Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair
Once again, single motherhood has been declared a national emergency. On October 29, 1993, the Wall Street Journal published an article, “The Coming White Underclass,” in which Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called attention to the sharp rise in the proportion of white babies born to unwed mothers—22 percent in 1991. Murray went on to warn of the threat posed by unwed mothers of all races. “Illegitimacy,” he wrote, “is the single most important social problem of our time—more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else.”
As a solution, Murray repeated the recommendation that won him notice when he made it ten years ago in his book Losing Ground: abolish welfare. Do away with food stamps and welfare checks, Murray asserted in the Journal, and poor young mothers would be forced to enlist the help of parents, boyfriends, siblings, neighbors, churches, and the like, thereby raising “the probability that other mature adults are going to be involved with the upbringing of the child.” Some young women would think twice about having a child, while others would put their babies up for adoption.
To promote adoption, Murray argued, procedures should be liberalized so that children could be placed with new parents during infancy. As for the “small proportion” of infants and the “larger proportion of older children who would not be adopted, Murray called for a return to orphanages. “I am not recommending Dickensian barracks,” he wrote.
In 1993, we know a lot about how to provide a warm, nurturing environment for children, and getting rid of the welfare system frees up lots of money to do it. Those who find the word “orphanages” objectionable may think of them as 24-hour-a-day preschools.
The idea of reviving orphanages may well strike many readers as extreme, but Murray’s views were quickly taken up. The Washington Post ran no fewer than three columns devoted to his article. “Illegitimacy is the royal road to poverty and all its attendant pathologies,” Charles Krauthammer approvingly wrote on November 19. Four days later, Richard Cohen, in a column headlined “Dealing with Illegitimacy,” repeated Murray’s diagnosis of the problem but offered an alternative solution: Norplant, the birth control device. On December 1, William Raspberry, in a column titled, “That Disturbing Charles Murray,” wrote that
Murray begins where you are and drags you, often kicking and screaming, much closer to where you thought you’d never go. Even when you see where his train of thought is headed, you may fail to find a convenient stop at which to exit.
On December 2, 1993, an article in The New York Times, citing Murray’s Journal piece, reported with dismay on the diminishing stigma attached to teen-age pregnancy. “Pregnant Teen-Agers Are Outcasts No Longer,” the headline read. “In the ‘old days’ of the 1960’s, 50’s and 40’s,” the article began, “pregnant teen-agers were pariahs, banished from schools, ostracized by their peers or scurried out of town to give birth in secret. Today, pregnant teen-agers are even beginning to be viewed by some of their peers as role models.”
Murray was a frequent presence on television as well. On ABC’s World News Tonight, Murray denounced the welfare system as “evil,” while on This Week with David Brinkley he fielded obliging questions from George Will. (“What began in the Sixties and how did it happen that the stigma of illegitimacy collapsed?”) On the NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw sought out President Clinton to ask him about Murray’s views. “I read Charles Murray’s latest article on this, and I think he did the country a great service,” said Clinton, who is preparing his own welfare-reform package intended to get people off the rolls. “I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right…. There is no question that [if we] reduce the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, it would be some incentive for people not to have dependent children out of wedlock.”
The people most concerned in this debate—the single mothers themselves—were hardly heard from. Aside from quoting a few brief remarks, the press paid little attention to their views. As a result, some of the principal assumptions underlying the debate went unexamined. To what extent does welfare actually affect the decisions of low-income women to have children? Is abolishing welfare likely to change their behavior? How practical would it be to set up orphanages, and how much would they cost? Unfortunately, few journalists have ventured into poor urban neighborhoods to pursue such questions.
Susan Sheehan has done so. For her recent book, Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair, Sheehan spent two-and-a-half years examining the life of an inner-city black family. Single motherhood was not her main concern. Rather, it was New York’s foster-care system. In recent years, largely because of the crack explosion, that system has grown enormously. In 1984, the city had 16,240 children in foster care; by 1991, the number had risen to 50,518. Nationwide, 430,000 children were in foster care, at a cost of $6 billion. What kind of care were they receiving?
