A new book by married-couple social scholars Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson compiles the stories of more than 100 low-income fathers in Philadelphia and Camden—and suggests some intriguing new perspectives.
Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson spent seven years in Philadelphia and Camden, asking low-income, unwed fathers to share their stories. In their new book, Doing the Best I Can, they suggest that the stereotype of the deadbeat dad misses something important: Of the many challenges poor urban dads face, a lack of caring usually isn’t one of them.
The scholarly married couple, who both study the social sciences, began collaborating to interview low-income urban parents in the mid-’90s. PW spoke with Nelson this week about their new book, from which we also present an exclusive excerpt (below).
How did the project start in the first place?
We started the early research in 1995 while Kathryn was teaching at Rutgers. We moved to Camden in 1997, when my two daughters were preschool age, and then to Philly a couple years later, where we taught at Penn. The bulk of the interviews were conducted between 1999 and 2002; Kathryn was doing interviews in these same neighborhoods with low-income single moms. and brought me on to interview dads. First she wrote a book about the moms, called Promises I Can Keep, and now this is the companion piece to that.
I’d spent time in low-income neighborhoods for previous work; it started off as something of an academic interest, but it grew to be more of a passion on a personal level. Being a father myself, and then talking to these guys facing all sorts of challenges I’d never had to face while parenting—there was a common bond there.
It’s taken you quite a few years to write and publish Doing the Best I Can, then.
One of the reasons it took us so long to publish is that it’s a complex story, and we wanted to get it right. One could paint these guys as villains—I think that’s the common perception out there. Certainly they’re no angels—substance abuse, incarceration, they’re “ripping and running” in their younger years. Or one could paint them as victims: They’ve grown up in dangerous neighborhoods, in bad schools, in rough families. A lot of these guys grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Kensington—heroin and crack decimated their parents, so they were dealing with a lot. One of the challenges of writing this book was painting a full portrait that captured both of these aspects: trying to understand, trying to see the cohesiveness behind this and communicate it in a compelling way.
Did you become friendly with your interviewees? Did they have concerns about how you’d be portraying them?
A lot of our conversations happened at McDonalds—public or semipublic settings like that. We’d sit down for an hour and a half at a time; I was blown away by how quickly they’d be eager to share intimate details from their lives—their relationships, sex lives, history of drug use and so forth—because someone wanted to take their experiences seriously. For privacy reasons, we had to use pseudonyms for all of them; between that and so many lives being unstable, it’s been difficult to keep up with them afterwards. It’s a shame; I wish I could see how some of their stories played out.
I have to ask: When you publish a book presenting inner-city life as studied by two Ivy League professors, how do you account for the outsider factor? Some people might roll their eyes at the ivory tower’s coming to town to discern wisdom, so to speak.
That’s a great question. It was very important to us to experience first-hand what it’s like to live immersed in a neighborhood like this—I know that’s not the same as growing up there with few options and not being able to leave, but still. I remember, when we first moved to East Camden, going to a convenience store looking for the newspaper, and they told me they didn’t carry it because too many people were afraid even to drive into the neighborhood; that realization was the sort of thing you don’t get just from interviewing people. You’ll always miss something as an outsider, but we really did the best we could.
Is there any one thing you hope readers will take away from the book?
When you’re walking around Philly and you see young men, any men, especially around Father’s Day—well, they’re probably fathers. Instead of reacting as, these guys must be deadbeat dads, take a second look and realize: they’re caring fathers who are trying to do the best they can for their kids. I hope these stories will give some insight into the humanity of the people we encounter as we go about our daily routines. We have more in common than we realize—especially as parents. That common bond of fatherhood could go a long way toward making a better city. / S.H.S.
An excerpt from Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City
"Guess what?” Charlene called to her young nephew Andre* as he burst through the front door and bounded up the stairs to his room.
