The Nation's Pulse

In Another Country

How do we make people want to be successful?

By 8.23.13

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I live in a different America now. For the past two years I lived in the inner-city of America’s most dangerous city. I saw the culture of poverty up close and personal. Some insist there is no such thing as a culture of poverty; they would think differently if they spent the last two years in my shoes. But of course they won’t.

The culture of poverty is many things. Actually it is an accumulation of things. Having one of those things doesn’t necessarily mean you are part of that culture. One characteristic of the culture of poverty is the single-parent household. But there are many middle class and even upper class (though fewer) single-parent households that are doing just fine. That is because they have resources unavailable to the poor. Like savings. Lawyers. Reliable transportation.

But if you are a single parent with multiple children by multiple fathers, and a high school dropout, with a record, then chances are you are part of that culture. If you move to a new rental every six months, yanking your kids out of school after school, and if you do drugs in front of your children, and sell your food stamps for cash, then chances are you are part of that culture. If you are 20 years old, living with your grandmother, with no interest in ever getting a job, or getting married, or doing much of anything, chances are you are part of that culture. If you do not have a kitchen table, but you do have a big flat screen TV, and when the social worker comes to visit someone yells, “The social worker is here, go get the light bulb,” then chances are you are part of that culture.

When I moved into the inner-city, I hoped to gain some insight and understanding of the poor and their situation. Two years later I left feeling the situation is intractable. Everything the professional uplifters do for the poor is but pruning the branches, instead of hacking at the roots of the problem. For the underclass to escape the culture of poverty they would have to cease doing most if not all of the above, and I don’t see that happening.

Besides, as I have written before, too many of the underclass enjoy the culture of poverty. They would feel horribly out of place in a tony subdivision where they would have to work to make a house and car payment, instead of drinking beer all day on the stoop ― they don’t even have stoops in the suburbs. They would have to cut their lawns and keep the trash and noise to a minimum. What fun is that? In the inner-city you can do whatever the hell you want. You can even shoot somebody, and chances are no one will rat you out, because that is the code of the inner-city streets, and people there hate the cops more than they hate the drug dealers.

I NOW LIVE in a pastoral setting in the rolling hills of Missouri wine country. To find crime of any substance you have to drive north a half hour to the small cities nestled along the interstate highway where the underclass is crammed into low income housing. As a country newspaper editor, I get to report on these cities and the shenanigans therein, the meth labs, the sodomites, the wife beaters, day after day reading probable cause statements that make you want to throw up your hands… or your lunch.

But then, in the evening, I get to return south to my bucolic village of, I don’t know, 50 people, and sleep with the windows open and doors unlocked. My neighbors, even the single parent ones, are up and out of the house at 5:30 a.m. Unlike the underclass, they are fighting the good fight. Despite the blows they've taken, they haven’t given up. They are making it work. They have resources, yes, but only because their family and friends have also fought the good fight, gone to work every day, been responsible parents. They have that… ethic, if you will, that will keep these people out of the underclass. And if they should fall below the poverty line briefly, they will rise out of it.

Here’s what I know. We know what it takes to be successful in America. What we can never know is how to make people want to be successful.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.