What's blocking the upward path?

  • Article by: MITCH PEARLSTEIN
  • Updated: June 28, 2014 - 5:16 PM

Social and economic trapdoors are many, but progress in real time and real lives depends on a culture of work and personal responsibility.

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You perhaps more or less remember what congressman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said on a radio talk show a few months ago about “work” and “culture.” It led to a midsize flap about whether he is a racist.

More exactly, you may remember what the Wisconsin Republican said about non-work in inner cities and other American places. To refresh, here’s the passage, which Ryan, when later obliged to defend his decency, conceded was “inarticulate”:

“We’ve got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Yet while many remember at least the rudiments of what Ryan said on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” program in March, only a tiny fraction of even the widest-read Americans are familiar with this next excerpt, authored by two other people on a near-identical theme:

“In sum, declining marriage rates among the less-educated, the corresponding rise in nonmarital childbearing and lower-skilled men’s desultory participation in the child-support system all hint that a seismic shift has occurred in lower-skilled men’s ability and willingness to shoulder the traditional breadwinning responsibilities of the family. According to our story, at the bottom of the skills distribution we see not just a withdrawal but a headlong retreat — it is nearly a dead run — from the breadwinning role.”

Who might have written such flammable things? And if they haven’t been pilloried by now (they haven’t), why not?

The authors are Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, husband and wife Harvard sociologists, in their important 2013 book, “Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.”

Just as with Ryan — not that critics have believed him — Edin’s and Nelson’s focus is on low-income men from diverse racial and ethnic groups, not just on African-Americans.

Of course, different rules often apply to politicians as opposed to scholars in sensitive matters like these — especially when the politicians are on the right and the scholars aren’t. But while Ryan’s off-the-cuff speech was less precise than the written prose of Edin and Nelson, they are all on the same (academically respected) page.

The national unemployment rate remains much too high at 6.3 percent. Minnesota’s rate is substantially better at 4.6 percent, though still not low enough. Meanwhile, doubts have been growing about the wisdom of pursuing often crazily expensive college degrees.

But of all the identified obstacles to advancement for the disadvantaged, racism is regularly conceived, especially on the left, as the most deeply rooted and destructive. This is why criticism of Ryan was so nasty, as many critics assumed he had far too little appreciation of racism’s length and reach. It angered and offended them that an influential member of Congress — someone who 16 months earlier almost became vice president of the United States — could be so allegedly obtuse on questions of race, which nearly by definition are morally loaded. To them I would simply say:

I know Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan is a friend of mine. And you don’t have a clue about Paul Ryan.

That said, cultural and structural impediments to success can be very real, and they can injure some groups more than others (though not necessarily or only racial and ethnic groups).

Here, for instance, is how Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson put it in a conversation I had with him last fall for a new book coming out this summer. In talking about the current economic downturn and how “families of the working poor have been hit very hard,” he said:

“All this is going on in a global economy where corporations are sending their jobs first to nonmetropolitan America and then to developing nations all over the world. If you take a trip around the country, go from town to town, from Detroit to Cleveland to Dayton to Philadelphia, these cities look as though they’re economically strip-mined. Our poor people here are competing with poor all over the world.”

Scholars such as Anderson and several others I interviewed, including historians Stephanie Coontz and Elaine Tyler May, invaluably make clear what many Americans, disproportionately black, often are up against. Nevertheless, I generally avoid terms such as “institutional discrimination” and “systemic discrimination” — not because they don’t describe actual phenomena, but because they are regularly construed as saturating miasmas and are used to explain too much. They also can suggest a downplaying of personal responsibility, without which progress really does halt for those in the greatest need of advancing.

If the goal is to build careers and support families in the here and now — not eons away when all that is considered racially unjust and handicapping is no more — then cultural and structural impediments must be overcome by personal initiative and grit. If individual responsibility isn’t understood as trumping trapdoors, nothing will.

Job One for job hunters is acquiring decent educations and sufficient skills. Which brings us to graduation rates in the Minneapolis public schools.

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