Parents that are poor and living in the inner-city are a topic of many debates. Some are called “the greatest” and some are called “the worst.” Kathryn Edin and I are going to play with concepts around both, on this edition of Frank Relationships.
FRANK RELATIONSHIPS: POOR AND PARENTING IN THE INNER-CITY
Guests: Kathryn Edin
Date: June 24, 2013
Frank: Fathers in the inner city are a topic of many debates. Some are called the greatest and some are called the worst. We’re going to play with the concepts around both on this edition of Frank Relationships.
Welcome to Frank Relationships where we provide a candid, fresh and frank look into relationships with goals of acceptance, respect and flexibility. I’m Frank Love and you can find me, my blog and my various social media incarnations at franklove.com.
The topic of the day is fatherhood. What is it? What does it mean to do a good job at it? What are the affects if you’re not good at it? Is being a parent of value to the poor? Why don’t those broke good-for-nothing welfare families stop making babies?
These are some of the critical and often thought provoking questions that many Americans participate in. Well, today we’ve got some answers.
Our guest is a professor of public policy and management at the Kennedy School of Government and a faculty affiliate with the sociology department at Harvard University. She’s the co-author of Promises I Can Keep, Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, Making Ends Meet, How Low Income Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low Wage Work, and the book we’ll be discussing today, Doing The Best I Can: Fatherhood In The Inner City.
That’s right Father’s Day is on the horizon and if you want to know what her research says about whether poor men value being a father, whether poor people value the institution of marriage and why the promotion of marriage can be detrimental, then join me for the next hour as I spend time with noted author and researcher, Kathryn Edin. Welcome to the show.
Kathryn: Thank you, Frank.
Frank: How are you?
Kathryn: I’m good. We’re going to have some severe weather here in New Jersey, but we’ll hang on and I’ll enjoy talking with you and to your audience.
Frank: Wonderful. Let’s just start off with, what are you up to? You’ve got a lot of credentials under your belt. What are you up to these days?
Kathryn: Well, at the moment I’m in Camden, New Jersey where the book, Doing the Best I Can is set and in about an hour I’m going to go talk to some of the dads that were in the book. So, school is out and people like me get to do what we like to do when we’re not in the classroom. I’m back in the field and listening to men’s stories about their lives.
Frank: Tell me about the book.
Kathryn: The book really emanated out of earlier books that you mentioned about mom’s, Promises I Can Keep. In Promises I Can Keep Maria Kefalas and I spent seven years talking to low income single mothers in Philadelphia in Camden. It’s the setting for much of my work. And people kept saying, “You’ve told us all this about moms and you never talk to the dads.” And I would say, “Well, I don’t need to talk to the dads. I know what the dads are about. The dads don’t care.”
So finally, I was convinced by a colleague to talk to the dads and my co-author Tim Nelson and I began. We moved into a low income neighborhood here in Camden and–
Frank: Moved literally? That’s where you lived?
Kathryn: We did.
Kathryn: We did. In the Rosedale section of east Camden. And we really wanted to get the story right. It seemed like everyone thought that they knew what father stories were, but nobody was really talking to the dads. We moved in to a one bedroom apartment. Actually, it was a studio and began hanging out in the neighborhood and eventually we worked across 23 different Philadelphia and Camden local neighborhoods. Both white and black men, 110 men. We interacted with each father multiple times and all of that has culminated in this book.
Frank: Now, the current book is about fathers as you noted and you said it sprang from the research that you did with mothers. What did you learn about mothers?
Kathryn: The question that motivated our research on mothers really came from a serious of radio talk shows just like this one that I did in the mid-1990’s, about how low income single mothers made ends meet. And when callers would call in they’d say, “Well Dr. Edin, it’s great that you’ve documented the economic struggles of single moms, but why do they have the kids in the first place. And why don’t they just get married?”
And I didn’t know the answer to those questions. That’s what motivated the book, Promises I Can Keep, and what Maria Kefalas and I learned was that children are really seen as the chief source of meeting an identity in young women’s lives. And marriage is valued, in fact. It’s valued tremendously, but mothers hold it to a high standard.
You don’t want to get married just to get divorced and oftentimes while they’re readying themselves or waiting to meet this very high standard for marriage, they’re not willing to postpone child bearing, because at the core they’re worried that the marital standard is something they may never be and they don’t want to spend life without kids.
Frank: Are these women of the belief that they are of a certain caliber and that they’re not going to be able to find men of the same caliber or are they looking for men of a higher caliber?
Kathryn: Well, that’s interesting. I think they’re expectations are high, but they’re both high for themselves, their partners and for the relationship itself.
They talk about marriage requiring the white picket fence dream. That’s the economic bar. They don’t expect the man to be the breadwinner per say. They see this as something they’re going to accomplish together as a couple. But they want to be economically ready. They want to be debt-free. Certainly, being on welfare is too low of a standard. It’s underneath that economic bar. They want to have a little money in the bank. They want to be secure.