Unfortunately, Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair presents little analysis of this question or of the other problems facing black families. Sheehan’s tone is bland and self-effacing and she has no clear point of view. Originally appearing as a two-part series in The New Yorker, the book, only 174 pages long, lacks the complex sense of character one finds in Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Sheehan’s portrait of a schizophrenic young woman, which won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
Still, Sheehan has done an impressive amount of research. She managed not only to win the confidence of a poor family, but also to breach the walls of secrecy surrounding New York City’s Child Welfare Administration. Gaining access to official records about the family and interviewing case workers who worked with it, Sheehan provides rich documentary material about three generations of a family of single mothers. While largely anecdotal, Sheehan’s findings help provide a basis for evaluating Murray’s sweeping claims which have won him so many admirers in the press.
The main character of Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair is Crystal Taylor, a spirited, outgoing, boy-crazy young woman with a knack for getting along with people. Crystal has a keen sense of humor and a lack of self-pity that the adults who know her find endearing. Though she uses a great deal of profanity and never picks up a newspaper or reads anything more challenging than Jackie Collins, Crystal is an engaging and inventive talker (she enjoys “conversating” and “blousing through magazines”). “I is lovable,” she says. Sheehan agrees. “Of all the people I have written books about,” she writes, “Crystal Taylor is my favorite.”
The book opens when Crystal, seven months pregnant, has gone into contractions and her boyfriend, Daquan Jefferson, is taking her to the hospital. (All of the names in Sheehan’s book are fictitious; Crystal’s name as well as the book’s title come from a Langston Hughes poem.) Crystal met Daquan, a sometime drug dealer, one year earlier. On their first date, they went to a movie, then rented a “short-stay” hotel room in the Bronx, where they smoked angel dust and had sex. Daquan was twenty-three years old at the time, and Crystal was thirteen. Soon after, Crystal moved in with Daquan and his parents, who lived in a Bronx housing project.
When she found out she was pregnant, Crystal demanded that Daquan stop dealing dope; she did not want the father of her child in jail. So Daquan went on welfare. In return for his benefits, he was put to work as a custodian for the New York City Board of Education; when a permanent job opened up, he got off welfare and never went back. Crystal, depressed at the idea of having a child at so young an age, decided to have an abortion and went to the hospital to arrange it, but Daquan followed her there and persuaded her not to go through with it. Daquan, Jr., was born on October 7, 1984. Two months premature, he weighed only three pounds and six ounces and had a heart murmur.
A social worker assigned to Crystal’s case insisted that Daquan, Jr., remain in the hospital until he was strong enough. The social worker also barred Crystal from returning to her boyfriend’s apartment, on the grounds that she was under age. Crystal’s mother Florence lived in the Bronx, and a visiting nurse was sent to check on her living conditions. A heroin and cocaine addict, Florence was sharing a squalid one-bedroom apartment with other junkies and dealers. Sending Crystal there was clearly out of the question. Instead, she was transferred to the Queensboro Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which ran a diagnostic center where children in crisis could be evaluated.
In December, Daquan, now weighing seven pounds, was ready to be discharged from the hospital. Since neither parent was in a condition to care for him, Crystal reluctantly agreed to place him in foster care. The boy was sent to live with the Hargroves, a well-to-do black couple living in a five-bedroom house on Long Island. A sociable child, Daquan got along well there. The Hargroves allowed him to sleep in their bed and took him on trips to places like Disney World.
Crystal was having a harder time of it. In January 1985, she was transferred from the Queensboro Society to a group home for older foster children run by a Catholic agency. The home was located in a modest frame house in a lower-middle-class section of Queens. Crystal was one of six residents sharing three bedrooms. The rules were fairly strict. Alcohol and drugs were nowhere permitted on the premises, and men were not allowed in the bedrooms. Each resident was responsible for keeping her half of the bedroom tidy and for performing a rotating list of chores. There were curfews to respect and regular counseling sessions to attend.
Crystal immediately began breaking the rules. Moving into the group home, she brought with her a supply of marijuana and was soon getting high with two of her housemates. She carried on in school as well. Her counselors had enrolled her in Flushing High, which had a racially mixed student body and a good academic reputation. Crystal expressed apprehension about attending the school until she spotted some nice-looking boys standing outside. “I think you’re going to like this school after all,” the social worker said to Crystal. She didn’t. She had to take two buses to get there; the courses were difficult and her study habits poor. Many days, instead of going to school, she and two friends headed into Manhattan to take in a movie; in the afternoon, they often went out shoplifting.
Eventually, Crystal left Flushing High, as did most of her housemates. The girls, Sheehan writes, “lacked educational skills, motivation, and discipline, felt overwhelmed by the size of the school, and fell through the cracks.” At the urging of a social worker, Crystal enrolled in Satellite Academy, a New York City “alternative” high school for students who have fallen behind. Smaller in size, Satellite had a high faculty-student ratio and a more lenient atmosphere. It was easier to cheat there, and Crystal took full advantage. She also continued to cut classes and talked constantly about leaving.
Work was not going well, either. Through a New York state employment program for underachievers, Crystal had obtained a part-time job as a cashier in a grocery store, but she became impatient with the customers and found the fifteen-minute breaks too short for eating pizza, and so she left. She did not seem eager to find another position. As one social worker observed, “the only real effort Crystal made to finding a job was talking about finding a job.”
The longer Crystal stayed at the group home, the more obstreperous she became, neglecting her chores and staying out late on dates. Eventually, she began smoking crack, too. Concerned that she was setting a bad example for other residents, the staff at the group house persuaded Crystal to move out into an “independent-living” apartment, a foster-care arrangement designed to help young women get on their feet. Rent and utilities were paid for, and residents had access to a cash fund for incidental expenses; they also received a clothing allowance and a monthly stipend. Residents were expected to save money with an eye toward living on their own.
It was a generous arrangement, but, as at the group home, Crystal immediately began breaking the rules. School was still a struggle, and she never stayed long at the many part-time jobs she held. Much of her time was taken up with men. Within a period of a few months, Crystal, according to Sheehan, slept with Diamond, Troy, and Lonnie, all drug dealers; Tarrant, a grocery-store owner who bought her expensive presents; Stanley, a young man with no money; Glenn, a small-time dealer; Herb, a van driver she met while riding as a passenger; Cyril, a maintenance man she met at a subway station, and Marcel, a messenger. “Over Friday and Saturday one week,” Sheehan writes, Crystal “had to change her satin sheets (another gift from Tarrant) twice.” Eventually Tarrant, in a jealous rage, pulled a gun on Crystal and shot her in the left hand. She was rushed to the hospital, where a surgeon repaired the damage.
Sheehan passes no judgment on Crystal’s behavior. Nonetheless, it’s hard to read her account without being struck by Crystal’s promiscuity, her fecklessness, her failure to take advantage of the opportunities presented her. Yet just as one is prepared to give up hope for her, Sheehan shifts to Crystal’s family, and judgments come much less easily.
Crystal’s grandmother, Lavinia Wilson, was raised together with seven brothers and sisters on a farm outside Memphis, Tennessee. Her parents were married but very poor, and Lavinia attended segregated country schools through the ninth grade. She then headed north, ending up in New York at the age of sixteen. She got a job caring for a four-year-old boy but left it when she became pregnant with her first child, Clifford. The father, an off-and-on housepainter, did not marry her, and when Lavinia again became pregnant (with Florence), he abandoned her. She went on to have another son, Samuel, by a man she knew in passing. Lavinia went on welfare, but the checks were meager, and so the family lived in a cramped, sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment, cooking cans of spaghetti on a hot plate they shared with another family. Alone and adrift, Lavinia came under the influence of a fundamentalist missionary, and she began going to church daily. Feeling guilty about having had her children out of wedlock, she began abusing them. “What Lavinia’s children remember most about their early years is the churchgoing and the beatings,” Sheehan writes.
In one particularly gruesome incident, Clifford, who often wet his pants, was forced into the bathroom by his mother and told to drop his pants. While he held his genitals, Lavinia burned them with three sets of matches, causing him to howl in pain. He would later have to have reconstructive surgery, including skin grafts. Both Clifford and Samuel were eventually sent away to a state boarding school, where they were subjected to spartan religious training and corporal punishment. “Both boys were periodically put in tubs of cold water with their hands and feet tied together behind their backs,” Sheehan writes.
At six Florence was rescued from her mother when a neighbor, hearing her screams, summoned the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Florence’s body was covered with bruises, welts, and cuts, and the society, declaring her a neglected child, placed her in foster care. She ended up with the Gardners, a black couple living in an airy, spacious apartment in Harlem with whom she would spend the next ten years. Mrs. Gardner was “a rigid person with troubles of her own,” one of them being an obsession with money. On several occasions, Mrs. Gardner had to call the police to prevent her husband from harassing Florence. After Mr. Gardner made a sexual advance in a cab, Florence fled. She eventually ended up in a gray stone mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side which had been converted into a home for unwed mothers.