Fifteen year-old Andre and his older brother, as well as his two younger half-sisters, mother, and stepfather, were all living with his Aunt Charlene, the seven-member extended family jam-packed into one of the 14-foot-wide, shotgun-style row homes that populate much of Camden. In 1970 the family had followed the path of so many other African American families in the migration up the coast from their home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Ever since, Andre’s mother and her sisters have often offered one another shelter during hard times. In fact, Andre cannot remember a time when he hasn’t shared quarters with some combination of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
“What?” he replied cautiously, noting the disapproving tone in Charlene’s voice.
“You know your old girlfriend?”
Andre pictured Sonya in his mind and recalled their on-again-off-again relationship with mixed emotions, impatient now with the way his aunt was drawing out the drama. “Yeah, what about her?” As if unable to hold back the news a second longer, Charlene blurted out just two words: “She pregnant!”
This was indeed a surprise—a shock really, not only to Andre but soon to everyone who heard the news. Andre was the exception to the other kids in the neighborhood—a serious, church-going boy who made the grades in school, stayed off the streets, and carried himself “like a young man,” he tells us later while recreating the scene. “I was always a gentleman type. I was never a gangster type with my pants hanging down and all that.” As the information about Sonya registered, Andre gathered as much shock, disappointment and anger into his voice as he could muster and shouted, “Oh, man!” before stomping off to his room and slamming the door for added effect. But, as he tells us with a sly chuckle, it was all a performance for his aunt’s benefit. “I was just doing that as a front around her. When I went to my room I was like, ‘Yes! Thank you, Jesus!’ Boy, I was jumping around, couldn’t tell me nothing! I was happy!” He grins, recalling the moment. “When my aunt and them came around me I be sitting there like, ‘Ah, man, what I’m a do?’ But meanwhile, on the inside I was happy.”
What prompted such enthusiasm in a boy just starting high school? Andre says simply, “Because that was me. I always wanted my own child. People didn’t understand me. They like, ‘How you gonna take care of this baby? This baby is going to be born in poverty’ and all this stuff. That’s what they was saying.” But Andre shrugged off these negative assessments. “To them it was a mistake, you know. My daughter wasn’t no mistake to me!” He adds, pointing proudly to the sleeping child, Jalissa, “My daughter, she is the bomb!”
Andre makes clear he is no “hit and run” father for whom children are mere trophies of sexual prowess. “I want to be a real father to my kids. I want to not only make a baby but I want to take care of my baby. I want to be there.” He is dedicated to ensuring that Jalissa will grow up “with stuff that I didn’t have,” especially “love from her father. I didn’t have that. She’s got a father that’s there for her, that she knows, that she loves, that she calls ‘da da.’ Oh, she knows her da da!”
Andre is determined not to be like his own father and uncles who are, in his words, “dogs”: “They will create their kids—and they got kids all over the place—but they never really took care of them or spent time with them.” Andre points to several boys around his own age that he’s run into by chance—half-brothers he didn’t know existed. He spied the first boy while walking through the neighborhood on the way to visit his cousin. Noting the striking resemblance to himself, Andre asked who his father was. The name the boy offered was the same as Andre’s own father’s. Months later, a fight in the schoolyard that pitted Andre and his younger brother against two other boys landed all four in the principal’s office. The school called in Andre’s paternal grandmother—the only adult on the emergency contact list who answered the phone—as part of the disciplinary process, which led to the following scene: “She came to the door and the other boys was like, ‘Grandma!’ And we was like, ‘Grandma?’ And she was like, ‘Y’all are brothers.’ We was like, ‘Brothers?’”
After these experiences, Andre started to wonder, “Dag, how many kids do my dad got?” Contemptuous of his father’s behavior, Andre vowed to do right by his kids when he became a father. “I started saying, ‘If I ever have a child, I refuse to let my child go without a father. I want to be there for my child, for her to know that she or he has a father that she can come to, and I’ll be there when she needs me.’ It’s just like I was inspired by my dad treating me wrong to take care of my kid.”