Everyone knows that money troubles stress a relationship and they want to show their reverence for marriage by making sure they are economically set. But sometimes they refer to that as the white picket fence. It’s a very American notion. But they also have a high relationship bar. They want to make sure they’re ready and their partner’s ready for marriage. And in part this is about feeling that you’ve lived your life, feeling that you’ve become who you are.
People often say, “Well, I have to know me before I could know someone else,” and part of it is just being able to trust your partner, especially–of course, there’s special concerns around fidelity.
They sound like a lot of other Americans, but the difference is of course, they’re going ahead and having children.
Frank: Let’s set a foundation a little bit. Tell me about poor. How is poor described in your research and in the people that you’ve worked with?
Kathryn: There’s many different ways that you could operationlize that concept. What we did is, we just took the U.S. government definition of poor. Any woman living in a household where her income was less than the poverty line in the year that we interviewed her–currently the poverty line stops in the low $20,000’s for a family of four. So, it’s a very low standard. And similarly for men, any man who, over the course of the last year was earning less in the formal economy than the poverty line for a family of four. So we’re talking about folks in the bottom quintile of the income distribution, the bottom fifth of the income distribution.
Frank: And what about ready for marriage, tell me about that concept?
Kathryn: It’s not as if men think that they have to have a MBA or a $50,000 bank about in order to get married. But they really feel that they have to be stable economically. And they feel this way about being a father as well, interestingly enough. Although they don’t wait to become fathers until they’ve met that bar.
Byron Jones from the Mantua section of the Philadelphia told us, that in order to be ready to have a family you have to be “economically set” and then he pauses and he says, “But when’s that nowadays?”
Frank: And did he have children?
Kathryn: He did have children.
Frank: Was he economically set?
Kathryn: He was not and for many of these guys, the economy doesn’t provide the opportunity to reach that goal. One of the surprises of the book is how thirsty for fatherhood these men were. And not for the status, they didn’t want to just show off to their peers, “I’m a dad, look at what I did.” It was really about embracing a role. It was about some of the themes you talk about on your show, about generativity, about giving back, about investing in another human being.
Fatherhood is something they could do and although they held to this economic bar, they also thought that in the face of an accidental pregnancy, which most of these pregnancies were, they could still contribute and so they really emphasized the emotional content of their relationship with their children over the financial, even while recognizing that the circumstances were less than ideal.
Frank: I find it ironic that many men and maybe women don’t feel themselves to be ready to have a child or to be a parent, yet they have children. And it raises the question, the expectations that we as a society put on these men and those men put on themselves in terms of being “ready” or “being good enough.” And in many ways there’s no time when you’re ready and you’re good enough now. Do you have any comment on that?
Kathryn: That’s right. There’s a catch 22 here, right? Every human being needs some sense of hope and some sense of meaning. Most of us find children enormously meaningful and for people at the bottom of the economic ladder, there are not a whole lot of other sources of meaning available.
Parenthood is something that people are familiar with. It’s something folks think they can accomplish. But if they really held to the standard of readiness they would never have children and it’s probably too much of society to ask of them.
We’re holding poor folks to an impossible standard and they’re responding by keeping one partner to standard–that is holding off on marriage. But going ahead and having the kids. So, they’re trying to do the right thing in one sense, but they’re not willing to give up this central part of life.
Frank: Of being a human.
Kathryn: Of being a human, exactly.
Frank: Many individuals have conservation around “welfare parents.” Why do I need to be paying for them to have babies when they’re just going to be having more?
Kathryn: Yeah. This is the exact question that motivated the book, Promises I Can I Keep. And so here’s the good news. The good news is that since 1996 when we passed the big welfare form legislation, the welfare roles have shrunk dramatically. We now have only about a little over one million adults on welfare in America and about three and a half million kids; so just a tiny trickle of welfare recipients are left.
Meanwhile, we made a lot of policy changes in the mid-1990’s that made it pay for women who had children to go to work. We give them a waste subsidy called the EITC. It’s a little known fact, but if you’re a mom and you work at a low wage job, you get a big check back from the government at tax time. Far more than you paid in. So we made work pay for moms and they responded by leaving welfare and going to work.
Of course, what we learned in paralysis they weren’t having babies to get more welfare, they were having children and then ending up on welfare. And in the old days it was hard to leave welfare, because the jobs paid so poorly. But we fixed that problem. We made work pay for women. We did not do that for men, however. And so, men are struggling at jobs that don’t offer enough hours or enough pay to really be respectable.
There’s a basic issue of respectability. They’re still going out there and taking those jobs. You hear some folks talk about the inner-city and you’d think that no one was working. But if you spend any time there, you quickly realize that everybody’s working. They’re hustling down to day labor. They’re doing the informal jobs. They’re trying to get formal jobs when they can.
It’s a real struggle. You may be in the informal economy or the underground economy for awhile when you’re a young person. But you quickly figure out that it’s too dangerous. As a lot of guys say to us, “Slow money”–in other words, the money from legitimate jobs–“Slow money is sure money.”
