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The New York Times reported recently that the term “culture of poverty” is regaining favor within the social sciences.(1) Although he didn’t coin the label, the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan popularized it during the 1960s & 1970s. Moynihan disputed the pivotal assumption that buttressed most programs within President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and his “War on Poverty.” Johnson, along with most social scientists, believed that the key to reducing poverty and economic disadvantage was opportunity. Opportunity included, among other things, government programs that provided decent housing and vibrant communities, good schools, and entrée into either college or job-training programs. Based on his own dramatic rise from severe economic hardship, Johnson reasoned that less advantaged persons would jump at the chance to seize those and related chances to improve their lot in life.
Moynihan, however, and other advocates for the “culture” side targeted what they saw as the naïveté of the “opportunity” side. They argued in effect that you can offer water to a horse, but you can’t make him drink it. The central thesis of the culture side was and is that people’s values strongly influence their life-choices. Advocates reason that the “right” values motivate persons to make the “right” life-choices—choices that enable them to be socially mobile and thus fulfill the American Dream. In their view, for example, it is “right” values that motivate lower-class adults and/or their children to make the kinds of choices that help pave their way into the working-classes. Similarly, “right” values motivate persons in the working-classes to make choices that bring them into the lower-middle class. Likewise, “right” choices make it possible for them or, more likely their children, to gain eventual access into the upper-middle-class. Pursuit of the bachelor’s degree is a particularly critical choice because it is seen as the union card or ticket offering entrée into the upper-middle-class.
Today, most social scientists believe that the truth of this ongoing debate lies somewhere in the middle. It appears that neither opportunity by itself, nor choices based on “right” values are, by themselves, sufficient to facilitate social mobility. What is both necessary and sufficient for “making it in America” is public policy that offers opportunity and also emphasizes the kinds of values necessary to seize the opportunity. And, as it happens, on the night prior to reading the Times piece I had occasion to observe a situation where opportunity was available but the “right values” seemed to be lacking.
I was having dinner with a family that lives in and around the amorphous boundary between the working-class and the lower-middle class. The father, in his forties, has a crew working in the construction trades. The recent recession has taken a severe toll on construction projects, and he’s been struggling to make ends meet. His son Phil (pseudonym), aged 19, dropped out of high school to work for his father though he says he intends to get his GED. Phil also says that he can’t think of a better way to spend his life than working with his dad, and he hopes one day to take over his business.
Somehow we got started talking about college, and Phil’s father said that when he was a youngster “No one ever mentioned college to me. It never seemed to me that college was something I could or ever should consider.” While he was growing up, the concept of college was as far-removed from his life as Mars—it had absolutely no relevance for his everyday existence. That was not surprising, given that his immediate and extended family could be considered part of the working-poor or lower class. I was, however, surprised to learn that Phil feels just as disconnected from the concept of college as did his father 20 years ago. Phil is well aware that they live nearby a fine community college, “but that doesn’t mean anything to me.” Here his father interjected rather wistfully, “I wish he would go to college so he wouldn’t have to do the dirty kind of work that we do.”
In his father’s case, both the lack of opportunity and the absence of values accentuating the significance of college contributed to his lack of mobility. But in Phil’s case, my hunch is that his values are overriding available opportunity in affecting his life-choices. Phil chose not to apply himself during high school and, although his local, low-cost community college offers solid chances for mobility, he has no plans to enroll and earn his AA degree. And, needless to say, he has no interest in eventually earning his BA degree.
The literature on social mobility suggests that role models in one’s community, church, or extended family tend to give less advantaged youth the sense that if s/he can do it, I can too. Phil is fortunate to have such role models of achievement within his own kin network. Phil’s maternal grandfather had a college degree, and almost every one of his kin on his mother’s side holds a bachelor’s degree with some holding an advanced degree. Moreover, his own father states that college would be a good way for Phil to achieve a better life than he himself has experienced.
However, neither the fact of opportunity, nor paternal encouragement, nor the presence of a range of positive role models has motivated Phil to seek that “better” life. A part of the explanation for Phil’s choices may perhaps lie with the fact that his mother had attended college for a year or so but dropped out. We could surmise that she functions as a “negative” role model for Phil: She spurned college and is doing OK, so I can do the same thing.
Compare Phil’s situation with that of Jean’s (pseudonym). She had opportunity and, on the surface at least, the “right” values. In addition, she possessed the third factor helping to account for social mobility, namely, “good” genes. Up to now, social scientists have downplayed the significance of genetic materials, though that seems to be changing. In any case, Jean had, in contrast to Phil, natural “smarts”—a great deal of intellectual talent. She was student in a sophomore class on gender & families that I taught at the University of Florida. Once after class, several students and I were reflecting on that day’s topic, namely, the links between gender and sexuality. Jean, an African-American woman, was among the group. During the course of our conversation, she astonished us by announcing that she’d be dropping out of UF at semester’s end.
