume more than one third of a poverty-level income.17

Why is the rate of single-parenthood so high among poor, inner-city African Americans? There is debate about this question, and no clear consensus has arisen. Although there are some factors that are specific to poor, urban black people, society-wide forces have also played a large part.

  • Nationally, the birth rate outside of marriage has soared in the last two decades, although whites have largely accounted for the increase. From 1980 to 1992, for instance, the rate of births outside of marriage increased among whites by 94%, among blacks by only 9%.
  • Social mores have changed considerably. The social pressures throughout society to marry and stay married have decreased dramatically.
  • Men have felt freer to leave their families (and studies show that most men pay no child support or less than agreed upon).
  • A woman now has the "right to reproduce" under any conditions she chooses; well over 90% of single women who carry pregnancy to completion take the baby home.
  • There is a general increase in sexual activity among young people and the pregnancy rates among teenagers have increased.

These society-wide factors influence especially the poor because their impact is multiplied by causes of single-parenthood that are especially intense in the ghetto. What are the causes that affect the ghettos particularly?

  • The high stress of being poor leads to a high rate of divorce. Marriage is difficult enough without the extraordinary problems associated with being poor in America.
  • The high rate of joblessness among inner-city men leaves them virtually incapable of supporting a family economically. Not only does this make them less desirable marriage partners, but being unable to fulfill the socially expected male role of breadwinner within a family also makes it emotionally difficult for a man to stay in the marriage. Studies show that when a single man has a job, he is much more likely than a jobless man to marry the child's mother after the birth of the baby.
  • More recently, the extraordinarily high numbers of young black men in the criminal justice system further decreases the chance of marriage.
  • Poverty leads to despair. Chronic poverty impairs one's motivation to aspire to something greater than what one sees in the environment. It increases the male's desire to "prove himself" by having a child. For both men and women, sex among teenagers in the ghetto is more about personal affirmation than about status or a ticket to a better life. Economic prospects for young, inner-city women are poor regardless of marital status, so there is little reason to value marriage, especially for teenagers. The desperation of the ghetto leads to a sense that there is little to lose. The girl from a poor, inner-city family sacrifices only a few of her already limited options by having a child out of wedlock.
  • In part due to changing societal mores, in part due to joblessness, in part due to the oppression of the ghetto, the cultural norms within the ghetto in support of husband-wife families and against out-of-wedlock births have become much weaker. There is no longer any stigma attached to having an "illegitimate" baby.18 Many young ghetto women, in fact, have come to see a man in the house as a liability.
  • For those who doubt the importance of the structural causes of poverty, it might be instructive to meditate on the fact that, at least in America, a high out-of-wedlock birthrate is correlated with societal oppression. American blacks, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans and native Hawaiians all began as indigenous peoples, were overrun by conquerors or colonizers, were consigned to positions of dependency, and have been easily identifiable racially.19 Their rates of out-of-wedlock births range from 46% for Hawaiians to 68% for blacks, compared to 18.5% for whites.

It is important to dispel some widespread myths. There is, for instance, little scientific evidence that welfare plays a significant role in promoting out-of-wedlock births. It is likely that some welfare requirements have caused some intact couples to stay out of formal marriage. Nevertheless, research examining the association between the generosity of welfare benefits on the one hand and out-of-wedlock childbearing and teen pregnancy on the other indicates that benefit levels have no significant effect on blacks having children outside of marriage (although there may be a small effect on whites). The rate of out-of-wedlock teen childbearing, for instance, has nearly doubled since 1975 despite the fact that the real dollar values of welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid has fallen. Contrary to popular belief, mothers on welfare have, on average, slightly fewer children than other mothers. Although the statistics can be confusing, it is important to understand that although the rate of single-parenthood has increased dramatically in the last half century, the rate of births to unmarried black women aged 15-24 (the "non-marital fertility rate") has remained constant. Which is to say that the problem is not that single-parents are having more children but that so few women marry. Single-parenthood in the ghetto, of course, is self-perpetuating. Almost all of the female role models in ghetto neighborhoods are single mothers, and young women see few other options. Adolescent children of single mothers are more likely to be school dropouts, to receive lower earnings in young adulthood, and to be recipients of welfare. The single mother can exert less control over adolescents (especially young men), so peer values toward sex, pregnancy and marriage more easily become the norm. It is only a short step to a "culture of poverty" in which single-parenthood is the socially accepted norm. Crime and Violence The joblessness of the ghetto and consequent poverty, the low level of education and consequent hopelessness, and the segregation and consequent alienation from white, middle-class norms create a fertile field for nurturing workers in the drug trade. Young men can earn more in hours than their peers in low-paying jobs can in weeks. Children are recruited as "runners" because of their relative immunity from prosecution, and mothers with no other source of income can look the other way when their sons come home with gifts of money, food, clothing, and other needed items. With the drug trade, of course, comes violence. The vastly increased availability of weapons, including sophisticated, high-powered guns, sent the murder rate skyrocketing in the inner cities during the eighties and early nineties (although they began decreasing significantly in the mid-nineties). As guns became the accepted way of resolving disputes in the drug trade, more and more people uninvolved in drug trafficking acquired them and began using them, sometimes for protection, sometimes to resolve their own disputes. These weapons, however, have terrorized the wider community. As Geoffrey Canada writes so compellingly,20 physical violence has long been a way of settling disputes within the ghetto. Before the proliferation of the guns, however, this violence was dependent on physical strength, the organization of the gangs, courage, and so on. The violence was a way of establishing a pecking order and therefore actually stabilized the neighborhood. With assault weapons, however, it takes little courage and no strength or skill, so anybody can kill anybody. The violence is now a terrifying destabilizing force. Statistically, it has been more dangerous to be a young black man in the inner cities of America than to be an American soldier in the Vietnam War during the height of the fighting. Drug and Alcohol Addiction Drug and alcohol addictions are major problems in our society as a whole but especially in the inner city. In addition to the generally increasing use of illicit drugs in the society and all the usual reasons why people succumb to addiction, there are special factors in the inner city.