Fast money (i.e., drug money), just trickles away. Men who don’t get caught up in that criminal justice system often desist from crime fairly young and try to steer a legitimate course, but it’s very hard to do. The labor market increasingly is not co-operating, even though people may have mainstream goals and aspirations.
Frank: Regarding the EITC, it’s a tax rebate?
Kathryn: Yes, it is.
Frank: We want mothers to go to work, and we are giving them a rebate for going to work. We want them to go to work so that they’re not sitting at home, having “more babies” and sucking up the tax dollars, yet we’re spending tax dollars to give them a rebate for going to work. Are we saving any money? And clearly we’re getting folks out of the house, which is a good thing in my estimation, but are we saving any money?
Kathryn: I’m going to answer that question in a minute, but think back to America’s–the EITC is very popular among almost all Americans, even though it costs more than welfare. That’s the irony, right?
Frank: That is quite ironic.
Kathryn: Yes, but there’s a reason Americans love the EITC and they hate welfare. If you think back to the founding of this country, the basic promise America made to its immigrants, its citizens, is that in America no matter who you are, no matter what your origin, if you work hard, you’ll make it. It’s the Horatio Alger. Dream, right? But what happened in the 70’s is the economy–actually, this has been true for African Americans for a long time, but in the 70’s whites began to experience it too.
As of the unskilled part of the economy really started to sink, especially in Camden, Philadelphia, Campbell’s Soup and RCA, these industrial giants, just falling by the wayside, moving south or overseas or shutting down. That promise was broken and what the EITC did–what Clinton did when the EITC was passed in 1994, is it basically guaranteed that the working poor–and the very term working poor is a violation of America’s contract with it’s citizen’s. You shouldn’t be poor if you’re working. It basically turned this little tax program into a pay raise for the working poor.
Frank: Got it.
Kathryn: Yeah, and that’s why Americans like it and very few folks are against the EITC, because they see it as fair. We don’t raise them and wait. We let it remain fairly low, because we don’t want to penalize employers. We could penalize employers, make them pay a living wage to their employees, but instead we support both, the business class and the working poor with through the EITC.
Frank: Child support–over the years I’ve seen that as a recurring conflict between men and women. And I’m sure it’s definitely a recurring conflict between men and women that are poor. They’re not exclusive. They’re not any different than the rest of the population. What have you seen go on between the two as it pertains to child support, the courts? Is the fight about child support a good one? Just where do you weigh in on that?
Kathryn: I think child support is especially a thorny issue among the group of folks that we’ve been talking to–families in the inner-city. When you have a child and you’re not married, you have the opportunity at the hospital to voluntarily say you’re the dad. It’s called voluntarily paternity establishment. And the vast majority of men do this.
They sign up knowing full well that they’re going to be hounded by the child support authorities. And they do it, because they’re hopeful that the relationship is going to work. They don’t think they’re going to be subject to child support, But also, because they want to claim that kid. They want that relationship. They want to be dads. So, they sign up, but when they sign up for child support, unlike divorced dads, when they’re accessed to child support obligations they’re not automatically also granted visitation.
So, they’re treated as paychecks and not parents from the get-go. And they have to often go to court separately and that costs money–
Frank: That costs money.
Kathryn: In order to claim any sort of rights over the kids. Now this legal system not only limits them legally, but it also has the impact of creating the impression that the children “belong” to the mother.
Frank: To the mother. And on top of that, the mother is often able to procure legal assistance from the state. So, mom has an attorney or at least an advocate and dad perceives that he has nothing and has to pay for an attorney to–
Kathryn: Yes, if you don’t have custody of the child, oftentimes legal aid will not help you. That’s correct. That’s correct. Usually we think of men as being very powerful and women as being less powerful, but this is really a situation in which it’s turned around.
Now, I will say that mothers do end up bearing most of the financial burden. Neither side is winning here, but dads do have a lot less power over what happens with that kid. And that ends up–oftentimes when things have really soured between the two and she finds a new guy, she’s often tempted to say, “Well forget about you. I’m going to let this other man perform the role of fatherhood with my child, because I think he’s better for my kid.” And mother’s often do this and push dad away.
The conflict with dad and the new partner can be severe as well. But the understandable strategy that mothers pursue ends up being short-sighted, because that new relationship is often no more stable than the old relationship. So the kid not only loses one dad, the kid loses two.
Frank: I understand you’re not a legal professional, but any advice to the biological father in terms of how to stay, get in and remain in that child’s life if he wants to?
Kathryn: Yeah, and you know what’s great about the story is that if you look at a father’s fathering career–so, if you don’t ask for any given child how long is the father involved? Instead, if you look at, “Okay, let’s take this father, is he at any given point and time at least intensively involved with one of his children?” The answer is yes. He does father. He just doesn’t father all of his children all of the time. He tends to father each of his children one at a time.
