Missing Fathers, Missing Jobs

June 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Millions of poor children and teenagers grow up without their biological father.”

Thus David Brooks begins a recent column. As usual, Brooks pays close attention to culture, psychology, and the dynamics of relationships while pretty much ignoring structure and economics.
                                                       
Brooks is correct in saying that the reasons men leave have more to do with the man-woman relationship than with the father-child relationship. Since this happens far more frequently among the poor, most people would probably focus on financial factors – lack of income, lack of jobs, lack of education.  Instead, Brooks focuses on the young man’s ideas.

Not David Brooks.

The fathers often retain a traditional and idealistic “Leave It to Beaver” view of marriage. They dream of the perfect soul mate. They know this woman isn’t it, so they are still looking.

But while the young father is “ stuck in a formless romantic anarchy,” the mother must necessarily be more realistic. The collision dooms the relationship.

Buried in the rigors of motherhood, the women, meanwhile, take a very practical view of what they need in a man: Will this guy provide the financial stability I need, and if not, can I trade up to someone who will?

The father begins to perceive the mother as bossy, just another authority figure to be skirted. Run-ins with drugs, the law and other women begin to make him look even more disreputable in her eyes.

Brooks is working from Doing the Best I Can : Fatherhood in the Inner City (2013), by Kathryn Edin and Timothy Jon Nelson, a study of men in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. The authors note the dismal job market the men face. “By the 1970s, when the new-father ideology first came on the scene, the job prospects of those with no credentials beyond a high school diploma, including in Philadelphia and Camden, were already in free fall.”

Fifty years ago, Elliot Liebow surveyed this same territory – Black streetcorner men in Washington, DC – in Tally’s Corner.  Liebow saw that the central problem in marriages was the man’s inability to, as Brooks says, “provide financial stability.” But unlike Brooks, Liebow looked outward at the labor market for the reasons. The basic fact underyling the men’s lives – as husbands, fathers, friends, and lovers – was that the kinds of jobs that these men could get did not pay enough to allow a man to support a family.

Marriage is an occasion of failure. To stay married is to live with your failure, to be confronted by it day in and day out. It is to live in a world whose standards of manliness are forever beyond one's reach. where one is continuously tested and challenged and continually found wanting.

Or as Herb Gans, at around the same time, put it in his “Reflections on the Moynihan Report”

The Negro man . . .cannot provide  the economic support that. is a principal male function in American society. As a result, the woman becomes the head of the famly, and the man a marginal appendage who deserts or is rejected by his wife.

While work and income remain central to the problem of absentee fathers, other things may have changed. The man on Tally’s Corner in 1963 was, typically, ambivalent about his children, for the child, like the wife, was a reminder of his failure to live up to the role of breadwinner. The man moving in with someone else’s children was more likely to be affectionate towards them than towards his own biological children.

To soften this failure, and to lessen the damage to his public and self-esteem, he pushes the children away from him saying, in effect, “I’m not even trying to be your father so now I can't be blamed for failing to accomplish what rm not trying to do.”

According to Edin and Nelson, a cultural shift at all levels of US society has allowed men to have a different reaction to their children. I hope to take up in a later post.

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