August 22, 2004


Raising Kevion (JASON DePARLE, 8/22/04, NY Times Magazine)

Nearly a decade has passed since the country ''ended welfare'' with a landmark bill imposing time limits and work requirements, and low-skilled women like Jewell have entered the work force in record numbers. But low-skilled men have not. And low-skilled black men, the sea in which Jewell has spent her life swimming, have continued to leave the job market at disconcerting rates, even during the late-90's boom. In cutting the rolls and increasing work, the 1996 welfare law, and a related expansion of services, has been celebrated as a rare, even unique, triumph, and on one level it is. But with about 90 percent of welfare families headed by single mothers, it is also a lesson in the limits of a policy that is focused on one sex. Whatever it has done to put women to work, it won't really change the arc of inner-city life until it -- or something -- reaches the men.

I spent the last seven years following three welfare recipients in one extended family: Jewell, her cousin Opal Caples and their best friend, Angela Jobe, who by having kids with Jewell's brother Greg is counted as kin. Across six generations of poverty, the family story encompasses slavery, sharecropping (on the Mississippi plantation of the late Senator James O. Eastland) and the migration north, first to Chicago and then onto the welfare rolls of Milwaukee. A common assumption about ghetto life -- that generations have been raised without seeing anyone go to work -- ill fits this or most other welfare families. Growing up in Chicago, Jewell, Opal and Angie each had working mothers, and each of them worked sporadically themselves even while drawing a welfare check. The working mother with a passel of messed-up kids is a staple of the inner city.

What's really missing from the family story are stable fathers. None of the trio had one growing up, and neither -- until Kevion -- have their kids. At one point or another, virtually everyone in their network of family and friends -- mothers, grandmothers, boyfriends and children -- has described the absence of a father as a painful, life-altering loss. Dig down almost anywhere in their world, and you hit a geyser of father-yearning.

''Yeah, I wish I had a father,'' Jewell's oldest son, Terrell, said.

''I just know my life would be different if my father was around,'' Angie's son, DeVon, said.

''Way different,'' Jewell's middle son, Tremmell, said.

Of all the father-yearners, none is more vocal than Ken, who at 32 is still writing raps about his feelings of paternal abandonment and whose desire for a father runs so deep that he has nicknamed his son Daddy. Ken was in prison when I first met Jewell, serving two years for selling crack, and when I picked him up at the prison gate four years ago, I figured he would soon be back in jail. Instead, he has been working ever since, for the last three years as a delivery man for a chicken-and-pizza place, and in a world where missing fathers are the norm, he has been a notably present one, tending Kevion while Jewell is at work and then leaving for his nightly rounds. As Congress revisits the welfare bill to write the second act, there's a conversation under way about how to help more men make the new start Ken has made, toward employment, responsible fatherhood or (most ambitiously) marriage -- one step he has refused to take, despite Jewell's entreaties. Ken's story is a reminder that help is sorely needed and that the ground to be covered is immense. [...]

Debating welfare a decade ago, the authors of the 1996 bill weren't wholly unmindful of the men: three of the bill's four stated goals pay tribute to the two-parent family. The problem, then and now, was that no one knew how to legislate a dad. Moving millions of women from welfare to work was a challenge of vast proportions, but at least it proceeded from a template: there were past programs, evaluations, offices and staffs. In looking to shore up the two-parent family, Congress had no place to start -- not even any certainty that welfare had played a role in its decline. Scholarly evidence was slight. The bill spelled out how work programs would run (and bolstered child-support collection) but let the states decide what if anything to do to influence family structure. Most did nothing. If the bill had a theory about promoting fatherhood, it was that once poor mothers went to work, they would demand more from the opposite sex.

At about the same time in the mid-90's, the graph line took an intriguing turn: after galloping upward for decades, the share of children born outside marriage began to stabilize. But it has stabilized -- actually inched up a bit -- at a disturbing high. Thirty-four percent of American children are now born to single mothers -- 23 percent of whites, 43 percent of Hispanics and 68 percent of blacks. Even as the trend plateaued, the reasons remain unclear. Despite Wisconsin's famously tough crackdown on welfare, nonmarital births rose. In the District of Columbia, with permissive welfare rules, nonmarital births dropped the most. Along with tougher welfare laws, the past decade has brought a service expansion in child care, health insurance and wage subsidies. But since these efforts were mostly aimed at custodial parents, this new safety net mostly benefited women.

Here and there, some experimental programs arose to help poor men become better fathers. They typically offered services like job training and drug treatment in exchange for the fathers' agreement to acknowledge paternity and pay child support. Many included ''peer support'' sessions -- a kind of group counseling -- in which the men shared their thoughts about their relationships with their kids. The counseling, which was generally more successful than job-placement efforts, challenged the stereotype of the men as cavalier. Like Ken, many seemed deeply hurt by their own fathers' abandonment and talked of wanting to break the cycle, even as, unlike Ken, most perpetuated it. Marriage was sometimes discussed in these sessions, but often as a vague or distant goal.

