Wander into the badlands of any large city in the U.S., shout out “Father” and nothing will stir. Fathers are rare in this environment; far rarer, shall we say, in the north end of Hartford than they are in posh New Canaan. What happened to them? Have they all fled to the Left Bank in Paris to become expatriate artists?
The problem is cultural, say most sociologists. Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said of the very rich – “They are very different from you and me” – so is the underclass very different than the middle class or the upper class. No one pauses very long to entertain the question: Why are they different? That is one among many questions assiduously avoided whenever well intentioned liberals get together with equally well intentioned professors of raceology to discuss the equally absorbing question: Why can’t we have an honest discussion on race in America?
Answer: We can’t, among other reasons, because we shy from answering the all-important question posed two paragraphs above: Who killed fathers in the African-American community? Indeed, we refuse to acknowledge its importance. This question cannot be properly probed without mentioning the “U” word – underclass -- and its connection with households without fathers.
“Poverty” is the polite word most often used by polite liberals and more earnest progressives to describe the plight of the unmentionable underclass. And, no, people who discuss these things are not racist for having so brashly mentioned the unmentionable; namely, that there is an underclass under the noses of most well-intentioned liberals and that this underclass has become a permanent feature of modern day America.
Poverty in the United States has never been, with some rare exceptions, permanent; in fact the impermanence of poverty is what has driven the desperate poor to the United States since its founding. The boast engraved on the edestal of the Statute of Liberty -- “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door” – is a celebration of the impermanence of poverty. But an underclass has since become a permanent fixture of our social order; it is that very thing the huddled masses were hoping to escape in their desperate flight to America, where a steady advancement up the ladder of success was impeded by speed bumps rather than the fortress walls of a class system that in Europe kept the rich in splendor and the poor in rags, more or less permanently.
It seems ages ago that the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned us all that the African-American family – dad, mom, kids -- was becoming an endangered species. Part of the problem was – and is – that the welfare system replaced Dad with a kind of sustenance that imprisoned people within the system; welfare clients were held in welfare cages on the periphery of poverty. The more they were helped, the more secure and inescapable their prisons became. A welfare state that was supposed to allow movement from temporary dependency to self-sufficiency became a more or less permanent holding cell, a purgatory whose doors, unlike the door mentioned in the Emma Lazarus poem, never opened upon more hopeful vistas.
How many fatherless children are there in our welfare system? Lots and lots and lots. For the most part, fatherlessness is a precondition for receiving welfare. And some of the younger “fathers” of children born out of wedlock – how ancient that word sounds – have never made it to the alter. Many of them are in prison. Brought up without fathers themselves, they drifted – like ships without rudders, blown here and there by every ill wind. Their children will drift also, unless they are made of very stern spiritual stuff.
Grandmothers and grandfathers, if they have been lucky enough to remain together, may help. Ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, social workers, other siblings and teachers may help. Still, the chance that a young African-American boy whose caretakers have relied on a social-welfare system that strives to “play father to the child” will be able to avoid the pitfalls that lead to gang affiliation, poor marks in school or a prison cell, is considerably more remote than would be the case if the boy were reared under the watchful eyes of a self-sufficient, responsible and employed father who would love and guide him down sure and well-marked paths.
Sons need fathers. And a society that cared for fathers and sons -- and its own welfare -- would not so perversely ignore the ruin at its door.
Don Pesci (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political writer who lives in Vernon, Conn.