Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Mistrust among the poor

I am reading Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City by Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, a compulsively readable in-depth account of how poor inner city men view and attempt to fulfill their responsibilities as fathers. The authors lived in Camden, NJ, one of the country's poorest cities, and spoke in depth to some 110 unmarried fathers in Camden and poor black and white neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

The title aptly captures the core idea: the men have shining ideals of fatherhood and marriage but hold themselves to much lower standards in keeping with their earning power and lack of strong ties to their children's mothers. Most beget children as the result of brief and haphazard relationships with women and are much more invested in their relationships with the children than with the children's mothers. Repeatedly, these mostly none-too-trustworthy men express a lack of trust in women.  And one expression of that lack of trust reminded me of a different all-too-common suspicion. Below, a father of three speaks:

..though he stopped by her mother’s house nearly every day, even if just for a few minutes, he helped financially only when the child “needed” something: that is, something out of the ordinary like money for school clothes or a field trip. The “as needed” approach to financial provision, which seldom puts cash in the hands of the child’s mother but is directly responsive to particular needs of the child, is the method of support nearly all men prefer, unless they have an exemplary relationship with their ex-partner.Jabir Rose explains that giving cash to his children’s mothers only encourages them to misappropriate the money: “Let me tell you something: the average dollar that those females get does not go to that child,” he asserts. “Where it’s going is on their dresses. It’s going on their jewelry, their drinks, their habits, and every damn thing else. The average dollar is not going on the child like it was supposed to” (Kindle locations 2006-2014).

The authors comment:
Given the very tight budgets of their children’s mothers, it is hard to put much stock in these claims. But that is beside the point. The frequency with which men fixate on the luxurious trips to fancy restaurants or splurges for jewelry or cosmetics at the mall— frivolities that they imagine are consuming their hard-earned money— speaks to the strong current of mistrust that pervades these relationships from start to finish (2015-2017).
What struck me was that these suspicions mirror those of many Americans who resent the use of taxpayer dollars to provide services to the poor. It's the "welfare queen" sentiment, the "nation of takers" fear, the feeling that one's hard-earned money is going to give "free stuff" to those who won't put it to proper use. In the U.S. there's  a racial component to that resentment, but it's one that I guess springs eternal regardless of race. There are inevitably strands of truth to it too, tangled up with the impossibly complex snarl of circumstance and unequal opportunity that disfigure human social life -- more so in the U.S. than in most other wealthy nations.  In any case, it's striking to see that attitude mirrored within the inner city.

1 comment:

  1. Send me a message, sometime, and I will explain it to you.