Across the political spectrum, from conservatives like former U.S. education secretary William Bennett to President Barack Obama, unwed fatherhood is denounced as one of the leading social problems of our day. These men are irresponsible, so the story goes. They hit and then run—run away, selfishly flee, act like boys rather than men. According to these portrayals, such men are interested in sex, not fatherhood. When their female conquests come up pregnant, they quickly flee the scene, leaving the expectant mother holding the diaper bag. Unwed fathers, you see, simply don’t care.
About a decade before we began our exploration of the topic, the archetype of this “hit and run” unwed father made a dramatic media debut straight from the devastated streets of Newark, N.J., in a 1986 CBS special report, The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America. The program’s host, Great Society liberal Bill Moyers, promised viewers a vivid glimpse into the lives of the real people behind the evermounting statistics chronicling family breakdown.
But by far the most sensational aspect of the documentary—the segment referenced by almost every review, editorial, and commentary following the broadcast—was the footage of Timothy McSeed. As the camera zooms in on McSeed and Moyers on a Newark street corner, the voiceover reveals that McSeed has fathered six children by four different women. “I got strong sperm,” he says, grinning into the camera. When Moyers asks why he doesn’t use condoms, he scoffs, “Girls don’t like them things.” Yet Timothy says he doesn’t worry about any pregnancies that might result. “If a girl, you know, she’s having a baby, carryin’ a baby, that’s on her, you know? I’m not going to stop my pleasures.”
Moyers then takes us back several weeks to the moment when Alice Johnson delivers Timothy’s sixth child. McSeed dances around the delivery room with glee, fists raised in the air like a victorious prizefighter. “I’m the king!” he shouts repeatedly. Later, Timothy blithely admits to Moyers that he doesn’t support any of his children. When pressed on this point, he shrugs, grins, and offers up the show’s most quoted line: “Well, the majority of the mothers are on welfare, [so] what I’m not doing the government does.”
The impact of The Vanishing Family was immediate and powerful, creating an almost instantaneous buzz in the editorial columns of leading newspapers. In the week after the broadcast, CBS News received hundreds of requests for tapes of the show, including three from U.S. senators. The California public schools created a logjam when they tried to order a copy for each of the 7,500 schools in their system. “It is the largest demand for a CBS News product we’ve ever had,” marveled senior vice president David Fuchs.
The response to Timothy McSeed was particularly intense and visceral. An editorialist in the Washington Post could barely contain his outrage, writing, “One man Moyers talked to had six children by four different women. He recited his accomplishments with a grin you wanted to smash a fist into.” William Raspberry’s brother-in-law wrote the noted columnist that the day after viewing the program, he drove past a young black couple and found himself reacting with violent emotion. “I was looking at a problem, a threat, a catastrophe, a disease. Suspicion, disgust and contempt welled up within me.” But it was George Will who reached the heights of outraged rhetoric in his syndicated column, declaring that “the Timothies are more of a menace to black progress than the Bull Connors ever were.”
The Vanishing Family went on to win every major award in journalism. Those commenting publicly on the broadcast were nearly unanimous in their ready acceptance of Timothy as the archetype of unmarried fatherhood. Congressional action soon followed: In May 1986 Senator Bill Bradley proposed the famous Bradley Amendment, the first of several of “deadbeat dad” laws aimed at tightening the screws on unwed fathers who fell behind on their child support, even if nonpayment was due to unemployment or incarceration. Only a lone correspondent from Canada’s Globe and Mail offered a rebuttal, fuming that Timothy “could have been cast by the Ku Klux Klan: you couldn’t find a black American more perfectly calculated to arouse loathing, contempt and fear.”
Bill Moyers’s interest in the black family was not new. In 1965, two decades before The Vanishing Family was first broadcast, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor for President Lyndon Johnson, penned the now-infamous report, titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Moynihan claimed that due to the sharp increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing—a condition affecting only a small fraction of white children but one in five African Americans at the time—the black family, particularly in America’s inner cities, was nearing what he called “complete breakdown.” Moynihan was labeled a racist for his views, and Moyers, then an assistant press secretary to the president, helped manage the controversy.
