A while back I read a book entitled Random Family. The author of this book followed a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx for 10 years, chronicling their activities. This was a glimpse into a lifestyle sold by the author as typical of those enduring extreme poverty in the American inner cities. As I promised (warned?) a while back, I have wanted to write about how this personification of extreme poverty has changed my thoughts on the problem, and made me navel gaze about our society's response to it.

First, I have not spent enough time in any inner city to state that the events depicted in the book are, to the extent any one family can be, typical. I write only about how the book made me think; if the book is inaccurate, then I freely admit my thoughts might be as well.

Second, I think there is a sort of inherent arrogance in writing about those less fortunate than I am. There is, I am afraid, an unstated undercurrent of superiority lurking in my writing. While I apologize for that, the fact is that I do not live in poverty, largely as a result of the decisions and efforts I have made, the decisions and efforts my parents have made, and their parents made before them.

With that said, let's start with my basic premise that was shattered by the book. As I lived my comfortable, white bread life out here in Montana, I was always self-assured in the fact that anyone in this country, white, black, green, brown, could achieve a modicum of security and physical comfort if he or she only made the correct choices. In other words, the support system and opportunity for change were present.

I was wrong. But the funny part is that the incorrect part of my assumption was not the one I expected. You see, I still believe that virtually any person who makes good choices can succeed. The difference, though, is that the notion that these people have a choice is essentially false. A twelve-year old girl who grows up watching virtually every older female in her life begin a life of serial relationships at the age of 14 or 15, many of them resulting in 'fatherless' children, really has no choice to speak of. A young boy who from the age of 4 or 5 sees his older brother, friends, uncles, and father impregnate women without responsibility, sell drugs, fight and steal really has no "choice." How can we expect a child to ignore every environmental cue he or she receives from those around her to weather the storm of available, inappropriate decisions?

We cannot "blame" the inner city poor for making bad decisions. A policy of simple compassion, though, does not work either. The short term material needs are in large part being met. Observing the subjects of the book, we rarely encounter starvation, and shelter (such as it is) and clothing are givens. These people (These people? There's that arrogance again.) smoke cigarettes, have transportation, watch television, listen to music, clean their homes, and generally do many of the things the rest of us do to distinguish ourselves from the truly poor of, say, Darfur or Ethiopia. We are feeding many of our poor. In fact, obesity is on the rise.

The question in my mind then is both systemic and strategic. How do we stop this cycle of extreme poverty? One could argue that the very compassion shown by society enables the cycle. In other words, people have the freedom to make a mess of their lives because society insulates them from the worst consequences of their terrible choices.

And to those who advocate for "social justice," I ask what is just about this system? If one family works hard, avoids substances, stresses education, and tries to raise their children to be responsible, contributing citizens, why is it "just" to take money from them in order to give a 17 year old male the opportunity to engage in sex without consequence (to him), to hang out on the street corner selling drugs and drinking beer? It's the money taken from the first family that is used to feed all of his little 'consequences.'

And, even if one concludes that the foregoing is "just," then the question becomes just how much the producers should be required to give. Viewed from the other side, how much more are the poor entitled to receive? Should we be allowed to distinguish among the poor? Should we try to feed the children, but not the irresponsible parents? Or does compassion simply dictate that we feed the hungry without inquiry. And if we accept the premise that these individuals truly lack the ability to make good choices, is it compassionate to watch, enable, even create a geometric progression of poverty?

What is the strategic plan?

Is this a cultural issue? Advocates of multi-culturalism suggest that there are differences in cultures, but that we must be careful to avoid ordering them. One is not necessarily better or worse than another; they are just different.

Has the extreme poverty in our inner city created a culture of need? Are the very decisions that continue the cycle now ingrained in that culture? Things such as serial childbirth without commitment, avoidance of education, disregard of law, are these things part of some sort of inner city culture?

And if they are, is it reasonable, realistic, or even 'just' to suggest that all cultures can or should arrive at the same ends? In other words, is it realistic to think that individuals raised in an inner city culture should nonetheless exit on the other end with the American Dream: home ownership with a white picket fence, a 2-car garage, and 2.8 kids? If a culture results in extreme poverty, should our goal as a society be to ensure that those whom it inculcates nevertheless have the same existence as all other cultures?

Or do we try to change it?


WolfPack said...

Where did the concept of shame go? If you spank your kid to instill discipline you are bad and shameful. If you raise your kid fatherless you are revered as a heroic single mother even though it’s well known to be bad for the child. Every time my wife gets invited to a baby shower for a single mom to celebrate another child who won’t get a fair shot in life because mom likes to get drunk and have sex with strangers, I just shake my head. Does this make me arrogant too?

free thought said...

GeeGuy, I think you would have more impact if you had used a better intro, like:

"It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin' on the porch with my family, singin' and dancin' down in Mississippi . . ."

david said...

Food for thought, GeeGuy...thanks.

Steve said...

Excellent analysis, and unfortunately disturbing at the same time. Taking on shibboleths is hard work. good luck!