Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men
Almost daily, Newt Gingrich claims that one book or another has inspired his campaign against government welfare, but the most reliable guide to what is happening in Washington now is Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, published in 1984. While Murray’s more recent The Bell Curve has attracted much attention, his earlier book has had far more practical impact. Murray’s argument—that welfare programs helped to create the underclass and so should, on the whole, be abolished—seemed dangerously radical at the time; today, it is hard to find a politician of either party who would disagree with it. The movement for “welfare reform” (a sanitized phrase that Orwell would have appreciated) can be traced back in no small part to Murray’s book. Ever since it appeared, liberals have been on the intellectual defensive.
In a sense, their predicament dates back to 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous report citing the breakdown of the black family as the principal cause of poverty in America. Since then, liberals have tried to counter right-wing rhetoric about illegitimacy, single parenthood, and “family values,” but without much success. When Dan Quayle criticized Murphy Brown for promoting unwed motherhood, for example, liberals rushed to ridicule him, but in the end many conceded that—as an Atlantic Monthly cover line put it—“Dan Quayle Was Right.”
With the Republicans preparing to abolish what remains of the Great Society, the Democrats might consider re-examining a text about the actual condition of poor people that was published twenty-eight years ago. Among works of sociology, Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men is considered one of the classics of American urban literature, but outside the university the book today is rarely mentioned. Reading it recently for the first time, I was struck by the originality of its analysis, the vigor of its argument, and—even today—the freshness of its insights into the roots of poverty in the United States. The book offers a sharp counterpoint to the punitive ideas now circulating in Washington.
One reason Tally’s Corner is not better remembered is that it has been overshadowed by that other classic of the 1960s, Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Published in 1962, The Other America has remained fixed in the public mind as the book that helped to launch the War on Poverty. As an exposé of the persistence and pervasiveness of poverty in the United States, The Other America was indeed important. As an analysis of the causes of poverty, however, the book was less successful. Harrington put it together from notes he made during hurried trips around the country, and in retrospect, his field techniques seem almost comic. “While I was doing research for this book in Harlem,” he writes,
I was walking around with a notebook. I stopped on Lenox Avenue to take down some prices in the window of a barbecue joint. When I looked up, everyone was watching me. I knew what they thought, and turned to the two men nearest me and said, “I’m not a cop.” When I walked over and started to tell them that I was a writer, one accepted the story. The other listened for a moment, and then said, “I still think he’s from the police.” Then they were gone.
As a result of such mistrust, Harrington had to rely on secondhand sources. A welfare worker in Los Angeles, for instance, informed him that blacks were better able to survive on welfare than whites. “The Negroes,” Harrington observes, “as members of the hereditary poor, have a much more balanced diet of cheap food, even if it is fat back and greens. The result is that the whites are much more prone to the classic health problems of poverty (overweight, anemia, and cardiac) than the Negroes.” Not only is this factually wrong—blacks suffer more from heart disease and related ailments than almost any other group—but the passage reeks of the sort of stereotyping one does not expect to find in a sophisticated social observer.
More generally, Harrington subscribed to the view of the anthropologist Oscar Lewis that poverty was a depressed way of life ingrained in poor people and passed on, as the “culture of poverty,” from one generation to the next. Though Lewis had done most of his research in Mexico, he asserted—without much evidence—that his findings could be applied to poor people throughout the world. Harrington accepted this. The United States, he wrote,
contains an underdeveloped nation, a culture of poverty. Its inhabitants do not suffer the extreme privation of the peasants of Asia or the tribesmen of Africa, yet the mechanism of the misery is similar. They are beyond history, beyond progress, sunk in a paralyzing, maiming routine.
On the face of it, this is an absurd statement. The “mechanism of misery” at work in, say, China, with its billion inhabitants, backward technology, and despotic political system, or the Sudan, with its harsh climate, nomadic population, and semi-feudal society, is completely different from the situation in the United States, where a racial minority has failed to share in the general prosperity of an advanced nation.
The Other America sold just a few thousand copies when it first appeared. It was only after Dwight Macdonald gave it a lengthy and laudatory review in The New Yorker that the book caught the attention of President Kennedy and found a broader audience. Since then, The Other America has sold more than a million copies. Today, it is worth reading mainly for what it says about the period in which it was written.
In the same year that The Other America appeared, Elliot Liebow began working with a team of researchers studying the child-rearing practices of low-income families in the District of Columbia. Supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the project collected data through interviews with residents of the ghetto. Most of the interviews were with women and children, a group far easier to reach than inner-city men. Liebow was hired to talk with the latter.
A thirty-seven-year-old doctoral student, Liebow was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and had been born and raised in the black neighborhoods in Washington where his father ran a grocery store. It was only after Liebow dropped out of high school and joined the Marines that he moved in a mostly white world. He earned a high-school diploma through correspondence courses during the war and took a degree after the war in English literature from George Washington University. He was studying for a doctorate in anthropology when he joined the research project on poor families in Washington.