For a moment, the programs attracted a swell of bipartisan support. A bill to provide modest federal support ($140 million over four years) passed the House in 2000 with more than 400 votes. ''If you're going to solve the problem of poverty, you've got to do what you can to make these guys marriage material,'' said Representative E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican and leading supporter. But other conservatives feared that the programs blessed a status quo in which the father was out of the house. Even cohabitating parents -- like Ken and Jewell -- are inherently unstable, they said, since nearly 40 percent of such couples break up by the time their child turns 3. Responsible fatherhood, the case went, starts with a stable marriage.

In 2002, such arguments led to a sharp policy shift: a proposal by President Bush to redirect $200 million a year in federal welfare funds toward programs that help low-income couples form and sustain ''healthy marriages.'' The move from fatherhood to marriage, depending on your perspective, either incisively diagnoses the real problem or hubristically pushes government into a realm where it doesn't belong and can't succeed. Versions of the healthy-marriage proposal have passed the House twice, but the larger bill (to reauthorize the 1996 law) is deadlocked in the Senate over unrelated provisions.

Both supporters and critics of the Bush plan start with the same research finding: upon the birth of their child, about two-thirds of unwed parents say they strongly intend to marry. But within the next year and a half, only about 13 percent do. (The numbers come from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study at Princeton, a treasure trove of data about poor, unmarried couples.) To Wade Horn, the Bush administration's ''marriage guru,'' that shows he has a product that's wanted. ''We're not going into low-income communities and saying, 'Hey, guess what -- there's this thing called marriage, and you ought to have one,''' he said. On the contrary, he said he sees himself ''matching our services to the aspirations they have.'' Horn argues that the needy have plenty of places to go for things like child care or training, while no social service bureaucracy takes seriously this ''primal'' need.

Horn, an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, is a skilled spokesman for his cause, and he takes pains not to overpromise. There's a literature that shows marriage education to be helpful in preserving existing unions. But it's mostly a white, middle-class literature that doesn't speak directly to couples like Ken and Jewell. And there's hardly any good evidence to suggest that a program can encourage healthy marriages among those who haven't wed. The bill contemplates ''public advertising campaigns,'' ''education in high schools on the value of marriage'' and ''premarital education and marriage-skills training,'' with all participation voluntary. Under some conditions, services like job training or drug treatment could also be included, though how often that would happen is unclear. Some supporters of the administration plan suggest that it could happen quite a lot; the legislative language seems more restrictive. (How this plays out in practice could be essential both to the programs' effectiveness and to the political support they command.) What could a marriage course achieve, assuming that Jewell and Ken would attend? ''It might do a lot, and it might do nothing,'' Horn said. ''But we do know that if you do nothing, that's the result you'll get.''

To much of the left, the finding that the poor want to marry suggests that marriage education is beside the point. Some simply see no role for government in such an intimate decision. Some worry that marriage promotion will encourage women to stay with violent men. Many argue that what's holding poor men back is the lack of economic stability: make more men ''marriageable,'' they say -- by helping them get decent jobs -- and more men will marry.

Luis Palau, George Bush, and the Mall of America: An afternoon with the holy trinity of terror (Molly Priesmeyer, 8/17/04, City Pages)
Two middle-schoolers just completed their first big mission of the day: They helped save a six-year-old boy. With a touch on the shoulder, a quick prayer, and the signing of a response card, 14-year-old Alex Lundberg and 12-year-old Brad Boyd have given the young boy the ultimate gift of eternal life. Lundberg and Boyd are both decked out in white visors that cause their shaggy skater hair to flip out over the elastic bands, and both are wearing identical black T-shirts featuring a skateboarding Jesus. Jesus is in his signature sandals, sailing along in mid-ollie, his robe flailing behind him. The words "Xtreme Jesus" are written in skater-style letters across the bottom.

Since 1999, Twin Cities Festival organizer Luis Palau has been employing extreme means and extreme sports to reach an MTV-bred generation of kids worshipping MTV-made false idols. At Palau's insidiously titled Beachfest in Ft. Lauderdale in 2003, 300,000 people showed up to celebrate God, Jesus, and skateboarding.

Along with appropriating pop culture in an effort to make religion more relevant, Palau and his association also are capitalizing on the heightened sense of fear and panic that has caused a surge in duct tape sales and a wave of stories about the terror of traveling with a group of "suspicious" Syrian musicians. "You never know when you will die," Palau says. "Repent today, repent today, repent today," he repeats over and over during his speeches. In other words, the terror alert is on high, dude, and you just can't skate your way into heaven.