He fulfills that father thirst. But of course, the kids don’t come out so well in this scenario, because for every one child that’s parented well, there might be another child without a dad. But advice for dads, I do have some advice for dads.
First of all, typically pregnancy happened by accident in the context of a very short-lived relationship and men often don’t know their partners very well and while they try to, in the face of an unplanned pregnancy, get it together for the sake of the child and they really make pretty amazing efforts to create a relationship with the mother around this surprise pregnancy. They really try to create real relationships and they even talk about marriage. The vast majority of men think at the time of the birth, think there’s a very strong chance they’ll marry the mother of the child.
So, they really are trying to make a relationship. But it’s hard to make the relationship when the woman you are with is the woman you happen to get pregnant rather than the woman you chose. You talk on your show about how important the choice is and how we have to have shared visions and shared values and shared tastes. That’s what keeps a relationship together. But that basic compatibility is often missing.
So, I would say choose, choose carefully. Realize that it’s not just about your relationship with child as much as you might want to think that’s all that’s important. That woman is going to be with you as long as that child is going to be with you. So choose carefully, slow down, be selective.
Frank: Yes, yes, yes.
Kathryn: We all probably need that advice.
Frank: That is so true. We’ll chat about that in a moment.
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You’re listening to Frank Relationships and we’re talking with Kathryn Edin, professor of public policy and management at the Kennedy School of Government, faculty affiliate with the Sociology Department at Harvard University and author of Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.
You say your book offers a strong counter argument to the conventional wisdom regarding fatherhood in America. How so?
Kathryn: Prior to this book and frankly we share this view. The conventional wisdom was that unwed dads in the inner-city didn’t care. They were interested in sex, not kids. And the first thought when a woman would come up to them and say, “Well, I’m pregnant,” they would quickly flee. The last thing they wanted to do was to have the responsibility for a child.
So, I’ll tell you a little story about how that view was corrected. When we moved to Camden, the first person we interviewed was a young man, still in high school named Andre Green. We asked Andre to tell us the story of how his girlfriend got pregnant with his child, Jolissa. And he described the following story. He was coming home from a trip and he walked into the row house he lived in with his mom and his brother and his stepfather. Tey were doubled up with aunt Charlene, because economic times were bad. With suitcase in hand and as he opened the door, his aunt greeted him and said, “Hey, you remember that girlfriend Sonya that you used to have,” and he caught a look in her eyes. She had this look in her eyes. She wanted to impart some news. And so he said, “Yeah,” and she–
Frank: “What about her?”
Kathryn: “What about her,” exactly. And she said, “She’s pregnant.” So, Andre describes, slamming his hand down on the counter, shouting “Oh man, what am I going to do?” Acting angry, right? Stomping up the stairs at Camden row house–stomping up those stairs to his room, slamming the door, pausing to make sure nobody was there, because he shared the room with his brother and then–
Kathryn: Dancing around the room and shouting, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Frank: That’s funny.
Kathryn: And you know, we said, “Andre, you were in high school. Why did you do this?” And he said, “Well, the first thought that went though my mind is, “I don’t want to be like my dad. This is my chance to do better than my dad.” Not only that, Andre lives in Camden, New Jersey and in that year there were more minorities than any Camden’s history.
Camden is America’s most dangerous city currently and it was in that year. And given all the negativity in the neighborhood, the father and all of the risk, his brother by the way had just been murdered when this scene occurred– and given all the negativity in his life, the thought of a baby, something positive–
Frank: And pure in many ways.
Kathryn: And pure, exactly. It was almost like a magic wand. And Andre is very involved in his daughter’s life even today.
Frank: And how does he and his mom get along?
Kathryn: I haven’t asked him that. I don’t think mom’s involved actually. It’s an interesting complicated story.
Frank: Aren’t all of our stories a bit interesting and complicated?
Kathryn: That’s right.
Frank: Define for me “deadbeat dad?” Certainly not a new term, but let’s just get that out of the way.
Kathryn: This relates to the notion of, does society want you to be a paycheck or a parent?
Deadbeat dad is usually used in the context of child support. Is the guy paying? The mom is, “What have you done for me lately? Where’s the money?” And of course she’s saying this, because she’s got to pay the light bill. She’s got put a roof over the kid’s head. So we understand where she’s coming from.
But the dad is saying, “Hey, you’re calling me a deadbeat, because I don’t have any money, but what about the other things I contribute? Why don’t you respect me for that?” And he’s saying, “I’m not a deadbeat. I want to be a dad.” Men across America are more involved in their family’s lives more than they were a generation ago.
This is in response to what’s called the new father movement. In the aftermath of feminist and men started changing diapers and getting more involved in their kids’ lives. But what we’ve missed in this story is that lower income men have especially embraced this notion that there’s a softer side to fatherhood.