Trying to make his way in the world of inner-city males, Liebow began hanging out on a street corner in downtown Washington, within walking distance of the White House. On his second day, he met Tally, a black thirty-one-year-old construction worker who had never attended school. The two went to a coffee shop across the street, where they talked for four hours, becoming fast friends. The shop, which sold mainly hamburgers and coffee and had a jukebox and a pinball machine, was a favorite meeting place for men in the neighborhood, and Tally introduced Liebow around. During the next eighteen months, he got to know about two dozen of them, ranging in age from the early twenties to mid-forties. The men were construction workers, truck drivers, janitors, dishwashers, and clerks, some of them unemployed. They allowed Liebow into their lives, letting him drop by their apartments whenever he wanted. On weekends, he would attend their parties, go out drinking with them, listen to their music. With new people constantly moving into the neighborhood, Liebow soon found himself being viewed as an old-timer, the only white man accepted in an otherwise completely black world.
Liebow turned his research into a doctoral dissertation and sent the manuscript to Little, Brown, which decided to publish it. It originally sold barely three thousand copies, but when it appeared in paperback, word about it quickly spread, especially on college campuses, and by now it has sold more than 700,000 copies.
Only 260 pages long, Tally’s Corner is a quietly eloquent book, with Liebow patiently guiding the reader through an unfamiliar and at times mystifying world. His iconoclasm is apparent from the book’s opening pages, in which he explains why it’s important to study “streetcorner men.” “Much of what we know of Negro families in poverty,” Liebow writes, has been “biased by an emphasis on women and children and a corresponding neglect of adult males.” One result, he adds,
is that family studies among low-income urban groups tend to deal with “female-centered” house-holds, so that one comes away with a picture of the low-income urban world as one peopled mainly with women and children. The adult male, if not simply characterized as “absent,” is depicted as a somewhat shadowy figure who drifts in and out of the lives of the family members.
Liebow writes that he wanted to look at these men “in much the same way they look at themselves,” as breadwinners, fathers, husbands, lovers, and friends.
In his chapter “Men and Jobs,” Liebow examines how the men he came to know view work. He describes a pickup truck driving slowly down the street on a weekday morning, its white driver asking the men who are standing around if they want a day’s work. On the coffee shop’s corner, five men debate the question briefly, then shake their heads no; others nearby refuse as well. Before disappearing down the street the driver has managed to recruit only two men. Liebow imagines what is going through the driver’s mind. “Singly or in groups,” he writes, “belly-empty or belly-full, sullen or gregarious, drunk or sober, they confirm what he has read, heard and knows from his own experience: these men wouldn’t take a job if it were handed to them on a platter.”
But the reality is more complicated, Liebow suggests. First, many of the men on the street do have jobs—they just happen to work at night or later in the day, or have the day off. Some, like Tally, have already come back from construction sites because the weather is too damp or too cold to allow work to continue. Others are physically or mentally disabled. Still, Liebow notes, there remains a number of able-bodied men who “have no visible means of support, legal or illegal, who neither have jobs nor want them.” More generally, Liebow writes, at any given moment a job “may occupy a relatively low position on the streetcorner scale of real values.”
There are many reasons for this, he notes. Some have to do with the nature of the work itself. In 1962, menial jobs such as stock clerk and delivery boy typically paid a dollar an hour, or $35 to $50 a week—a paltry sum, even by the standards of the 1960s. Construction work paid somewhat better—$1.50 to $2.60 an hour—but had its own disadvantages. For one thing, construction work is seasonal, beginning early in the spring and tapering off as winter begins. Even during the good months, bad weather frequently causes interruptions. As a construction project moves from one phase to another, laborers are frequently laid off, usually without warning. Getting the job itself is often highly competitive, with unions making it difficult for a nonunion member to get many lowlevel jobs. For many, the digging, lifting, and lugging involved in construction work is too strenuous. At the same time, conveyer belts, mechanized forklifts, and other technological innovations have eliminated many unskilled jobs.
On the whole, the jobs available to these men are hardly desirable. Even a man “who is able and willing to work cannot earn enough money to support himself, his wife, and one or more children,” Liebow writes. “A man’s chances for working regularly are good only if he is willing to work for less than he can live on, and sometimes not even then….the higher the wage rate, the more difficult it is to get the job, and the less the job security.”
Such considerations shape the men’s attitudes toward work. “Each man,” Liebow observes, “comes to the job with a long job history characterized by his not being able to support himself and his family. Each man carries this knowledge, born of his experience, with him. He comes to the job flat and stale, wearied by the sameness of it all, convinced of his own incompetence, terrified of responsibility—of being tested still again and found wanting.” Convinced of their inadequacies, these men gravitate “to the menial, routine jobs which offer no challenge—and therefore pose no threat—to the already diminished images they have of themselves.” In contrast to professional positions, these jobs “are not, by and large, the starting point of a track system which leads to even better jobs for those who are able and willing to do them”; they are mostly, a “dead end.”