  • Drugs are ubiquitous and easily available, including especially the inexpensive and highly addicting crack cocaine.
  • The social disorganization and consequent loss of parental control make adolescents particularly susceptible to peer pressure and rebellious against societal norms, creating a fertile environment for the development of addiction.
  • The joblessness of the ghetto means that young adults have too much free time on their hands and too little structure to their day, so falling into addiction is easier. Middle-class adolescents, of course, "experiment" with drugs and alcohol, too, and lots of them become addicted, but
    • middle-class kids who use "recreationally"21 are restrained from heavier use by the constraints of school and work, and
    • more affluent people who become addicted generally have better access to addiction treatment programs than those from the ghetto.
  • The hopelessness and despair of the ghetto lead to an intense desire to get out and the sense that one has little to lose. Intoxication provides an easy, affordable escape.
  • As drug use becomes more and more common in the ghetto, social prohibitions relax. Children more often have people who are addicted for role models.

"Poor Motivation" I put this last factor in quotes because it is not at all my experience that poor people are poorly motivated. Some of the hardest-working people I know are poor, scratching out a living for themselves and their family on several part- and full-time jobs at minimal wages. What is surprising is that they are not less motivated than they, in fact, seem to be. Given the average educational level, the few decent-paying jobs available, and all the other strikes against poor people, any realistic look at their future is pretty grim. High aspirations are usually punished by the reality of poor vocational options. Like most other people in our individualistic culture, poor people ultimately blame themselves for their lack of success and can easily lose self-confidence. The little public assistance that is available is administered in ways that make it difficult to transition back into the world of self-sufficiency. The perception of middle- and upper-class persons that ghetto residents lack proper motivation has many sources, not the least of which is our belief that anybody can "make it" in America, which leads directly to the assumption that there must be something wrong with anyone who doesn't make it. But as their dialect indicates, black, inner-city residents are severely isolated from the rest of society because of American segregation. It is not surprising, therefore, that some lack certain social and job-related skills necessary for life in the wider society. If one has seen relatively few people get up in the morning and go to work on a regular basis, if one has not lived in an environment where punctuality is important, if one has not learned appropriate deference toward superiors, if one has not learned, even, to deliver excuses in a sincere and believable manner, then one will be misunderstood. Most of us, for instance, could not say where we learned it, but we have learned to:

  • dress well for a job interview even if the place to which we're applying has few employees who dress well, even if the job we're applying for will not require us to dress well.
  • make sure that we are absolutely on time and present at work each and every day during the first weeks or months on the job. During that probationary period, we know that even excuses are likely to be dismissed.
  • take few breaks and appear eager to work during the first weeks and months on the job.

If one has not learned those behavioral skills, one's behavior may very well be misread as disrespectful, lazy, or slovenly. The middle-class perception of many poor people is that "they don't want to work." In my experience, that is rarely the case, but cross-cultural miscommunication is easy. An Oppositional Value System The poverty and hopelessness of life in the ghetto make it difficult for ghetto residents to develop self-esteem by conforming to the values and ideals of the larger society or to gain prestige in a socially acceptable fashion. Until recently, ghetto residents continued to hold the values of the wider culture even as they were unable to fulfill them. Getting an education was crucial, having a job was considered important, marriage was a goal, respect for the law was widespread, and so forth. As the ability to fulfill these values has deteriorated, however, it has become harder and harder to maintain them as values. Gradually a parallel status system has developed in opposition to wider cultural norms. To do well in school is considered "acting white." Flouting the system by using drugs or selling them is cool. Carrying a weapon and using it becomes an acceptable way to establish privilege. Working hard at a low-paying job is a sign of self-disrespect. Learning Standard English becomes a deliberate snub of one's own culture. As this oppositional culture becomes more established, members of the ghetto who continue to hold the values of the wider society will come under increasing pressure to change. A Caveat In devoting an entire chapter of a short book to "ghetto-related behavior," there is the danger of emphasizing the negative, when I mean to do just the opposite. I take that risk because it is important to confront directly our prejudices about the individual causation of poverty. Mere survival of the "Surround" in which most inner-city people live, however, indicates enormous strength and resilience. Observe carefully in any poor inner-city neighborhood, and you will see many strong, resourceful, independent people who are not only keeping their own heads above water but strengthening the community as well. But these people are swimming against an overwhelming current, forces that overpower all but the most resilient. Footnotes 16 Wilson, When Work Disappears, p. 55 17 Although costs vary greatly, the average cost of childcare, according to the Children's Defense Fund, is $3,400 per year per child. Childcare expenses consume from 18 to 21 percent of the income from poor and near-poor families. (Reported in The Youngest Minds by Ann and Richard Barnet, p. 255.) 18 Since no baby should be labeled "illegitimate," the term's virtual disappearance from our language should be considered progress. Nevertheless, it also indicates a change in our mores, a weakening the social constraints on out-of-wedlock births. 19White Puerto Ricans have out of out-of-wedlock statistics similar to the general population. 20 Canada, Geoffrey, Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun 21 It is more than coincidental, of course, that our language usage has middle-class kids "experimenting" with drugs and using them "recreationally;" there is no such mitigating language when black ghetto kids use drugs.

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David Hilfiker

is a physician and cofounder of Joseph's House. He's the author of Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor's Journey with the Poor and Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen.