“Mama, mama, you got some money for me?”

This part of Chicagoland tells a story and it’s a pretty familiar urban tale: the rise and fall of a neighborhood. Rickety houses in complete disrepair mingle with neatly kept bungalows – the stalwarts, I like to call them – whose trimmed lawns and white painted bars over windows and doors tell a different story. Someone here has a job.

The stories people tell me and the stories I’ve run across.

During the mid nineties, I rotated through the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office for a few months during one of my medical resident rotations. One of the autopsies I witnessed involved a suicide in jail. The pathologist had gone to the jail, as I recall, and brought back some personal artifacts in order to put the case together properly. One of the artifacts was a suicide note and I was allowed to look through it. I remember something like this: “noone ever loved me my mom wanted to abort me noone wanted me noone wanted me.” The words aren’t exact, but I remember the white notebook paper the words were written on and the round loopy “running together” handwriting as clear as day. I always say none of this stuff gets to me but I remember a few details with such clarity that I wonder if it is really true.

A few days ago, I stop at a gas station in the neighborhood mentioned above. I’m running late. I park the car near a gas pump and walk inside to give the cashier some money. Two guys are on the curb outside, one standing and one sitting. White t-shirt, black t-shirt, baggy jeans. “You got some money for me?” says the guy standing. I say I’ll give him some money on my way back.

Inside, there are two women complaining and grumbling in front of the cashier, “grown men, grown men. Need to get a job!”

“I said I’d give them money, I shouldn’t have right?” I don’t know why I say this. I know the money will be spent on cigarettes or alcohol or worse. I’m not new to these neighborhoods, but I say it anyway. On my way out I give one of the men a dollar and I say, looking straight in his eye and with some resignation, “spend it on food okay?” He lifts up a pant leg of his jeans and shows me an ankle bracelet. “I just got out of jail.” This is his way of saying, “I’m not a loser, I got a good reason to need the money.”

Before you accuse me of being patronizing – or a patsy – he’s human, I’m human, it’s my life and these are my neighborhoods and you don’t know okay? You weren’t there. The other guy says, “mama, mama, you got some money for me?” And I give him a dollar too, but he won’t look me in the eye and takes a drag of his cigarette.

“That is real nice of you,” says the woman from inside, near her car now and trying to wash off the windows. I nod a little and go quickly to my own car. I’m not sure if it’s niceness or resignation, or some kind of talisman against all that I’ve seen.

What a failure the “war on poverty” has been. And even now, with generations of failure staring them in the eye, the same proponents of big government programs want more money to be spent on the very same failed programs or essentially variations thereof. How did conservatives get on the wrong side of this issue in the public? I think we have to accept that we fail at making our case with the general public in many instances. The failure is ours. We can’t always blame the “mainstream media” or Hollywood. We are not passive, helpless creatures.

How can we change this?

10 thoughts on ““Mama, mama, you got some money for me?””

  1. The welfare reform of the Clinton era was a huge step that took decades after Moynihan’s warning to accomplish. The really fatal trend is still going as teachers’ unions run the schools and treat kids, especially black kids, as an unpleasant necessity, sort of like garbage men who like the job but not the smell.

    My ex-wife has a lifetime teaching credential. In the early 90s she got laid off in a bank merger and went back to teaching for a short while. There was one of the typically ill-informed California initiatives that called for reducing class size to solve the problem. The new teacher applicants had to take the CBEST test, and there were the usual complaints about it being racially biased. My ex-wife said it was about 8th grade level math and vocabulary.

    She taught a third grade class in a lower middle class area east of LA. She was horrified at the change in the teachers. They would make fun of kids in their class while gossiping in the teachers’ room. They had no work ethic at all. After a few weeks, the principal asked her to sign a contract (She was a temp). Later, he told her she was his best teacher and begged her to stay. She had not taught since 1965.

    One experience was telling a second grade teacher that her kids were really well prepared for third grade reading. It was a casual comment made in a break room. The woman burst into tears. No one had ever told her she was doing a good job.

    Anyway, her experience taught me what the problem is. When she graduated from college in 1962, women had limited options in careers. Many went into teaching and nursing. Now, with better options, those two professions have been hit hard. At the same time, unions have been empowered to control the schools and the students have become far less important to those less talented teachers. Until the unions are brought to heel, there will be no progress except in charter schools and vouchers.

  2. Thanks for your wonderful – as always – comment, MK. I completely agree with you.

    My latest copy of City Journal (I started subscribing after Michael Totten mentioned on his blog that is is a beautiful magazine by virtue of the artwork, the layout, all that aesthetic stuff) has an article on charter schools in Harlem and mentions the documentary, “The Lottery.” I want to see it.

    Schools, safety, jobs – and family. But first schools and safety I think, if we are ever to break some of these vicious hurtful cycles.

    – Madhu

  3. If you have the “family,” including friends, the “safety” is easier to come by. Then schooling. Jobs . . . should be first, but times have changed. Maybe we are moving to a time where what we understand as a “job” is just out-of-date. I don’t know what happens then, honestly. I guess we’ll find out.

