[Paleopsych] NYT: (Class 11) A Success Story That's Hard to Duplicate

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A Success Story That's Hard to Duplicate


    The case of a welfare mother of six pulling herself into the ranks of
    the middle class is rare enough to compel experts on class and poverty
    to zero in on a single question: What would it take to create more
    Angela Whitikers?

    "It shows the importance of work and marriage," said [3]Sara S.
    McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton
    who specializes in family and poverty. "She found a good man and a
    good job. The thinking now is, it takes both to move out of poverty."

    [4]Walter Allen, a professor of sociology at the University of
    California, Los Angeles, whose areas of specialization include
    stratification and inequality, said: "She reflects a Horatio Alger
    kind of American dream story. The great news is that her efforts and
    initiative were rewarded. She got herself credentialed. The bad news
    is how challenging and how difficult it is to replicate her path."

    The reason is that upward mobility requires what sociologists describe
    as the twin pillars of success: human capital and social capital.
    Human capital is a person's education, job credentials and
    employability. Social capital usually means emotional support and
    encouragement from a reliable stakeholder in one's life, an asset
    commonly associated with marriage that is itself a form of wealth.

    Often, single mothers have neither, as was the case with Ms. Whitiker.
    In fact, as a mother with six children by five fathers - a situation
    sociologists call multiple partner fertility - she faced more
    obstacles than most.

    "The things going against this woman were phenomenal," Professor
    McLanahan said. "Women who have children with other men are the least
    likely to find a mate."

    In the current political climate, conservatives extol marriage as the
    solution to many of society's ills, while liberals argue that it alone
    cannot compensate for the effects of imperiled neighborhoods and
    failing schools. In fact, the research suggests that marriage may
    indeed be crucial to mobility out of poverty, but that it is not
    always enough.

    Of the small number of poor single mothers who marry, 56 percent are
    lifted out of poverty, according to a 2002 study conducted by
    [5]Signe-Mary McKernan and [6]Caroline Ratcliffe for the [7]Urban
    Institute. Getting a job is more common, and 39 percent of poor people
    who are hired rise out of poverty, as against 35 percent who get at
    least a two-year college degree.

    Because of high rates of joblessness and incarceration among black
    men, marriage is not a viable option for many poor single mothers.
    Only 1.4 percent of them marry in any given year, the Urban Institute
    study found.

    "Why do we feel that promoting marriage will solve the problem when
    there are so few marriageable men?" asked [8]William Julius Wilson,
    professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard. "We need to find
    ways to duplicate the kinds of support that come from an encouraging

    Professor Wilson says the government should increase its support for
    low-income women who want to go to college. "The more education these
    women receive, the more money they will make," he said. "They will be
    in different social settings and be exposed to more marriageable men."

    "The liberals and the conservatives are both right in a sense,"
    Professor McLanahan said. "A good relationship is part of the story.
    But it can't be any relationship. It can't be any man. This case
    underscores that it must be a healthy relationship. The liberals are
    wrong because they're too dismissive of marriage, even though they
    want it for themselves. Everyone wants a strong helping hand. This
    woman represents the best of both ideals."

    Still, the ups and downs of Ms. Whitiker's middle-class existence show
    that the transition out of poverty is not an easy one. "As well off as
    her economic situation is, her success is precarious," Professor Allen
    said. "This is a reminder that you can be middle class but in a very
    unstable situation."

    For most of the country's history, race was a fairly clear class
    marker - black usually meant poor, and white middle class or better.
    Only in the second half of the 20th century, with the dismantling of
    legal barriers to opportunity, did the lines begin to blur. Still,
    race continues to shape the experience of being middle class,
    sociologists say.

    First, blacks tend to be first-generation middle class, as in Ms.
    Whitiker's case, which means they have fewer resources to draw upon as
    they navigate the middle-class world.

    Second, there is the issue of wealth. "Not only do blacks earn less on
    average than whites, but the differences in wealth and race are
    staggering," Professor Allen said. "Their status depends on current
    earnings, not accumulated wealth that provides a safety net. They
    don't come from families that could save and acquire property or teach
    them how things work in society, the mores and cultural capital.

    "These things have not been as available to blacks as to whites. It
    translates into whether your family could buy that $23,000 home
    decades ago that is now worth $2 million or $3 million. Blacks weren't
    allowed to buy those $23,000 homes. Blacks fall at least a rung below
    their white counterparts because of the wealth factor alone."

    There are other pressures as well, Professor Wilson said. "Whites with
    the same educational attainment have better schooling and are able to
    get better jobs," he said. "Blacks are much more likely to live near
    poor segregated areas. They are much less insulated from crime and
    other manifestations of social disarray that grow from racial

    In the end, everyone profits when people like Angela Whitiker succeed,
    the experts said. "She is an object lesson," Professor Allen said. "If
    you want to see this kind of success, you have to provide opportunity
    for a highly motivated woman to recover from her past mistakes.
    Ultimately, society benefits. Her younger children won't be a burden
    on society. And the next generation will do even better."

    Visible links

    3. http://crcw.princeton.edu/mclanahan/
    4. http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/members/allen
    7. http://www.urban.org/
    8. http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~WWilson/FullBio.html

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