There has been, in the past week or two, a ripple of discussion in journalism circles (start with Rod Dreher) about the book "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," by liberal Robert D. Putnam. With good cause, methinks, because -- tragically -- the roots of poverty in this prosperous nation in a topic that is relevant year after year.
The big question remains the same: Is this cultural crisis best discussed in terms of economics and politics, or culture and even morality? Here is moral conservative Ross Douthat, in The New York Times:
The American economy isn’t performing as well as it once did for less-skilled workers. Certain regions ... have suffered painfully from deindustrialization. The shift to a service economy has favored women but has made low-skilled men less marriageable. The decline of unions has weakened professional stability and bargaining power for some workers.
And yet, for all these disturbances and shifts, lower-income Americans have more money, experience less poverty, and receive far more safety-net support than their grandparents ever did. Over all, material conditions have improved, not worsened, across the period when their communities have come apart.
Over on the left, at Slate, there is this timely headline:
Yes, Culture Helped Kill the Two-Parent Family. And Liberals Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Admit It.
All of this discussion, of course, can be seen as intellectual ripples from a Big Bang nearly 50 years ago -- the social sciences research of the great Democratic Party statesman Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York (a frequent topic of GetReligion discussion). He said that America was entering an era in which racism would remain a force in American life, but that the primary cause of poverty would be linked to the destruction of the two-parent family. The key factor: Who has a father and who does not.
This leads me to a massive front-page feature in The Baltimore Sun focusing on recent arguments about the impact of racism here in Charm City. Most of this article focuses, of course, on politics and money.
But let's jump all the way to the final paragraphs, which offers this scene. This is long, but crucial:
On Thursday, a group of black and white people gathered in the basement of St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore. ... They had come to take part in a "Prayer Walk for Peace."
Bishop Denis Madden of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has been holding the walks for years, stopping to pray at spots where young black men have been shot or killed. He sees a problem when he compares the black faces on the streets to the white faces in boardrooms and offices.
"It's the subtleties of it," said Madden, who is white. "The leaders of the foundations, the CEOs, the disproportion of who's black and white."
The small group of volunteers walked past a vacant building on St. Peter Claver Way before turning onto Presstman Street, their feet ambling over broken sidewalks and crunching through shards of liquor bottles. A seminary student led the way, carrying a wooden cross with a black figure representing the crucified Jesus.
The group stopped at the home of the mother of Donte Downer, 29, who was gunned down nearby on Jan. 17. As she sat on her steps, head hung, members prayed.
That's powerful material. Now, focus on this next part:
A marcher, Paul Barksdale, 67, one of the few black deacons in the Baltimore Archdiocese, has lived in Baltimore all his life.
"Segregation was the mainstay," he said of the 1950s and '60s. But he noted that era was also marked by a strong black leadership and middle class, which has since moved to the suburbs. "It has been a downward spiral since then," he said.
Alongside marched Danny Cogut, a deacon studying at St. Mary's Seminary and University. While living here, the Northern Virginia native said, he has lived in a well-to-do area while working in impoverished city neighborhoods marred by some of the worst blight he has ever seen.
There are two Baltimores, he said. And the differences are especially stark when considered from the seminary on the edge of prosperous Roland Park. As Cogut, who is half Filipino, said, "We're frankly pretty sheltered from the realities of the city."
And there it is. What are the essential differences between these two communities, the impoverished African-American neighborhoods of -- as the graffiti puts it, "Body-More, Murder-Land" -- and the stable African-American communities in the suburbs? Why did so many African-Americans leave the mean streets? Which community contains the most wedding rings?
Perhaps the Sun team needed to talk to ministers who work in these communities, as opposed to focusing almost exclusively on the voices of African-American politicians and business people?
Earlier in the story, during a discussion of economic development and politics, you can see the same big issue in between the lines, in this discussion of racism:
P. David Bramble, a black developer whose firm owns Eastpoint Mall and is working on a 20-acre project with apartments, shopping and a hotel in East Baltimore, has seen potential investors react to the wide divide between prosperous and run-down neighborhoods.
"You go feast to famine in a matter of blocks, and it's very stark for people who are from out of town," said Bramble, managing partner of MCB Real Estate LLC. "I certainly don't think that we're dealing with '50s racism, but I can tell you we're dealing with a massive socioeconomic gap of the haves and have-nots."
Yes, paging Sen. Moynihan. Yes, paging the articulate and wise African-American pastors of this city. Racism is a major problem in Baltimore and other great American cities and everyone knows that. But there are other forces at work here. The sins of the absent fathers continue to be passed along to the troubled sons, and there is no way to write this story without admitting that.
Yes, cover the racism story, but cover the poverty story, as well. They are connected. Journalists can start by listening to the voices of the African-American church. Seek out the pastors, as well as the politicos.