We argue that the reason they’ve found this idea to be especially attractive is they’re having more and more trouble as a traditional provider domain. So they’re trying to substitute the softer side of fatherhood for this more traditional side of fatherhood. But while they’re trying to do that, society is saying to them, “Uh-uh, you’re still a paycheck, you’re still a deadbeat.” So fathers are fighting a battle with society really and with the mothers of their children.
For example, when they do provide, we documented that they provide about twice as much as you’d capture, if you just look at the child support figures, because they’re doing a lot in-kind provision, as well as financial provision, for their kids. When they bring over that pair of Jordan’s rather than paying the light bill.
Frank: You are very versed, a pair of Jordan’s.
Kathryn: Yeah exactly, every time their child looks at that pair of tennis shoes that child is going to say, “My dad cares about me.” And these men know that and they know that if they pay the light bill their kids not going to say, “My dad cares about me.” So they’re trying to deploy a relational logic with regard to child support, right? They’re trying to take their meager resources and use them to forge a relationship with their children. In Philadelphia they want to go to the Please Touch Museum.
They want to take their kids to Penn’s Landing. They want to spend summer searching for the perfect water ice–that’s the Philadelphia Italian ice–for their children. These are the kinds of things they want to spend their money on and the mom is still stuck paying the light bill. So, it’s a battle in which both sides are right and both sides are wrong.
Frank: Step-parenting, you mentioned sometimes the mother wants the new boyfriend to be dad and basically wants dad to go somewhere, be forgotten about. That can be minimized if the men in that scenario decide that they’re not going to function that way where the step-dad says, “Hold, that’s her father. You’re not going to alienate him.” Or where dad’s actually says to the step parent, “I’d like to work with you. You’re here all the time and I’m not, but I’m his dad and I want to be dad and I certainly respect you for being where you are.”
Now what I’m saying is, the way I would like to deal and the way I would like to be dealt with, but everybody doesn’t function that way.
Kathryn: That’s right. That has huge potential. If we could convince step dads to do what you just described, it would change everything. But here’s what happens instead and is why and here’s why.
Let’s say you have $100. Now, let’s say you give that $100 to your child’s mother. Your child’s mother is going to say, “Hey, that’s a $100, but I spent $500 on the rent last month. That’s not so great.” In other words your contribution is measured against a sense of what you’re obligated to pay, right?
Now let’s say you spend that same $100 on the child on a child you are not biologically related to. The child of a girlfriend of with whom you don’t have a child. She’s going to think you’re a hero, because you weren’t obligated to provide anything for that child and yet you gave $100.
Now this dynamic is why step-fathers so often find the social father role almost addictive, because they can contribute and look really good. In fact, they can contribute the same exact dollar amount the bio dad is contributing–
Frank: And get twice the credit.
Kathryn: And get twice the credit, precisely. So, that’s a tricky dynamic. And there’s one more dynamic that’s also tricky. Oftentimes there’s sexual jealousy between the men.
Kathryn: When bio dad comes over to visit, the new boyfriend–the tension is hard to overestimate. So, he’s jealous and it can make it impossible for the father to visit without provoking conflict. And indeed the mom doesn’t want the new relationship to fail the way the old relationship does.
So this is often why she says, “You know you can’t visit anymore.” One guy, Holloway Middleton, from the nice town section of Philadelphia, describes this dynamic. He just loved his little girl and his girlfriend pushed him out when he wasn’t making enough money and got this new boyfriend.
This new boyfriend had a decent job. Holloway called him a big shot. Anyway, pretty soon the girlfriend says, “You know what? You can’t visit here anymore,” and Holloway loves his 16 year old. So he describes literally slinking around the corner trying to catch a glimpse of his daughter. And one day he’s doing this–he just wants to see her, to make sure she’s okay. And he sees his little girl with the big shot and the big shot is buying his daughter ice cream. And his little girl is looking up at this other man with such a look of pleasure on her face. Holloway’s heart is broken.
Frank: Devastated, yeah.
Frank: So what did he do? How did he deal with that and what did you counsel him to do?
Kathryn: Holloway is an interesting guy. He came from a fairly strong family. His dad was a carpenter and Holloway’s got some learning disabilities. He could never quite master the trade that his father had. He was a janitor for a long time, pretty high up on the company. The company went bust and he’s only been able to get day labor jobs since. He works very faithfully though, at day labor, any time he can get out. But he only makes $50 a day. And despite that, most men would just give up and find a new woman and have another baby and try again. But Holloway has perseverance, and part of the reason he has perseverance and other guys don’t, is he’s got this emotional strength. Coming from a family of origin, that’s just a little more stable.
He’s able to muster that energy to face rejection again and again. And he’s still trying. But many men come from more traumatic backgrounds. They describe childhoods that left them less than strong emotionally. The emotional struggle is really tough when you have a traumatic childhood.
Frank: I want to make an appeal to our listeners, the males that may be step parents, the males that are bio dads and that’s to talk to one another and to discover possibility. Because either a bio dad can be a step-dad and a step-dad can be a bio dad and you want to, in my opinion, deal with each other the way you would like to be dealt with.
