They form a singular presence in our inner-cities: young, African-American men hanging out aimlessly on stoops at mid-day, seven days a week.
Meet the urban dropouts. These days about half of all young black men in the U.S. drop out of high school. In Detroit and Cleveland the rate is 73 percent. Here in St. Louis, 62 percent of black males drop out. But that’s just half of the story. When these young men drop out of school, they also drop out of society. Long before they reach adulthood they have given up any hope of leading successful lives and, instead, have consigned themselves to lives of poverty and alienation and meaninglessness.
Talk about a Lost Generation.
Dropouts give various reasons for leaving school, but the general theme is they “follow what they see,” and that, because they are black and from the ghetto, they never had a chance to succeed anyway. Others drop out because, being functionally illiterate, they found school embarrassing and a waste of time.
While middle class youths have their sights set firmly on the future, urban dropouts live only for the present. Education and self-improvement are things one does for the future, a future they cannot even imagine. “Extreme present-orientedness, not lack of income or wealth, is the principal cause of poverty in the sense of ‘the culture of poverty,’ wrote Edward Banfield in his 1970 urban study The Unheavenly City.
Such a world view is completely foreign to middle and upper class youths who are taught early the importance of education, sacrifice and hard work, to delay gratification and to plan for the future. In fact, most of us in the middle class are too future-oriented, so much so that we read self-help books about mindfulness techniques to learn how to “live in the moment.”
At an age when middle class kids are just beginning to contemplate all the possibilities life has in store — whether they will attend college or perhaps go into the family business — these adolescents have decided life is already over for them. The rest of their days will be spent with other dropouts, hanging out on the stoop, smoking weed and listening to degrading rap music. And there is no one around to encourage them to think or act differently. Their biological fathers (or inseminators) are missing in action. Their mothers suffer the same pathologies. Besides, if mom gets on their case too often about working they’ll go “stay” somewhere else. After all, grandma will always take you in. For a while, anyway.
Conservative thinkers have long distinguished between two radically different types of poverty: the temporary, hard luck kind, and the permanent culture of poverty which affects the multi-generational underclass. While the working class may experience occasional economic hardship or destitution due to certain external factors (a recession, layoffs, death of breadwinner, illness), the underclass suffers immutable poverty due to internal factors, such as a radical present-orientedness, low cognitive skills, disdain for education, high rates of teenage pregnancies, low rates of marriage, a high degree of disorganization, marginalization from organized civic life, and strong feelings of fatalism, dependence and inferiority.
DESPITE THESE OBVIOUS and intractable problems, many leftist intellectuals insist all that is needed is a transfer of wealth to the underclass, because, after all, money can buy anything. These intellectuals would do well to read Banfield or Susan Mayer’s What Money Can’t Buy, both of which make convincing cases that doubling the income of the underclass does nothing to improve their situation; they simply spend the extra cash on luxuries or gambling and not on, say piano lessons or books. Nor will doubling one’s income magically transform bad mothers and fathers into good, diligent, industrious, caring parents, which is, more than any other factor, what poor children need to be successful.
Not having grown up amidst the Culture of Poverty, I am admittedly puzzled by such utter hopelessness. To a working class person very few things are entirely hopeless. Just stay in school, get your G.E.D. Learn a trade. Get some kind of job. Work hard and you’ll rise in the world, guaranteed. It’s not all that difficult. That is, unless you have already given up.