Florence soon became one herself. She met Wesley Taylor, a man from the neighborhood, while out walking one day. The two started going out together. While Wesley was away for basic training in the Air Force, Florence discovered she was pregnant. Florence hoped Wesley would marry her—he was her first man—but Wesley had another girlfriend, in whom he was more interested. On January 11, 1970, Florence gave birth to Crystal. At once she applied for welfare. Before her application was granted, though, she got a job as a clerk. She did not bother to notify the Department of Welfare, however, and when the checks began arriving, she cashed them. She was later caught and spent seven days in jail for grand larceny.
Wesley, who had been serving overseas, returned to New York a drug addict and soon got Florence hooked as well. Their second child, Carlos, was born addicted to drugs. A month after he was born, Florence again became pregnant and had another son, Matthew. Briefly giving up drugs, Florence enrolled in a business school, hoping to become an executive secretary. However, to get Carlos back from foster care, she had to be at home full time, and so she stopped going to classes. She became consumed by her need for drugs, and, according to a case worker’s report, before Carlos was nine years old, she would force him sometimes to engage in sexual acts with men in return for money. She often kept Crystal out of school to babysit for her brothers. Crystal was glad when Florence was high because she then left Crystal alone. “When she got her fix, she was the beautifulest mother in the world,” Crystal told Sheehan. When she didn’t, “she’d get edgy and agitated, and when I said ‘Mommy’ she’d go pow, and hit me on the side of the head.”
The beatings were only part of Crystal’s childhood problems. At the age of four, she was sodomized by one of her father’s brothers. At the age of twelve, she was both sexually abused by a building superintendent and raped by a teen-aged boy. Around the same time, Florence began going out with a twenty-one-year-old man named Leonard, and, though she was using an IUD, became pregnant. While in that condition, she caught Leonard in Crystal’s bedroom and became convinced that the two were sexually involved.
Despite her suspicions, Florence went on to have Leonard’s child, Natasha, in 1982. Two years later, she had another son, James, by another man, and in 1986 she got pregnant again, though she was so high that she didn’t realize it until well into her term. Michael, her sixth and final child, tested positive for drugs at birth.
All six of Florence’s children ended up in foster care. Carlos and Matthew were probably the most fortunate. They were assigned to Children’s Village, a residential treatment center for emotionally handicapped boys in Dobbs Ferry, just north of New York City. Several hundred boys were lodged in twenty-one “cottages” staffed around the clock. Most of the boys met frequently with a social worker and a psychotherapist and attended a year-round school on campus with a well-qualified staff. Carlos and Matthew thrived in the new environment. By early 1988, the agency wanted to discharge them, in part because their behavior had improved so much but also because it cost $50,000 a year to maintain a boy at the village. So Carlos and Matthew returned to the city to live with foster parents.
Florence, meanwhile, remained in the drug world, and when crack hit the scene, she became quickly addicted. She burned out just as quickly, however, and in late 1987 she entered Odyssey House, a residential treatment program. Florence immediately went cold turkey and would never use drugs again. Over the next two-and-a-half years she slowly worked her way through the program, learning to talk about herself in therapy groups. As she was preparing to graduate in 1989, she decided she wanted her children back. To accomplish that, she needed a job and an apartment. Florence had once excelled at clerical work, and while still at Odyssey House she enrolled in a job-training program to brush up on her skills. After numerous interviews, she was offered a job as a secretary at an office-supply company at $16,000 a year.
Leaving Odyssey House, Florence found a four-room apartment in Brooklyn for $700 a month and, with the help of a legal-services officer, she got a public-assistance grant to help her move in. Soon after, though, Florence suffered a setback: because of the recession, her employer had reduced her hours from thirty-five to twenty a week. As a result, she would have to reapply for welfare to make ends meet. Even so, with her more stable living situation, she was able to get several of her children out of foster care.
Crystal’s life, meanwhile, had also taken a turn for the better. As she approached twenty-one, she was discharged from her independent-living apartment. By then, she had earned her diploma from Satellite Academy and taken a full-time job in the mail room of an ad agency. She eventually found a one-bedroom apartment near Florence, and little Daquan came to live with her. Ending on an upbeat note, Sheehan quotes a social worker who saw a lot of Florence and her children: “I think that she has potential and that the kids may do all right. Despite all the history of foster care, they really are a family.”
Regrettably Sheehan does not elaborate on this conclusion, and some readers will probably dismiss it as foolishly optimistic. By Sheehan’s own account, the family still had many serious problems. Florence continued to beat her children, and Crystal continued to sleep around. Entering the second grade, Daquan, Jr., was already acting up in school—rolling around on the floor, quacking like a duck, and otherwise disrupting classes. At sixteen, Carlos was smoking marijuana, sleeping with girls, and cutting classes, and Matthew was playing hooky for weeks at a time.
Nevertheless, the family’s prospects had clearly improved. Crystal had managed to finish high school, find a full-time job, give up all drugs except marijuana, and get her son out of foster care; she also refrained from having any more children. Florence had kicked her drug habit, obtained a decent apartment, and got several of her children back. Whether this represents a sufficient return on the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the family is a question Sheehan leaves her readers to decide for themselves.
Still, one can’t read Sheehan’s book without questioning the main arguments Charles Murray makes about black family life. For example:
Welfare is the root cause of illegitimacy and other social evils. This is Murray’s main tenet. In countless ways, though, Sheehan’s account contradicts it. Crystal, for instance, was only thirteen years old when she got pregnant. She did not want to have the child, and did so only at Daquan’s insistence. Daquan, in turn, stopped dealing drugs at Crystal’s urging and eventually got a job. Welfare does not seem to have been much of a factor in the child’s birth. Florence was so addled by drugs that in some cases she didn’t even know she was pregnant; her many pregnancies were mostly unplanned. While Florence relied on welfare to help raise her children, she also worked when she could; unfortunately, the vicissitudes of the job market and the need for child care often made this impossible. Lavinia, meanwhile, was a deeply troubled person whose problems extended back to her days on the farm in Tennessee, long before she had anything to do with the welfare system. All three women, it’s clear, experienced extreme emotional turmoil, material deprivation, and physical abuse. It was this sense of chaos and disorder, far more than the availability of welfare, that shaped their decisions about child-bearing and much else. More generally, rising expenditures on welfare can hardly explain the surge in illegitimate births among blacks. During the last twenty years, the value of welfare benefits and food stamps has actually decreased by almost 25 percent when adjusted for inflation. Yet the percentage of out-of-wedlock births among blacks rose during the same period from about 38 to 68 percent.
If public assistance were suddenly abolished, single mothers would enlist the support of parents, boyfriends, neighbors, and other private parties. The notion of a broad network of people ready to pitch in and help single mothers in the event of hard times is a comforting one. Yet, as the experience of Crystal’s family suggests, the traditional extended families that proved so resourceful in the past have largely broken down. Today, many parents like Florence and Wesley are addicted to drugs or alcohol, while many boyfriends are out hustling or in jail. Relatives can be menacing as well as helpful, as when the young Crystal was sodomized by one of her father’s brothers. AIDS has further decimated the inner-city family, leaving increasing numbers of young people parentless. Crystal’s own father died of AIDS when she was twenty-one. In many poor black families, grandparents have had to step in as surrogate parents for their grandchildren; unfortunately, most are too frail, or out of touch, to do all that is required of them. Even then, many of these grandparents rely on AFDC to help clothe and feed the children they have taken in. If welfare were suddenly eliminated, many single mothers would probably turn to selling drugs—or their bodies—to help make up the difference.
We can shield illegitimate children from the effects of abolishing welfare by putting many of them up for adoption and housing the rest in orphanages. Five million American families, supporting nine million children, are now on AFDC. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that half of those families would be able to find other means of support if welfare were eliminated. Assume, further, that adoption guidelines were liberalized sufficiently so that half of the remaining children could be placed with new parents. That would still leave 2.25 million infants and children to be housed, fed, and educated in orphanages. Murray says he would want the government to spend “lavishly” on these institutions. Presumably, he would favor something like the leafy campus in Dobbs Ferry to which Carlos and Matthew were sent, where, as I have noted, it cost about $50,000 a year to maintain each resident. For 2.25 million children, that would work out to $112.5 billion a year—much more than could be saved by eliminating welfare. In effect, Murray is proposing the greatest expansion in social programs since the Great Society. In view of his deep-seated skepticism toward public spending, his sudden confidence in the ability of the government to run orphanages for millions of children seems highly suspicious.