It’s not an easy position to be in, particularly when you are looking at your counterpart or what you consider your counterpart as an enemy or a problem when you guys could work together and develop a system of being supportive. And the same thing with women too and the same thing even with women or men who are now dealing with the step parent who is considered the reason for the break up, for the relationship that they used to be in.
There are such complicated issues around relationships period, but possibility is a beautiful thing. And when you understand that your ex’s new girlfriend or new wife is not inherently your enemy, that she could actually be your partner in child raising and the same thing goes for the males, things open up in a whole new manner. Instead of having an enemy you end up creating a partner. That’s my frank love for the moment.
Kathryn: Well said.
Frank: Thank you. What were some of the goals that you found that many of the men that we’ve been discussing had? Were they all interested in just doing day labor or did they actually want to go to college? Were they going to college or were they entrepreneurs?
Kathryn: That’s interesting. One fact that pervades all of the work that we’ve done over the years in inner-city neighborhoods is that poor people have just astonishingly mainstream dreams. You interview kids: they want to be doctors, lawyers, right. They want to be attorneys–
Frank: Firemen, police officers, yeah.
Kathryn: Firemen and police officers, exactly. You interview them as teenagers–we’ve been following a group of young men from really the mid-1990’s when they were young kids through the present day when they are in their early adulthood–and they want to be nurse’s assistants and medical technicians. And they want to get an associate’s degree and do accounting and they want to learn how to install air conditioners.
All of these men are in one way or another striving, almost all of them–there are a few exceptions–for some sort of mainstream life. And over time we know that many men do enter into stable jobs and do attach to what might be loosely called a career.
You can do one thing steadily or more or less steadily, like installing air conditioners. Over time men say, “Well, this time I’m going to father better, because my situation is better.” And it may well be that they will be better when their situations are better. They may learn from experience. And this is probably why we see when we look at men’s fathering careers that they’re usually intensely investing in one child even though they might have failed with others.
So men keep trying and some of those men succeed. Human beings are amazingly optimistic people. It just takes a few success stories.
We have a young man in Camden, Joe White, who we’re going to be talking to later today, who’s a real success story. He’s just a marvelous father to his two little girls and he’s got an infant son now and an older child who went down the wrong path, but he’s coming back.
If you invest in these guys–there are a lot of good fatherhood programs out there–you can turn some of this around, and that’s inspiring.
Frank: We’ve been talking about men who, most of us, would relate to. They want to do the “right thing.” They want to be good dads, all of that good stuff. But I’m sure you’ve come in contact with men who many would consider jerks or absentee fathers who have no desire to be around or with their children. Tell us about some of those experiences.
Kathryn: Yeah, you always remember those men. There are men that fit the stereotype. One man in this study got out of prison and he got seven women pregnant in just a few months.
Kathryn: Seven. Not all of those women brought the pregnancies to term, but he was sobered by that, by the way and through the help of his probation officer, began using protection consistently. It was sobering to him, but you do sometimes meet men that you think, “What were they thinking?”
And a couple of the men frankly fairly scary; they were in periods of their lives where they were just ripping and running the streets. They were abusing drugs. They might have been violent. Violence is not foreign to these relationships, especially when tensions get as high as they do among these couples. We had to come to terms with that as well and this book is not a Pollyanna book. It’s not exactly a beach read, because we have to tell the whole story. We don’t want to shade the truth.
Kathryn: So those stories are in the book and we trust the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Frank: Very nice. Violence, you mentioned it. What have you seen from the men to the women and the women to the men?
Kathryn: Well, everyday violence is really common in these couples and surveys find this as well. And women are often implicated as well as men. It’s not just the men that are violent. The men are stronger, of course, usually and so their actions might provoke more damage. But there’s just a lot of everyday violence in part, because of the pressure cooker young people put themselves into when pregnancy happens more by accidents than by design.
Sadly, the baby’s coming and you’re not economically set and you don’t even know the person very well, is having your baby. Just imagine dealing with the pressures of that, especially when your own childhood made you vulnerable to anxiety, depression or your brother was just murdered.
So there’s a lot of pressure on these young people and this often comes out in violence. Now, a lot of the violence is of course is associated with substance use. One of the more practical things we could talk about is how to address substance abuse problems.
Frank: Let’s go.
Kathryn: It affects work, it affects parenting, it affects relationships. The men who have been through treatments can sometimes really reclaim their lives in meaningful ways.
One guy, Richie Webber, a white guy from South Philly, has a remarkable story. Interestingly enough, he works construction, and he never has missed a day of work. But he became a very, very serious drug addict and he had this son who he loved, Christian. And one day he was just so low. He was living on a slide in the park, but still showing up at the construction trailer in the morning, barely able to function. And *(inaudible) 48:26. And he was walking around the corner and there was Christian, and Christian looks at his dad and says, “You know dad, I just hate to see you this way,” but yet Christian never gave up on his dad. And he said to his dad–his dad had not a red cent to give him. “Dad I don’t care about your money, I just want a little bit of your time. So this kid, this remarkable kid stuck with the dad and the dad got treatment and that is a beautiful relationship.
Christian didn’t end up losing his dad and Richy regained a son. And it was partly that kid that gave Richy the strength to pull out of it. But it was really hard for him to get treatment. We don’t have a lot of treatment available. The treatment we have is not always effective. Prevention is something we need to focus more on.
Frank: I noticed that you–and I’m about to draw quite a few conclusions in what I’m about to say. So, correct me where I’m wrong.
Frank: But I noticed you use full names when you’re describing many of the people that you’ve worked with and to me that alludes to the relationships that you built with each of these individuals.
So, if I’m correct I must give you kudos, because most likely you’re also using the full names in your books and these individuals undoubtedly have given you permission to use their names and–
Kathryn: Well, there’s one correction and that is because of federal Law regarding these research studies, we’re prohibited from using real names, so each father created his own name and he knows who he is.
Kathryn: And so if any father hears me on–if Holloway Middleton hears me on the radio, he can call me up or he can call you up and say, “Hey, that’s not my story.” And so, that’s how we get around that, because we do get to know the men really well and we’ve memorized their stories, just going over and over them to try to figure out how to best portray what they told us to a boarder audience. But they do know who they are. Even though other people don’t know who they are, their privacy is protected. They can say, “Hey, that’s me,” if they choose to.
Frank: Have you ever made any recommendations to the courts or the criminal justice system based on your research?
Kathryn: We have. In fact, last week we were in Washington speaking to a wide variety of agencies including child support and Health and Human Services. There are a lot of little things I could tell you, what these agencies ought to do or could do, but I think there’s an overriding principle that’s the most important thing that we can tell these agencies. And the principle is that all of society, especially the government, treats low income families as if they consist of a mom and a baby.
Dad is never mentioned, right? It’s absolutely amazing. I go to meeting after meeting. Nobody mentions the fact that children have fathers. You’d think there were millions of immaculate conceptions.
Frank: I mean, that’s across the board and–
Kathryn: It’s across the board. That’s correct. And we’ve got to change that. Every time you go to the pediatrician, that pediatrician should be saying, “Hey, where’s dad?” Every time you go to the PTA meeting, the teacher should assume that dad and mom are going to be there.
My husband goes to most of the parent-teacher conferences. And my co-author is my husband, Tim Nelson and when I show up, more rarely they say, “Oh, finally,” as if he didn’t count. But especially with these low income men who are so powerless, we need to start recognizing that we can’t just treat them as paychecks.
We have to encourage them to pay, because the lights need to stay on, but we also need to respect their caring capacities. And if we don’t, we’re not only jeopardizing the well being of children, but these guys are going to pursue fatherhood until they succeed. And if we want them to have fewer children that they don’t support, we need to encourage them in those early fatherhood experiences in ways that allow them to stay involved.
Frank: Well said. Why can the promotion of marriage, at times, be considered detrimental? That’s almost blasphemous in many communities.
Kathryn: Yeah. I’ve been looking at that issue actually for a number of years and here’s what’s good. Non-profits and even state governments across the country have been encouraging couples who are expecting a baby to get training in relationship skills. And when you bring young couples voluntarily together and teach them how to avoid violence, what the likely impact of infidelities is going to be on their relationship, the importance of the father’s role in a child’s life, the appropriate forms of discipline, when you teach them these relationship basics–which by the way, many of them don’t know, because they didn’t observe healthy relationships as children. This can really work.
In Oklahoma, the most successful example of this, a very good relationships skills program has led to the following result. After 30 months, there is a 20 percent increase in the probability that the couple will have continuously lived together.
We hardly ever see impacts that big when we do social programs. However, if you just promote marriage without paying attention to the fact that these couples have standards for marriage that all society holds. And they don’t want to get married just to get divorced. We’ve got to respect that too.
So if you push marriage without understanding the importance of economic stability, why don’t we promote marriage and also help a guy get a job? We haven’t tried that by the way.
I think its short-sighted to think that we can short circuit these standards. Now, in some ways you might say these standards are a little too high, you don’t have to exactly have the white picket fence. But when the middle class is now waiting until their late 20’s or early 30’s to marry, when the middle class is treating marriage as in Andy Churlin’s words, “A capstone and not a cornerstone as an end point and not a starting point,” it’s really hard to get the poor to act in ways that the middle class is not embracing. So, across society we’ve got this really high marital standards and we’ve got to figure out a way to make marriage more doable across society, but particularly for the poor.
Frank: You’re listening to Frank Relationships. We’re talking with Kathryn Edin, professor of public policy and management at the Kennedy School of Government, faculty affiliate with the Sociology Department at Harvard University and author of Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.
Is there anything you want to tell us about how we can get in touch with you?