Now, a half century after the Moynihan report was written, and two-and-a-half decades since Moyer’s award-winning broadcast, nearly three in ten American children live apart from their fathers. Divorce played a significant role in boosting these rates in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the mid-1980s, when Timothy McSeed shocked the nation, the change was being driven solely by increases in unwed parenthood. About four in every ten (41 percent) American children in 2008 were born outside of marriage, and, like Timothy’s six children, they are disproportionately minority and poor. A higher portion of white fathers have kids outside of marriage (29 percent) than black fathers did in Moynihan’s time, but rates among blacks and Hispanics have also grown dramatically—to 56 and 73 percent respectively. And the gap between unskilled Americans and the educated elite is especially wide. Here, the statistics are stunning: only about 6 percent of college-educated mothers’ births are nonmarital versus 60 percent of those of high school dropouts.
In the wake of this dramatic increase in so-called fatherless families, public outrage has grown and policy makers have responded. In the 1960s and 1970s liberals worked to help supplement the incomes of single mothers, who were disproportionately poor, while conservatives balked, believing this would only reward those who put motherhood before marriage and would thus lead to more such families. Meanwhile, surly taxpayers increasingly demanded answers as to why their hard-earned dollars were going to support what many saw as an immoral lifestyle choice and not an unavoidable hardship. This taxpayer sentiment fueled Ronald Reagan’s efforts to sharply curtail welfare benefits in the 1980s and prompted Bill Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it,” which he fulfilled in 1996.
Scholars have responded to the trend by devoting a huge amount of attention to studying single-parent families, detailing the struggles of the parents and documenting the deleterious effects on the children. These studies have offered the American public a wealth of knowledge about the lives of the mothers and their progeny, yet they have told us next to nothing about the fathers of these children.
The conventional wisdom spun by pundits and public intellectuals across the political spectrum blames the significant difficulties that so many children born to unwed parents face—poor performance in school, teen pregnancy and low school-completion rates, criminal behavior, and difficulty securing a steady job—on their fathers’ failure to care. The question that first prompted our multiyear exploration into the lives of inner-city, unmarried fathers is whether this is, in fact, the case.
In Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, we go beyond the stereotyped portrayals of men like Timothy McSeed and delve deep into the lives of 110 white and black inner-city fathers. Each of the fathers whose stories we tell hail from the urban core—in our case, Philadelphia and Camden. Like McSeed’s Newark, these cities have some of the highest rates of nonmarital childbearing in the country. Roughly six in ten children in Philadelphia and an even greater percentage in Camden—nearly three out of four—are now born outside of marriage.
Over the seven years we spent on street corners and front stoops, in front rooms and kitchens, at fast food restaurants, rec centers, and bars in each of these neighborhood, we persuaded 110 low-income unwed fathers to share their stories with us, sometimes over the course of several months, or even years. Our conversations with each father, usually stretching across several meetings, were wide-ranging and in-depth. We asked fathers to begin by describing their own childhoods and families of origin, and what it was like for them growing up. We tracked their paths through adolescence and early adulthood; their experiences with peers, school, and work; and the beginning and end of each romantic relationship. They described the circumstances surrounding the births of each of their children and the often shifting patterns of involvement in their children’s lives. We asked how they had come to make the choices they had, what they wished had gone differently, and what they planned for the future.
The question that originally prompted our study—is it true that these fathers simply don’t care about the children they conceive?—led to a deeper and more complex focus of inquiry: what does fatherhood mean in the lives of low-income, inner-city men?
When we began to study the lives of inner-city fathers, we were eager to learn how they reacted to the news of a pregnancy. Did they “hit” and then “run” like the stereotype exemplified by Timothy McSeed, or did they grit their teeth and determine to face up to their impending responsibilities? Both of our guesses proved wrong; most greeted the news with happiness, and some, like Andre, even with downright delight. But the “happy” reaction, and the complex realities that prompt it, is molded by men’s often-troubled childhoods and the challenging neighborhood environments in which they came of age. If one listens carefully enough, the happy reaction speaks volumes about these men’s highest hopes and deepest desires, and how these will animate men’s subsequent efforts.
Andre was one of the first young men we spoke with. We were stunned by his story; we had to ask ourselves whether this guy was for real. Although Andre had not set out to become a father—his liaison with Sonya was a brief and mostly unhappy one—when he hears the news of her pregnancy he is overjoyed. His mother and aunt are not so thrilled. After all, Andre is still in high school, has no job, lives in a neighborhood full of violence and crime, and has long since broken up with the girl who is about to become the mother of his child. Most Americans would probably agree with Andre’s elders that raising a baby under these circumstances is a profound mistake. Yet young men like Andre have their own reasons for welcoming these children into the world.
Men’s responses ran the gamut, from vehement and panicked denials of paternity to loud shouts of joy, when they first heard about a pregnancy. Only a handful outright rejected the news. A pervasive sexual mistrust—the conviction that women couldn’t be trusted to be faithful—featured large among men who responded this way. Another handful said they were either shaken or scared or didn’t quite know what to think. Craig, a black 28-year-old day laborer, was just 15, like Andre, and had recently been kicked out of the tenth grade when he learned his girlfriend was pregnant. We ask if he had felt ready to become a father. “No, no, I am not going to sit here and lie to you. No, I was not ready at all … When can you actually say that you are ready to have a child at a young age?”
Lee, a black 42-year-old, part-time construction worker, was already 24 when his girlfriend conceived. Thinking back, he says his first reaction was, “Run!” explaining, “I didn’t have no job!” Several others say they were unsure how to respond because the woman in question kept changing her story about who the father was. For one pregnancy in five, men say they responded by “accepting” the news, a generally positive reaction but one tempered with a sobering realization of their new responsibilities.
Unadulterated happiness—even joy—was by far the most common reaction, though; more than half of all pregnancies were welcomed in this way without reservation. Byron, age 46, is clear about his response to the news: “Shoot! I was happy, man!” Thirty-nine-year-old Amin says that during a brief interlude in his late teens when he was not incarcerated, he fathered a son with a woman he was not even together with at the time. Nonetheless, he tells us, he reacted with considerable enthusiasm to the news that this mere acquaintance was pregnant with his child. “Even though I was not in love, I wanted a son.” Many fathers were surprised that we would even ask them this question. “I was glad! It was no major obstacle!” says 33-year-old Steven, a black father of three who works as a casual laborer for a city contractor, describing his reaction to the news that he was going to become a father at age 20, as if the answer to our question was so apparent that it could be assumed.
In story after story, happy reactions abound. Thirty-six-year-old Omar, perhaps the most troubled, violent, and criminally involved man we spoke with—a hustler who had even pimped out the mother of his three children—was also puzzled by our query. He exclaimed, “I was happy! All the other girls killed my babies. They had abortions. I said, ‘She’s my first—I’m gonna give her everything.’ ” Joe, a white 45-year-old father of four who drives a horse and carriage for tourists, says simply of his reaction to the news that his first child was on the way, “I wanted a son, and I had a son!” Forty-six-year-old Roger (who manages a thrift store), 26-year-old Little E. (who works at a butcher shop in the Italian Market), and Ozzy, 35, who does odd jobs and collects SSI (or “disability”) for mental-health problems—all white men—each claim a strong underlying desire to have a child that was galvanized by the news: “I always wanted one!” Roger tells us, to explain his ecstatic reaction. Calvin, who combines maintenance work with occasional jobs with a moving company, was twenty-five when his first child was conceived. He recalls a similar response: “I loved it. I love kids!” This white 45-year-old now has five children.
Taken together, the happy and accepting reactions to a pregnancy comprise over three-quarters of all the responses we received.
