I hadn’t thought of Jerry Carter for at least five years. I probably
wouldn’t have thought of him for at least another five if it hadn’t
been for the report of the National Research Council’s Committee on the
Status of Black Americans.
I met Jerry in 1982. I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times. He was a kid in trouble with the law. Specifically, he was one of a gang of twenty teenagers and thirteen young adults from Chicago’s vast, grim Robert Taylor Homes public housing project arrested for pickpocketing at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Kentucky Derby Day. I was sent by my newspaper to cover their hearings and learn what I could of their lives and the adult “Fagin” who supposedly masterminded their crimes.
The National Research Council report (“A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society”) reminded me of Jerry because his life seemed to refute one of the book’s principle claims: that the “culture of poverty” has little or nothing to do with persistently high rates of black poverty.
I suspected when I first heard this claim that the Committee on the Status of Black Americans, loaded as it was with social scientists, had demolished a straw man, a bloodless construct so rigidly defined as to be meaningless in terms of the actual lives of the humans who inhabit the nation’s ghettos and who, for the most part, make up what has come to be called the underclass. After reading the pertinent parts of the 608-page volume, my suspicion was confirmed.
The committee describes the concept fairly enough at first: the culture of poverty is “a distinctive set of beliefs, values, and behavior patterns that tend to perpetuate (the) condition” of those who are poor and segregated. But the discussion quickly degenerates into an exercise in semantic hairsplitting, finally concluding that “taken as a whole, the data and analyses we have examined throw serious doubt on the validity of the strong thesis that culture of poverty is a major cause of self perpetuating poverty.”
Against the committee’s data and analyses, I would set the life of Jerry Carter. When I wrote about him for the Sun Times, I didn’t use his name. After all, he was a minor at least chronologically. Instead, I borrowed the title Dickens used for his young pickpocket in Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger.
Jerry told the police and the juvenile court judge in Louisville that he was twelve, and he looked as if he could have been. He later told me, however, that he was fourteen.
He tearfully told the judge that his mother was a maid in a Chicago hotel who worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday and couldn’t afford to come and escort him home, the condition that the judge demanded for each youngster’s release. Yet when I as a surrogate delivered Jerry to his apartment at midday on an ordinary Friday, his mother was there, washing greens at the kitchen sink. So were three grown men, at least two of whom were introduced to me as Jerry’s brothers.
“We sure do appreciate you bringing him,” one of them said to me, as if I had found him lost at an amusement park or some other equally innocuous place. There was no parental reprimand, just smiles and kisses and some jocular banter with the men about having gotten caught.
That was the crazy part: Jerry’s criminal activity seemed taken for granted, in his household and his neighborhood. As we approached his building, he was surrounded by children and other teenagers who knew where he had been and what he had been doing and found it not the least bit unusual.
At fourteen, Jerry had been in the pickpocket business for a year and a half, mostly working the streets of downtown Chicago but making an occasional out of town foray to an event like the Derby where the pickings would be good. He was a skilled and effortless liar. And he possessed a certain worldly wisdom: He didn’t begin telling me the truth about himself until our flight had landed at O’Hare airport and he was safely back “in my own town.”
If he shared any mainstream attitude, it was thrift. “If I get more than $100, I save it,” he said, describing his work. “If I get less than $100, I spend it, mostly on clothes.”
It’s possible that Jerry, who would be twenty one now if he has survived, may have been successful enough at crime to lift himself and his family out of poverty. He wouldn’t be the first American to have done so; some have even made it to respectability. I suspect, however, that Jerry and most of his neighborhood friends are no better off now than they were in 1982. And I suspect that their “distinctive set of beliefs, values, and behavior patterns” has much to do with that.
Jerry Carter has a female counterpart in the culture of poverty. She is the young, pregnant teenage girl, who dreams of being of the age when she can “get my own (welfare) grant and get my own apartment.” I wish I could count the number of times I heard that line as a reporter.
Of course, the culture of poverty doesn’t exhaust the explanations for persistent black poverty and the underclass. No single explanation does. Indeed, as James Tobin, the Nobel laureate economist who was a member of the Committee on the Status of Black Americans, said at the press conference where the report was released: “Everything is a cause and everything is an effect.”
Yet to deny the influence of the culture of poverty is to deny a powerful reality. To deny reality is to assure that one will be defeated by it.
Don Wycliff is a member of the Editorial Board of the New York Times.