The cause for our astonishment was that Jean held the most valuable scholarship that UF awards to worthy recipients. The pool of eligible applicants is high school students who come from families where no one had been to college—i.e., students lacking the positive role models that, say, Phil had. But within that pool, merit alone determines who and who does not receive the munificent scholarship that pays 100% of tuition, books, and room & board for four years. Jean explained that she was pregnant, and that she was taking the drastic step of dropping out and relinquishing her scholarship in order to have her baby.
When one of the students asked Jean if she felt bad about having to give up her much-coveted scholarship, she said “Yes, but I’m moving to south Florida to live with my boyfriend’s mother. She’ll help take care of the baby while I try to fit in classes at the community college. My boyfriend is in a rock band and travels a lot, so he won’t be home very much to help out.” When one of the students asked how she managed to get pregnant, Jean smiled and said very simply, “It just happened.” Another student asked why she wasn’t having an abortion and Jean replied that “I’m a Christian and don’t believe in it.” Jean added that both her mother & grandmother had also been pregnant though not married, and they too had kept their babies—and also because they were Christians.
Jean came across as a highly intelligent, talented, and articulate person, and the fact that she’d earned that unique scholarship proved it. So chalk up a point for genetic material. Jean had the “right stuff” to break the oft-discussed cycle of economic disadvantage that had ensnared both her mother & grandmother. Next, chalk up a second point for values. Jean had most of the “right values” necessary to make it into the upper-middle-class. She knew she must graduate college, and she had invested time and energy in competing for the resources that would facilitate her goal. Finally, chalk up a third point for opportunity. Prospective college students everywhere salivate at the type of scholarship that Jean actually carried around in her backpack. A fantastic opportunity to help achieve social mobility was awarded to her, and she’d seized it!
Jean was, in most respects, a textbook case for public policy that is effective at enhancing the socioeconomic well-being of less advantaged persons: Identify youth with above-average talents; imbue them with the “right” values; and offer them the kind of stellar opportunity they can’t refuse. So what happened? Why was Jean channeled back into a set of life-circumstances that seem less propitious for mobility even than Phil’s? After all, his talents are plainly average; and he seems to lack many of the “right” values. Furthermore, his available opportunities (two-year community college) are far less impressive than a first-class ticket to a research university.
To help us sort out the puzzle of what befell Jean we might start with a brief glimpse of the September 2010 annual meeting of The Values Voter Summit.(2) The Summit is an influential arm of the Religious Right (RR). RR can in brief be described as an organized group of the devout who use political & legal means to impose the will of the divine on the doubters. Summit leaders had expressed concern that the GOP was focusing exclusively on economic issues (e.g., government spending and taxation) to the exclusion of cultural values issues (e.g., sexuality—both homo & hetero). But GOP leaders assured the Summit that during the upcoming election campaign they would emphasize cultural values as well as economic issues. Both the GOP and RR assumed that an innate cleavage exists between, on the one side, bread & butter issues and, on the other side, cultural values issues.(3) And they are not alone in making that assumption. A recent study by the Pew Group found that most US citizens, regardless of political party, perceive little or no overlap between bread & butter issues and cultural values issues.(4)
But real life is not so easily divided into black & white. It turns out that economic issues and cultural values issues tend to intersect in often unexpected ways. If, for instance, we flashback to the 19th & early 20th centuries we find that religiously-based cultural values marked contraception—even for married couples—as wrong or immoral. The l873 federal Comstock Laws made it illegal to send any
"obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information. In addition to banning contraceptives, this act also banned the distribution of information on abortion for educational purposes.”(5)
At the same time, however, industrialization was spawning a rapid expansion of the middle-classes on both sides of the Atlantic. Seeking a life-style that showed off their newfound economic prosperity, citizens ran up against a cultural value with considerable moral weight—the moral person should not use contraceptives to limit the size of her/his family.
Children turned out, however, to be surprisingly expensive. They were no longer the economic asset they’d been back on their grandparents’ farm. Urban parents, intent on demonstrating their economic success, began to realize that children had become an economic liability. Ergo, people quietly ignored the old moral value—acquiesce to as many children as God sends you. Ordinary citizens then invented a new cultural value—the moral person has as many children as s/he can afford, but not more than that. Gradually, through the efforts of Margaret Sanger and others, that new value, along with the actual use of contraceptives, spread out from the middle-classes. People in the working- & lower-classes who aimed to make it into the middle-classes also adopted both the new value along with the use of contraceptives.
