Keeping Families Together in the Inner City


Americans have long believed that in the ''inner city'' -- two words which combined mean black, poor and dangerous -- the family is going to pieces. What else could explain the social pathologies associated with the urban underclass? Government, we are told, has made matters worse through programs that promote disunity, illegitimacy and dependence. Is public spending really to blame? Perhaps, but not for the reasons most people think.

Families have always adapted to government incentives and economic realities. The pioneer family -- a favorite source for yearnings for a mythical past when men were upright, women sustained the home and children knew how to be respectful -- was subsidized by massive federal land grants and state-sponsored investments.

The exalted ''Leave It to Beaver'' family of the 1950s was partly the result of an expanding manufacturing economy and government disbursements. GI benefits, federal housing loans and education payments fostered family self-sufficiency. Such government allotments were never classified as ''welfare'' but, in essence, that is what they were. Furthermore, they worked.

There is no inevitable connection between government spending, inefficiency and deleterious social consequences. When Americans decry the effect of government beneficence on family values, they are not thinking about past benefits that flowed from public expenditures to them or their relatives. They are thinking about the close to 5 million households -- most of them headed by women -- who receive Aid for Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). Even advocates despair that government spending has failed to lift those families out of poverty, reinforcing instead a cycle of idleness and deviant behavior. Why doesn't welfare succeed?

The answer would be obvious if we removed our blinders. First, while public spending on middle-class families throughout the first half of this century was lavish, it was miserly in the case of the poor. Despite its reputation as a burden on the taxpayer, AFDC consumes only 1 percent of the national budget.

Second, government initiatives that bolstered families did so indirectly through infusions into physical infrastructure, education and subsidies to home ownership. AFDC does nothing of that sort, instead, it provides insufficient support for children with an ironic consequence: the widespread, but mostly erroneous, conviction that women choose motherhood to swindle the government. In other words, it is not the spending but its paltriness and misdirection that makes programs for the poor complicit in the perpetuation of inner-city distress.

However, deficient and misguided public expenditures are only a small part of the problem; economic exclusion is a larger culprit. More lethal than guns and crack are the effects of red-lining and diminished investment in poor neighborhoods. Job losses in manufacturing, the effect of economic globalization, have worsened the situation. Families in the inner city are not so much crumbling as adjusting to compromised welfare programs and economic marginalization.

For several years, I have been investigating the circumstances surrounding 50 families in two West Baltimore neighborhoods. Most of those families are headed by women who receive public assistance. Although their households conform to a well-known profile, they do not corroborate an equally familiar stereotype. Joblessness, despondency, ignorance, substance abuse, male incarceration and a staggering number of adolescent mothers are all part of the picture unveiling before me on a weekly basis. Yet other aspects, hidden to the distant observer, are equally apparent:

More than half the women in those families supplement AFDC through paid work in informal activities that include attending to the elderly, petty vending, domestic service and child care. More than a third of adolescents of both sexes hold jobs, mostly in retail stores. Three quarters of all household members attend church regularly.

And despite all that is said to the contrary, most fathers maintain contact with their children even when they are not household members. Their shadowy presence bears testimony to a simple fact: their inability to make steady financial contributions to their families.

When grown men are unable to hold better jobs than those available to teen-agers, and when women must choose between minimum-wage employment or public assistance, is it any wonder that their families seem different than those shaped by occupational opportunity, high-quality education and health investment? The mystery is not that inner-city families flounder but that they continue to survive against all odds.

The November elections provided the latest opportunity to bemoan the collapse of family values and to clamor for the dismantling of welfare programs. To do so would surely erode the living conditions of close to 10 million children.

The lesson is clear: Good schools and good jobs fortify families. Government investments in education, infrastructure and business formation nurture family integrity vastly more than haughty moralizing.

M. Patricia Fernandez Kelly is a research scientist at the Institute for Policy Studies of The Johns Hopkins University.

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