Lifestyles of the poor and anonymous

Posted: Dec 04, 2006 12:01 AM
Lifestyles of the poor and anonymous

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 equal-opportunity 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 systems 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, and 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 drop-out 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" 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 "hos." When the white revolutionaries in the '60s narcissistically valued independence 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. Traditional marriage, at its best, fosters social attitudes to help build self-reliant, 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 middle-class 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 married-couple-with children model is doing quite well among college-educated women," writes Kay Hymowitz. "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 sociologist 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."