Kathryn: I am the only Edin at Harvard. You can find me easily. I welcome hearing from your listeners. It’s been great to talk with you Frank.
Frank: Thank you. A few more questions and we’ll wrap up. Is there anything wrong with divorce in your estimation? I’ve written quite a bit about this. In fact, my book is, How to Gracefully Exit a Relationship. I’m curious where you fall on that.
Kathryn: Since 1980, there’s been a huge divorce divide in America. It used to be that the rich and the poor were not that different in terms of their probability of divorcing. But currently, the marriages of the middle class, the college educated, are very stable. In fact, they’re as stable as they were in the early 1960’s before the divorce revolution. The middle class people are increasingly figuring out how to stay together.
The opposite is happening at the bottom. Divorce rate have continued to climb. So, although the overall divorce rate has remained steady since 1980, it kind of went up. The divorce revolution drove the divorce up in the 70’s and then it leveled off in the 80’s. That kind of hides this divorce divide.
Divorce is costly. It’s costly emotionally. It’s costly financially, but what’s ended up happening is the burden of divorce is being born increasingly by the people who are going to be hurt by it the most.
And that’s part of why the people we talk to say, “Hey, I don’t want to get married just to get divorced.” They’re trying not to get divorced. So these standards for marriage are meaningful. So the marriages that are occurring are oftentimes the marriages where the kids are already in the picture or his kids and her kids are already in the picture. And when you have complicated family situations, the “Brady Bunch” not withstanding, it makes divorce more likely.
So, I think people could have an easier time again if they slowed down, if they chose their partners rather than ended up with them and if they thought about not just–if they invest not just in a relationship with that child, but in the relationship with that parent of that child as well.
It’s complicated to get divorce. It’s messy. In Europe–we think of Europe as very liberal, especially countries like Sweden or France. But Europeans are much less likely to break up than Americans are. And in fact, European co-habitations are about as long lived as American marriages. So, it’s really a uniquely American phenomenon to churn through partners. And churning through partners is hard for kids.
So, if a single mom has a partner that’s not good, she doesn’t think is good for whatever reason. Let’s say for sake of argument, she’s right, it would be one thing if she then exited gracefully as you’ve said from that relationship and stayed single, because that child would have a lot of stability. But what typically happens is she just enters into another relationship and then that relationship breaks up and then she enters into another relationship.
This is an American phenomenon, but it’s especially concentrated at the bottom. Kids are really resilient. Mavis Heatherton, along time ago showed that kids could recover from divorce, but research is now showing that when the transitions in parental figures are that rapid, kids are having a hard time adjusting, especially boys.
We, as Americans, need to slow down. I don’t think Americans are willing to let anyone tell them not to get divorced, because we’re very independent people, but I do think we care about our kids.
Frank: I agree.
Kathryn: And I think if we recognized what impact this could have on kids, maybe we could slow down.
Frank: Isn’t it safe to say that the European way of dealing with relationships is a little different also because their standard for marriage is different, meaning “infidelity” is more accepted, it’s more understood than it is here in the States?
Kathryn: I haven’t studied Europe. I have heard this as well, but I don’t know for a fact. But it is not tolerated here. It’s a little more tolerated in cohabitation than in marriage. And that’s part of why people say, “Oh, I can’t get married, because if ‘x’ happens, then I would have to get divorced.”
It’s absolutely not okay to be unfaithful to your partner while you’re married, because that will almost certainly spark a break-up, at least among the couples that we’ve talked to.
So, cohabitation is a little more flexible. And this is part of the reason say they’re not really for marriage, is because a lot of the men we’ve spoken to think that they’re not going to settle down until their mid-30’s.
Frank: And is that okay in your estimation? Do you–
Kathryn: It’s complicated right, because if you have kids, the average man who ever has non-marital birth has his first birth at 22 and 23. If he’s not going to settle down until 35, that’s a problem. We’ve got to bring together the settling down with the family formation so we don’t get that cycling through partnerships.
Frank: Well it’s a problem if it’s a problem. But if your perspectives on relationships are more liberal, whether it’s the man or his partner, it may not be a problem. But that’s certainly the scope of a whole other show.
Kathryn: Yeah, the question is really the impact on kids.
Frank: Yeah, uh-huh.
Kathryn: Right, yeah.
Frank: Along today’s journey we’ve discussed what Mrs. Edin’s research says about whether poor men value being a father, whether poor people value the institution of marriage and why the promotion of marriage can be detrimental.
I hope you’ve had as much fun as I’ve had discussing fatherhood and the inner city with Kathryn Edwin. I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity and the information.
As always, it’s my wish for you to walk away from this conversation with a heaping helping of useful information that’ll help you create a relationship that’s as loving and accepting as possible. Let us know what you thought of today’s show at facebook/relationshipflove, on Twitter @mrfranklove or at franklove.com. On behalf of my producer, Phileta Legette and my assistant producer Anayza Stewart, keep rising. This is Frank Love.
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