Consequently, history suggests that we are indeed on safe ground by disputing the widely-held assumption that bread & butter issues and cultural values issues invariably operate in distinct spheres. For purposes of crafting public policy aimed at enhancing the socioeconomic well-being of less advantaged Americans, we might even go a step further. Let us posit that there is indeed an essential linkage between certain cultural values and economic well-being. Moreover, let’s use Jean as a case study to explore what those linkages might perhaps look like. Although I never saw or spoke to Jean again after that semester, it is nonetheless instructive to make certain inferences about her situation based on a large body of research into the sexual values and behaviors of adolescents & youth on both sides of the Atlantic.(6)
For example, Jean’s peer asking how she “managed” to get pregnant was a genteel way of saying, how could you be so lame as to mess up on your condoms or the Pill? The term “contraceptive failure” has been a prominent feature of the research literature on fertility control among marrieds and nonmarrieds alike for many decades. It conveys a reality most of us know from our own experience, namely that, even under the most propitious circumstances, contraception is a stern challenge. No method is 100% perfect, and mistakes happen. The protagonists of the 2007 film Knocked Up were savvy, sophisticated, sexually-experienced thirty-somethings. Yet in a paroxysm of shared sexual passion, he botched the job of properly attaching the condom to his penis. In a classic scene, the camera traces in slow motion the path of the condom as it drops at a snail's pace to the floor.
Far too many sexually-active adolescents in the US use no contraceptives at all, and my hunch is that Jean was in that category. My second hunch is that when Jean told us she was Christian, she meant evangelical Christian. They along with conservative Catholics, as well as others, believe that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. It follows that Jean and her boyfriend would hardly be carrying condoms. Since they are not going to do something wrong, why would they need them? But if perchance he did have a condom, and if in the heat of their (illicit) passion he did try to use it, we could surmise that they experienced contraceptive failure of the Knocked Up variety. Even among US adolescents who are not religious and who do use try to use contraceptives, contraceptive failure is a common occurrence.
But why do many sexually active adolescents neglect to use any contraceptives at all? And, among those who do try, why is “failure” so common? Answering those questions begins by comparing the US with Western Europe in terms of religious cultural values re sexuality. The Europeans tend to define sexuality as one of the many gifts of being human—whether the gift emanates from God, or evolution, or both. They also believe that what makes sexuality good, right, and moral is responsibility—both to one’s partner and to oneself. Placing it in language familiar to Christians & Jews, they might say that demonstrating sexual responsibility is an additional example of loving one’s neighbor and oneself.
In effect, responsibility is fused with and inseparable from the essence of moral sexuality. Responsibility has several facets one of which is that sex must be consensual. Another is that in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies and/or STDs, one or both partners should use contraceptives. It follows that for many Europeans responsibility replaces marriage as the criterion for moral sexuality. Thus, nonmarrieds (including adolescents)—whether straight or gay/lesbian—may or may not practice moral sex. By the same token, married persons likewise may or may not practice moral sex.
As a prelude to considering US values regarding sexuality we must highlight the following, drawn from the research literature:
Teen pregnancy rates [in the US are] three to six times higher here than in Western Europe. S.T.D. rates: 20 to 30 times higher here than Holland. H.I.V. rate? Theirs is six times lower.(7)
Kinsey’s pioneering research in the 1940s & 1950s showed that even way back then, the US was sexually schizoid.(8) And since those ancient times, the chasm between what should be in the realm of sex and what actually is has widened a hundred fold. On the one hand, sex is now flaunted openly in advertising, the media and now the internet, but on the other hand it remains a Taboo subject. It is Taboo in the sense that in the US there has been very little serious discussion regarding the morality of sexuality. The Europeans, meanwhile, are quietly reinventing their cultural values making responsibility the hallmark of moral sexuality. Their parents, teachers, and clergy seek to engage children & youth in dialogue, encouraging them to practice their sexuality in a responsible, i.e., moral fashion. And pivotal to their conversation is their coaching of adolescents & youth in the kinds of practical skills necessary to reduce the likelihood of contraceptive failure.
