Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1995 Issue

Minding Other People's Children

By M. Patricia Fernández Kelly

First comes the wonder: Lanita - - all braids and multicolored baubles around a sienna face - - stands amidst the litter in the George Murphy Homes to inquire wistfully: "How old do I have to be to go out with you?" She has good reason to ask. I am the purveyor of trips to the National Aquarium, swimming lessons, dance classes at the Peabody Preparatory and, best of all, summer camp at Hopkins. She knows this from her neighbor, the 13-year-old girl whom I have privately sponsored for nearly half her life.

Then comes the knowledge: A child is like a rock awaiting chisel and hammer. The rock is full of capricious flaws and possibilities - - it is packed with promise. For reasons inherent to the material, most rocks cannot be fashioned into masterpieces of the quality, say, of Michelangelo's Pietà. But the majority can turn into viable works of beauty and craftsmanship. They can also be cracked, disfigured, and worn away. Collective neglect is a good way to turn a child's heart into a pebble. Diminished ambition, untrammeled anger, and deviant behavior are not just the result of personal limitations but the product of environmental forces in whose wielding we are all implicated.

I make that statement at considerable risk. Middle America is rapidly abandoning the belief that impoverished children are a shared responsibility. Increasingly, inner-city distress is being laid at the feet of men and women judged to be too stupid and too irresponsible to rear productive citizens. The finger points to bad parenting, not public indifference. The poor, we are told, espouse values different from those that account for our own success.

That assumption is usually wrong. For several years, I have been studying the conditions surrounding 50 families in two West Baltimore neighborhoods. Most of those families are headed by women on public assistance. Joblessness, discouragement, ignorance, drug abuse, male incarceration, and a staggering number of adolescent mothers are all part of the picture. Yet other aspects are equally apparent:

More than half of the women in those families supplement public assistance through paid work in informal activities that include attending to the elderly, petty vending, domestic service, and child care. More than a third of adolescents of both sexes hold petty jobs. Three quarters of all household members attend church regularly. Virtually all parents assert the importance of a good education and a steady job. And despite all that is said to the contrary, most fathers maintain contact with their children even when they are not household members. Their shadowy presence bears testimony to a simple fact: their inability to support families on a regular basis.

What is different about the poor is not so much their values as the amount and quality of the resources they have to make values real. Ineffective schools, decrepit infrastructure, and misguided welfare programs are part of the problem. Red-lining and diminished business activity create bigger difficulties. Job losses in manufacturing caused by global competition have dealt a final blow. When grown men cannot secure better jobs than those available to teenagers, and women must choose between minimum-wage employment or public assistance, is it any wonder that their children's lives turn out differently than those of children shaped by a proper education, occupational opportunity, and healthy investment? We artfully ask the poor to live by virtue alone, while providing our own children with the tangible rewards that make virtue worth living by.

But poverty in urban America is not just about material deprivation; it is mostly about the shrinkage of experience. Children growing up in segregated neighborhoods lack personal contacts outside their immediate environment and, therefore, direct information about the workings of the larger society. That is why middle-class people can become such crucial allies of inner-city children. If government cannot do it well, and poor families do not have the assets to do so effectively, who among us will claim an option in the future of impoverished youth?

Driven by that question, I am developing Parent Plus, an endeavor whose goal is to foster sustained cooperation between families of unequal means to improve educational and social opportunities for inner-city children. Parent Plus emerges from personal experience: Half a decade ago I began a partnership with an African-American girl and her family. A year later, I incorporated her younger brother and, more recently, the girl's neighbor and friend. The three youngsters live in housing projects located in some of Baltimore's meanest neighborhoods, but Hopkins is home to them as well. Here they have met tutors and sponsors willing to work on their behalf; they know that those who care about them include, in addition to their relatives, friends of various ages, nationalities, colorations, and economic backgrounds. We form a tiny community but a community, nonetheless, bridging class and racial dividers.

It is a simple idea: to treat impoverished children as if their wellbeing mattered in preserving our own. It is a compelling notion: that only through personal involvement do we earn the right to hold other people's children accountable for their behavior. If we do not embrace them, they will come back to haunt us, unrecognizable, debased, lost. We can always blame their parents or, even more reassuringly, defective welfare programs. But are we ready to relinquish responsibility? Can we remain idle while Lanita's heart turns into a pebble?

M. Patricia Fernández Kelly is a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins and a research scientist with Hopkins's Institute for Policy Studies.

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