Though one might suppose that the degree to which the pregnancies were planned or actively avoided would heavily influence men’s reactions to the news of a conception, the correlation is far from perfect. While those with planned and semiplanned pregnancies almost universally welcome the news, those who are “just not thinking” when conception occurs still respond positively—with either happiness or acceptance—more than six times out of ten. Even more amazing, about a third of those who had been explicitly opposed to having children and were taking measures to prevent conception were either happy or accepting when the pregnancy was announced. What are we to make of the surprisingly positive nature of men’s responses?
Perhaps the men who most eagerly embrace the news of a pregnancy are simply those who are in the best life circumstances. To see if this is so, we turn to the stories of Ozzie and Terrell, who, like Andre, were especially enthusiastic. Ozzy, who collects SSI and does odd jobs, is a 35-year-old white father of one. He was 27 when he met Dawn one night on South Street; Ozzy was out with a group of his friends and Dawn was with her friends, and after the collective laughing, teasing, and flirting was over, the two ended up exchanging phone numbers. Four months later Dawn was pregnant.
There were bigger problems though, aside from the fact that they had known each other such a short time. The first was that Ozzy was an unemployed high school dropout who still lived at home and had developed a problem with a variety of substances, including alcohol, Xanax, Valium, cocaine, and marijuana. The second was that Dawn was only 16 years old. “I lied to her about my age,” Ozzy admits. “I told her that I was like 20. Then after a couple of months I started to like her a lot so I told her the truth.” Despite his problems, Ozzy was thrilled—without reservation—by the news of Dawn’s pregnancy. “I always wanted to have a kid,” he told us. “But before I met Dawn I never really found the right person to have one with.”
Terrell, a black 19-year-old supermarket stock clerk, was just 17 when he heard the news about the conception of his oldest child. But this came as no surprise to him, as he had lobbied hard for his girlfriend to have a baby. He had just begun his sophomore year at West Philadelphia High School when he met Clarice, a friend of his cousin’s. “I come home from school one day, and I saw her sitting on the porch. Ever since that day I’ve been liking her. I had it in my mind that I’d get her.”
Terrell was surprisingly sure of himself, seeing as how 17-year-old Clarice was pregnant with another man’s child at the time. Meanwhile, he was doing poorly in school and cutting classes regularly. After he violated a contract that required attending a certain number of days per month, the school finally kicked him out. It was when Terrell was “sitting at home with nothing to do” that he began to “get with” Clarice, who had just broken up with her newborn’s father. The first thing he did was to try and convince her to get pregnant by him right away, despite the fact that he had just left high school and had no job or any prospects of one. “I wanted a son so bad. I saw all these guys with kids, especially with boys,” Terrell explains. “I always wanted a son, especially when they start walking.” Clarice was understandably reluctant, but Terrell was persistent. “She came around to it, came to her senses,” he says with satisfaction. “We sat down and had a long talk about it. Two months later she was pregnant.” Ecstatic that he was about to become a father, Terrell immediately signed up for Job Corps after hearing the news. After spending several months in Pittsburgh acquiring some of the skills of the construction trade—drywall and plaster work—Terrell quit and returned to Philadelphia to witness the birth of his son. Several months later, just as he was adjusting to being the father of a newborn, Clarice had some additional news for him: she was pregnant again, this time with twins.
What the stories of Ozzy and Terrell reveal is that men’s willingness to embrace, or occasionally even pursue, pregnancy does not always, or even usually, hinge on their life circumstances. In fact, it is often men in some of the worst and most desperate situations who are also the happiest when learning of a pregnancy. Why would this be so? How would the prospect of bringing a child into the world under these circumstances be an appealing one?
The answer lies in the way men answered one important question: “What would your life be like without your children?” One might expect that men would complain about lives derailed, schooling foregone, and job opportunities forsaken. Yet we heard very few tales about sacrificed opportunities or complaints about child support and the like. Overall, children are seen not as millstones but as life preservers, saviors, redeemers, and the strength of the sentiment behind these fathers’ words makes them all the more remarkable.
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