But in the US, it seems that most adolescents & youth face the daunting world of sexuality quite apart from any serious discussion of its underlying morality. The explicit message they receive even in the most “enlightened” sex education classes is that, ideally, they should postpone intercourse until they are married. The implicit rationale for such a decision is that marriage makes it right, i.e., moral, whereas apart from marriage sex is wrong, i.e., immoral. Some sex-ed teachers hedge a bit and say that even if it is not necessarily immoral, non-marital sex is not moral or right. It thus lies in limbo—somewhere in between right & wrong. Adding further to the teens’ confusion is the message that “because sex is so enjoyable we know you’re going do it anyhow. But please practice damage-control—protect yourself!” Recently, RR has gotten sufficient political clout to introduce a radically different curriculum into many American schools. Called abstinence-only, their new message to teens is “Make up your mind that you shall remain virginal until marriage, period!”
Given the predominance of both the damage-control and the abstinence-only themes it is little wonder that compared with their European peers, American adolescents in general are less likely to use contraceptives, more likely to experience contraceptive failure, more likely to become pregnant, and more likely to have higher rates of childbearing and also of abortions. The glimmer of hope in this dismal picture is that those conclusions do not apply across the entire social class ladder. It turns out the higher the social class of the adolescent’s family, the more likely s/he is to use contraceptives, and the less likely she/is to experience contraceptive failure, pregnancy, or abortion. One researcher described what is evolving among advantaged American youth as an “emerging sexual morality” which is “characteristic of the upper-middle-class.”(9) He added that it is “strategic” and “education-minded.”
In short, the parents of privileged youth convey (either tacitly or overtly) a rationale for the damage-control theme: You are privileged, and if you intend to maintain or increase your privilege, you cannot afford a pregnancy. Hence, we shall make available to you hormonal methods as well as mechanical methods such as condoms. And what you must do is make certain you use those methods effectively. But if perchance a failure occurs, we have recourse to the option of abortion, though hopefully it need never be exercised. At the same time, there is no doubt that some parents and role-models in the lower-middle-class, in the working-class, and even in the lower-class, are adapting this same sort of strategic theme: If you intend to become socially mobile, you cannot afford a pregnancy. Hence, this is what we shall do and this is what you must do.
And that brings us back to Jean. She had it all—well, almost all. She had the genes, the opportunity, and most of the “right” values. What she seemed to lack was a sense of the strategic necessity of being pregnancy-free. Even if a role-model (e.g., a teacher) had impressed this necessity upon her, it seems unlikely that she would have heeded the counsel. My hunch is that in terms of her own values, she favored abstinence-only. But her distressing life-experiences verified what the literature reveals and common sense suggests—it simply doesn’t work. Abstinence-only is in effect a cruel hoax.
And what about the millions of other American youth (white, black, Asian, Latina/o) who grow up in relatively less privileged households—those below the upper-middle-class? Once-upon-a- time the US economy had ample room to accommodate those less-privileged persons. But economists suggest that the recent turmoil (as well as the long-term structural changes) within the US economy now point to a very different reality. A recent NPR story about low-skilled workers featured a 39 year old unemployed woman named Lorraine who told the reporter that:
“I had babies really early in life. I had my first baby at 16," she says. "I started working immediately. I've been working since I was 14 and a half."
The reporter comments: In the office of the employment counselor, they sort through the pros and cons of Lorraine’s resume: She has a 10th-grade education, but she's willing to pursue her GED. She has limited computer skills, but some valuable work experience.
But work has changed for Lorraine over the years: "These days, it's not really labor and hands-on kind of stuff," she says. "It's more technical and using your brain. I don't have a lot of education in that, so I need to go get that."(10)
As grim as Lorraine’s tale is, perhaps even more depressing is the fact that she and her unemployed boyfriend share a crowded apartment together with her unemployed 24 year old daughter (Alysha) and her young daughter. They barely have enough money to cover next month’s rent. Alysha reports that she’s "preferably looking for a bartending job because of the tips and stuff. But I'll just take whatever."
There is obviously no silver bullet for crafting public policy that might enhance the socioeconomic well-being of citizens such as Lorraine, Alysha, and especially her daughter. But is it not possible to take a few small steps forward aimed in particular at children & youth such as Alysha’s daughter? In order to break the cycle of disadvantage that trapped both her mother & grandmother, she would obviously require opportunity. One such example would be for K-12 to become a whole lot more creative and innovative at meeting the intellectual needs & skill-requirements of youngsters below the upper-middle-class.
But Jean’s case suggests opportunities of that kind do not by themselves suffice to address the socioeconomic interests of less advantaged children & youth. Alongside opportunity, K-12 might also consider acquainting those youngsters with the kinds of “strategic” values regarding sexuality & contraception to which privileged youngsters are now routinely exposed. Those youngsters would need to comprehend that strategic values are in essence the flip-side of values endorsing responsibility for one’s partner and also for oneself. To be strategic is to be responsible, and to be responsible is to be strategic. Jean’s boyfriend was, for instance, neither strategic nor responsible towards her. Indeed, one could argue that he did her an enormous disservice that may take years if ever to repair.
