[Paleopsych] NYT: (Class 11) A Success Story That's Hard to Duplicate
checker at panix.com
Sun Jun 12 18:59:50 UTC 2005
A Success Story That's Hard to Duplicate
By ISABEL WILKERSON
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
"It shows the importance of work and marriage," said 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."
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
Of the small number of poor single mothers who marry, 56 percent are
lifted out of poverty, according to a 2002 study conducted by
Signe-Mary McKernan and Caroline Ratcliffe for the 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
"Why do we feel that promoting marriage will solve the problem when
there are so few marriageable men?" asked 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
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,
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."
More information about the paleopsych