It's fitting that Palau would use fear as a vehicle to amass younger Christians, since he himself was struck by the fear of eternal damnation at the age of 12. He was on the cusp of becoming a delinquent teenager when a Christian camp counselor asked if he was going to heaven or hell: He decided at that moment to dedicate his life to Christ. After Palau served as translator and crusader for big-tent evangelist Billy Graham in the early '60s, Graham donated money to Palau's cause in 1978, allowing the Luis Palau Evangelical Association to become a separate organization, with headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

Though Palau claims he brings a message of hope to the Twin Cities, throughout the festival there's a pervading theme of doom. Not only is the Grim Reaper's sickle casting its shadow, but Satan's pitchfork has already pierced our confused souls. We are all born sinners who terrorize ourselves, our families, and our communities, resulting in a sort of sin storm that's spiraling out of control and wreaking havoc on society's values. If we don't make amends for our misdeeds, like Palau's nephew did before he died of AIDS at 25 because "he was living the gay lifestyle," we are condemned to a life of torture. [...]

Palau claims he doesn't talk politics. Yet his entire speech is peppered with tales that focus on the issues that so clearly divide the two political parties: abortion, homosexuality, and "family values." You can commit the sins that plague you every day, you can even "kill your baby," and God will forgive you, he says. But you must repent today, repent today, repent today, because you never know when you will die. He talks about how girls should remain clean, no one should have sex until marriage, sex can only be between a man and a woman, and that sex outside of marriage is sinful and empty. As if only able to reach kids through coy euphemisms, he also asks, "Who came up with the idea of ha-ha hoo-hoo?" God did. And he made the rules, dammit.

Jesus Christ calls his own by name, he says (hint: it's the guilt and shame you feel in the pit of your stomach). He interprets a Psalm and says, "Though my father and mother reject me, the Lord will lift me up." This makes my heart break into a million pieces. For lost and imperfect teenagers, whose lives become one hapless mistake after the next, even the onetime hippie Jesus sees them as a failure who must promise to never make the same mistake again in order to be accepted. "You're wild, you're out of control, Jesus knows you by name," Palau says, sounding about as impassioned and inspired as an auctioneer. Through fear, he encourages attendees to repent to God and stave off the fire pits of hell rather than preaching about living a more positive, passionate, and generous life. On top of the fear of rejection, the fear of death, and the fear of impending doom, Palau teaches us that the biggest thing we have to fear is ourselves. Hallelujah.

Regardless of what you think of the means of achieving them, it's impossible to argue with sociological studies demonstrating that religious faith and marriage are beneficial to such troubled communities, yet the reactionary Left is stuck opposing these remedies and has nothing to offer in their place. They're bereft of ideas of their own, but know they hate the ideas that have traditionally worked. They've put themselves in a position where their on the opposing side of not just majority opinion but of the very people they're supposedly more concerned about than the evil Right.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 22, 2004 12:26 PM

Kinda odd to be demanding that the guys stay home to be workadaddies when all the jobs they might aspire to are being sent offshore.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 22, 2004 3:00 PM

Harry: why exactly couldn't these men aspire to be plumbers, auto mechanics, watch repairmen (that one's for oj), etc.? All jobs at which you can make a more-than-decent living, don't require going to a 4-year college, and cannot possibly be moved offshore...

Posted by: brian at August 22, 2004 4:14 PM

brian has that one precisely right. There are tons of service jobs that pay decent money if you just acquire skills. The manufacturing jobs went overseas because they required none.

Posted by: oj at August 22, 2004 5:16 PM

Orrin, please stop using the word "tons" to describe plentiful. You are too intelligent, too educated and well read to be using the word "tons" incorrectly.

Posted by: Vince at August 23, 2004 4:23 PM

Well, our watchmaker who retired had to find the money to leave Hawaii and move to Indiana for 6 months to take a watchmakers course. (It was a year's course but he was in a hurry.)

There are, of course, jobs. I've been in the newspaper business since 1968, and every single day we've run advertisements for jobs.

So almost any individual who is unemployed could become employed.

But not all of them. When I took my first newspaper job, my employer had 160 compositors. When I left 10 years later, 7.

Right now, certainly not all of them.

Orrin, have you ever worked in or even visited a factory? Your notion of assembly lines seems to be derived from Merrie Melodies cartoons of the '30s. Real assembly lines are quite a bit different from what you seem to imagine.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 23, 2004 4:30 PM


I don't get it. Go to a local hospital and look at the job posting or ask at your local pharmacy how many pharmacists and techs they need. There are tons of jobs for anyone willing to acquire skills.

Posted by: oj at August 23, 2004 9:20 PM


Read about them. Try Rivethead by Michael Moore's buddy.

Posted by: oj at August 23, 2004 9:21 PM

Don't have to. Been there in person.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 24, 2004 1:54 PM

Oops, forgot the Eagar law of subjective science. You were on a factory floor where a skilled person was working hard so the overwhelming evidence that unskilled slackers can do the work equally well is to be denied.

Posted by: oj at August 24, 2004 2:02 PM

Like I say, you don't know anything about production lines.

When my steel adviser and I get together, we spend most of our time talking about production lines that don't run smoothly, not even when staffed by idiots.

That's how he makes most of his money, fixing 'em

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 25, 2004 2:46 PM

I don't mind you weakening your own case, but wonder why you would.

Posted by: oj at August 25, 2004 5:11 PM