The more one ponders Murray’s proposals, the more bizarrely impractical they seem. For instance, how “warm” and “nurturing” could his twenty-four-hour preschools be without the presence of parents to look after their children? In his campaign against single motherhood, Murray has repeatedly invoked the sanctity of the family, yet his proposals seem fundamentally opposed to the family. In his Wall Street Journal article, Murray predicted that growing illegitimacy would lead to an emergence of an “unrecognizably authoritarian” and “centralized” state if no action were taken. Yet nothing would more resemble such a state than one that would forcibly take millions of children from their parents and place them in institutions. In the end, Murray seems less interested in relieving the problem of illegitimacy than in punishing those responsible for it.
Not that single motherhood isn’t a serious problem. Sheehan’s book vividly shows how it helps to transmit poverty. Having a child at fourteen; sleeping with dozens of men indiscriminately; becoming pregnant repeatedly while on drugs; leaving children for years in foster care—self-destructive patterns such as these are passed on from one generation of single mothers to the next. And no amount of tinkering with the welfare system seems likely to change these patterns.
Sheehan’s account contains hints of a potentially significant lesson for public policy: even deeply troubled people can be helped if enough attention is given them. Crystal, overwhelmed by the hugely impersonal Flushing High, did much better at Satellite Academy, a small school with a high faculty-student ratio. At Children’s Village, Carlos and Matthew were evaluated by a multi-disciplinary team and given individual treatment plans, with numerous social workers and psychotherapists to carry them out. The drug-treatment center at which Florence kicked her habit provided a highly organized program administered by a trained staff. Unfortunately Sheehan is too caught up in the daily lives of the family to pursue the implications of her research.
This shortcoming is common to many other journalistic accounts of life in the inner city. While providing valuable first-hand information, they rarely try to relate that information to pressing issues of policy. For instance Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (1991) is an eloquent record of what it’s like to grow up poor, young, and black in a large American city (in this case Chicago), but it has nothing to say about possible solutions. It is frustrating to read his moving account without hearing his thoughts on its implications.
Conversely, many of the books on public policy for the inner cities lack any grounding in the real world. Murray’s Losing Ground, for example, goes on at length about the pernicious effects of welfare on poor Americans without bothering to quote a single one of them. As it happens, the one case study in Murray’s book, involving a young unmarried couple named Harold and Phyllis, is fictitious; it is hardly surprising, then, that they behave exactly as Murray predicted they would. The problem is not limited to conservatives, as the work of the sociologist William Julius Wilson—Murray’s chief antagonist—shows. In The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987), Wilson attributes the growth of the underclass not to any expansion in the welfare system but to the disappearance of well-paying unskilled jobs from America’s cities and to the exodus of middle-class blacks from the inner city. It is certainly a plausible hypothesis, but, without extensive on-the-ground research and case studies to back it up, it remains just that. More recently, Mickey Kaus, in The End of Equality, criticizes both Wilson and Murray. Murray, he asserts, is wrong to blame welfare for the growth of the underclass, while Wilson is wrong in denying its role in sustaining that group. Like Wilson and Murray, however, Kaus does not cite any examples from actual experience.
A few books have attempted to bring together the worlds of journalism and policy. The best among them is Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991). Almost uniquely among recent studies of the inner city, it combines careful reporting—about a black family that moves from the farms of the Mississippi Delta to the projects of Chicago—with an analysis of policy issues, in this case the programs of the Great Society. Lemann manages both to describe the tenacious nature of urban poverty, and to suggest ways of dealing with it. As in Sheehan’s Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair, the problems of single motherhood and illegitimacy are shown to extend far back into the rural South, and to have intensified when blacks moved north to the crowded urban ghettos, cut off from the jobs, education, and public institutions that were available to many whites. Only a sustained program of public investment, Lemann concludes, offers any real chance of long-term improvement.
The Promised Land pointed the way toward a new literature about American inner cities. The crisis in them has grown too acute for the old approaches to work. Only when journalists begin thinking more deeply about the implications of their reporting, and when people concerned with policy get out of their offices and into the field, will we begin to understand what is surely the most urgent domestic issue of our time.