    The Amish have it all in the right order, but they live in a by-gone era. Without farming, shopkeeping, and making things by hand, what are “jobs”? Having meetings, chatting on the phone? Teaching should be a noble profession, but look what it has become? We will be better off, sadly, than we are now, when automatons do the bulk of it.

  4. MK..”When she graduated from college in 1962, women had limited options in careers. Many went into teaching and nursing. Now, with better options, those two professions have been hit hard”…and at the same time, the teaching option was made *much less attractive* by the extreme bureaucratization of teaching, caused by idiot administrators, ed schools, unions, and plaintiffs lawyers. High-quality people generally want some sort of *agency* in their work: they may even be willing to take less $$$ in exchange for more autonomy. But when autonomy is reduced, and active disrespect is tolerated, at the same time that other career opportunities open up, the result is bound to be disastrous.

  5. How can we change this?

    Most of what needs to be changed WE can’t change, assuming we are talking about those who are able to be contributing members of society and not those with disabilities that prevent them from doing so. It is up to the individuals who suffer from poverty to get them selves out of the mental situation that is more willing to tolerate living in poverty than working.

    There are three things one needs to do that almost ensure membership in the middle class:

    Graduate from High School
    Hold a full time job
    Get married before having children.

    That’s it.

    But WE, primarily through our government, undermine those who would escape poverty by putting roadblocks in their way.

    The problems with the schools are legion and well known. WE need to replace the failed public education systems with vouchers that give parents control over the educational destiny of their children. We should also reduce the age of mandatory attendance to 14. Young adults who do not desire to stay in school should not be forced to do so and should not be allowed to destroy the experience for those who do.

    Holding a full time job begins with getting that first, usually part-time, job. High minimum wages discourage hiring of those with the least skills. Give them a break and lower, or better yet, eliminate the minimum wage.

    It is time to re-stigmatize illegitimacy. The problem is that in the past most of the stigma was borne by the innocent child. Some way must be found to disincentivize illegitimacy. I am willing to entertain some pretty draconian ideas in this regard. It should not be forgotten that the lowest rates of illegitimacy in England were during the Protectorate. And I doubt that was because the young suddenly found God. We can dramatically reduce this problem but it won’t be easy.

    If we did these things, and if the government declared victory in the War on Poverty and withdrew, poverty could be reduced. But as long as we reward so many in and out of government for poverty, we will not see significant reduction.

  6. The question posed is about communicating conservative strategies, changing the way we sell our ideas.

    First, identify the audience. Who are we trying to persuade? We need not cater to those too far into a leftoid/socialist identity. They are the enemy, not the battleground.

    Second, personalize success. Where have our strategies worked? Find some sound examples, real people with real stories. Tell those stories to the audience in their language. Show them that the people next door, or the family in the next neighborhood, can follow the model.

    Third, segment progress. Do we need to have our entire agenda enacted at once? Pick one aspect, one tactic from the strategies and work it. Persist. Do not force any leaps. Let the small successes begin to hunger for more success.

    Fourth, stay positive. Pointing out how the opposition has failed says zero about how we can improve the human condition. Poverty, dependence and hopelessness speak for themselves. We need only provide an alternate, an escape. Use pride as a lever.

    I say many people will never buy anything with the “conservative” brand on it. Accept that. What matters is human flourishing, not the label.

  7. In the United States in the year of our Lord 2010 the poverty line for a family of 4 is $22,000. Families earning less than $22,000 per year are the Poor.

    In Brazil the average family income for all Brazilian families of 4 is $6840. American Poor people are richer than all of Brasil’s middle class. However French and German poor are richer than American poor. We are behind in the race for the richest poor.

    American poor people tend to be overweight; they are not starving. They are not the Dickensian poor.

  8. How can we change this?

    Step one is to accept that some of these people are just too damaged to salvage. There is no point to giving them chance after chance to commit crime by forgiving their crimes over and over again. Lock them up or kill them.

    Step two is to give the remainder an incentive to work and be civilized. Don’t reward animal behavior by giving them more money every time they create another child they can neither pay for nor care for.

    Step three is to stop punishing people who are working by endless tax increases as they earn more money.

    I’m sorry if that seems too harsh but I have a similar background to that suicide-note author and my sympathy for idiocy is lacking. If you can’t make it in the most prosperous country that has ever existed- which combines both a large welfare state with great opportunity- then I suspect your ability to survive anywhere is in doubt.

    And hence I see no reason why functional people of all backgrounds should be robbed to sustain your worthless and very likely criminal existence.

  9. Thank you for all of your contributions. You’ve helped me to see things in a new way. Seriously!

    I am not a bleeding heart and I don’t think you can change people so easily. I’ve seen waaaay too much to be any kind of social engineering proponent.

    I was more interested in communications. I think you have to continually make some of the above points – they are counterintuitive to many, and many have not absorbed the correct lessons. They have come to the opposite conclusions. A lot of people just want to be “nice and fair,” and don’t think any farther than that. Certainly not about the concrete results of programs meant to be “fair.”

    @ Foxmarks – thanks. That is exactly what I was looking for!

    – Madhu

    (I’ve seen things that are worse than any Dickensian horror story, but that is a complicated issue and due to a societal breakdown. It is not about poverty per se. Read some of the crime pages in the Chicago Tribune! Horrific.)

Comments are closed.