This line of reasoning continues the conversation begun during the 19th century regarding the morality of contraception. In the course of their discussion, ordinary citizens in both Europe & North America invented a new cultural value that persists to this day, namely, contraception for marrieds is good & moral—though by no means does everyone concur even now. The rationale for their new cultural value was economic—it was a bread & butter issue.
Today, that same conversation has broadened to encompass nonmarrieds—particularly adolescents & youth. Whereas the earlier question was can married people have moral sex if they use contraceptives, today’s question is more complex and controversial: Can nonmarrieds have moral sex? Increasing numbers of persons are saying yes, if it is responsible. Accordingly, today’s citizens are, like our ancestors, inventing a new cultural value. This new value of responsibility carries with it several features, one of which is the effective use of contraceptives. As in the 19th century, the ultimate rationale for this newly emerging value is economic—it is a bread & butter issue.
It is at the same time a social justice issue. Upper-middle-class youngsters who already possess privilege are imbued with the values, and also given access to the opportunities, required to maintain or augment their privilege. For them, opportunity includes first of all the chances to attend “better” schools—both K-12 and college. Second, opportunity also includes ready access to the most effective hormonal and other contraceptives, as well as ready access to abortion. Less privileged youngsters lack access to both types of opportunity. Furthermore they, like Jean, are seldom confronted with the full range of values that might motivate them to seize whatever opportunities might perhaps become available.
America has always been about trying to make the playing field as level as possible. Everyone agrees that less privileged youngsters deserve a fair shot at enhancing their socioeconomic well-being. Accordingly, they deserve opportunity in the form of 21st century, cutting-edge schools. And it seems to me that they also deserve opportunity in the form of subsidies for obtaining the most effective contraceptives, as well as abortion, should that become necessary. Most of all, they deserve the chance to seriously ponder the question what makes sex moral? It follows that they should also have the chance to consider a full range of answers to that question—one of which is that moral sex demands that the partners are both responsible and strategic at the same time.
Adapted from John Scanzoni, Healthy American Families: A Progressive Alternative to the Religious Right, 2010, Santa Barbara CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.
Patricia Cohen, October 17, 2010. “’Culture of Poverty’” Makes a Comeback.” The New York Times.
Kathleen Hennessey, September 17, 2010. “GOP seeks to assure 'values voters.' At a summit of social conservatives, Republican leaders vow not to forget issues such as abortion and gay marriage, despite politicians' focus on the economy and the 'tea party' movement.” The Los Angeles Times.
Patrik Jonsson, November 15, 2010. “Tea party groups push GOP to quit culture wars, focus on deficit.” The Christian Science Monitor.
For useful summaries of this literature see:
Abma, J.C., G.M. Martinez, W.D. Mosher, B.S. Dawson. 2004. “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing 2002.” National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics 23(24). Hyattsville MD: Center for Disease Control & Prevention.
Lefkowitz, Eva S, Meghan M. Gillen. 2006. “’Sex is just a Normal Part of Life’: Sexuality in Emerging Adulthood.’” Pages 235-256 in Emerging Adults in America—Coming of Age in the 21st Century, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett & Jennifer Lynn Tanner (EDS). Washington DC: The American Psychological Association.
Levin, Diane E. & Jean Kilbourne. 2008. So sexy so soon—the new sexualized childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids. New York: Ballantine
Luker, Kristin. 1996. Dubious Conceptions—the politics of teenage pregnancy. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press:
Luker, Kristin. 2006. When sex goes to school: Warring views on sex—and sex education—since the sixties. New York: W.W. Norton.
Maxwell, Sharon. 2008. The talk—what your kids need to hear from you about sex. New York: Penguin.
Regnerus, Mark D. 2007. Forbidden fruit: sex and religion in the lives of American teenagers. New York: Oxford Press.
Lisa Belkin, November 5, 2010. “A Different Kind of Sex Talk with Teens.” The New York Times.
Kinsey, Alfred C., W.B. Pomeroy, C.E. Martin. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Kinsey, Alfred C., W.B. Pomeroy, C.E. Martin, P.H. Gebhard. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Regnerus, loc.cit. 2007:182.
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About the Author
John H Scanzoni
John Scanzoni is Professor Emeritus of sociology at The University of Florida. He has done extensive research on changes in family patterns
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