Each man’s experience with work, in turn, strongly affects his family life. Most of the men Liebow writes about are, or have been, married, but the experience is rarely a happy one. Their wives bring certain expectations to the relationship—many of them relating to money. “To pay the rent, buy the groceries, and provide for the other necessary goods and services is the sine qua non of a good husband,” Liebow observes. Yet because of the nature of their jobs, few of these men are able to make such payments. The “Negro menial worker remains a menial worker so that, after one or two or three years of marriage and as many children, the man who could not support his family from the very beginning is even less able to support it as time goes on.” Thus, he adds,
marriage is an occasion of failure. To stay married is to live with your failure, to be confronted by it day in and day out. It is to live in a world whose standards of manliness are forever beyond one’s reach, where one is continuously tested and challenged and continually found wanting.
Unable to provide for his family, the man may sink into depression or rage “at the humiliation of it all.” In frustration, he sometimes strikes his wife or children. Increasingly, he turns to the street corner, a “sanctuary for those who can no longer endure the experience or prospect of failure.”
On the corner, the man’s flaws are magically transformed into virtues. His inability to meet the demands of marriage is seen as evidence of his masculinity—his “manly flaws,” Liebow calls them. If a man drinks too much, or chases after women, it’s because he has too much “dog” in him. “Men are just dogs!” a man called Sea Cat tells him. “We shouldn’t call ourselves human, we’re just dogs, dogs, dogs! They call me a dog, ‘cause that’s what I am, but so is everybody else—hopping around from woman to woman, just like a dog.” Resounding with such bravado, the street corner provides a carefully defined and comforting world.
Yet it is a place of resignation and defeat as well. “At the moment [the man’s] streetcorner relationships take precedence over his wife and children,” Liebow writes, he
comes into his full inheritance bequeathed him by his parents, teachers, employers and society at large. This is the step into failure from which few if any return, and it is at this point that the rest of society can wring its hands or rejoice in the certain knowledge that he has ended up precisely as they had predicted he would.
Liebow rejects the notion that the street-corner men belong to a distinct culture of poverty, irrevocably cut off from the attitudes and values of middle-class America. On the contrary, he believes, these men share the goals of the larger society but are unable to achieve them; their behavior reflects an effort to conceal this failure from themselves and others. Adopting such a perspective, Liebow writes, has practical implications for public policy:
We do not have to see the problem in terms of breaking into a puncture proof circle, of trying to change values, of disrupting the lines of communication between parent and child so that parents cannot make children in their own image, thereby transmitting their culture inexorably, ad infinitum.
Many of the similarities between the lower-class black father and son, or mother and daughter, Liebow writes, result not from “cultural transmission” but from the fact that the “son goes out and independently experiences the same failures, in the same areas, and for much the same reasons as his father.” The problem is “how to change the conditions which, by guaranteeing failure, cause the son to be made in the image of the father.”
In what is perhaps the key passage of Tally’s Corner, Liebow writes that the “inability of the Negro man to earn a living and support his family” is “the central fact of lower-class Negro life.”
If there is to be a change in this way of life, this central fact must be changed; the Negro man, along with everyone else, must be given the skills to earn a living and an opportunity to put these skills to work.
Liebow readily acknowledges the difficulty of this task. For many black men, jobs alone are not enough; before he can earn a living, he must have some confidence that he can do so, and his wife and children must come to believe this as well. As a result, Liebow writes, government and private agencies should be intervening simultaneously “at all points in the life cycle”:
Children and young people must have good schools and good teachers who can give them the skills and the training to compete for jobs and careers, and they must have teachers who believe in them and help them believe in themselves. Jobs that pay enough to support a family must be opened up to the adult generation so that they can support their families, so that the young people can see the changed reality, so that young and old can experience it and gain a vested interest in the world they live in.
What is lacking, Liebow concludes, “is not know-how and programs but a clarity of purpose, of motive, and of intention.”
By today’s standards, Liebow’s coffee shop seems almost quaint. Back then, there were virtually no crackheads or junkies milling about the corner, no drive-by shootings to duck. However precarious the men’s finances, all at least had a roof over their heads. Compared to the legions of drug-addled men who today sleep in cardboard boxes and forage in trash cans, Tally’s friends live in a world that seems almost utopian. Indeed, if Liebow’s book has a fault, it is the somewhat gilded picture he provides of street-corner society. Brawling and drinking and even a murder take place in Tally’s Corner, but Liebow describes it all with such charm and humor as to make it seem almost innocuous.
Yet his empathy gave him some insights that remain relevant three decades later. Today, as in the early 1960s, low-income African-American males have been neglected by researchers, writers, and policymakers. They seem too hard to reach, too difficult to change, susceptible only to harsh measures. Even women are coming to be seen this way, as the current war on welfare mothers suggests. Increasingly, society is placing its hopes on the next generation. “Crux of Welfare Debate Becomes Reform’s Effect on Children,” a Washington Post headline recently declared, summing up this perspective. Both liberals and conservatives adhere to it. On the one hand, we have Newt Gingrich’s proposal for taking some poor children from their parents and placing them in orphanages. On the other, we have liberals arguing for Head Start, after-school programs, and midnight basketball leagues. One approach is punitive, the other compassionate, but both grow out of a similar conviction that inner-city adults are too damaged to be healed, that society must get to their kids before they are similarly impaired. Such a tendency was present even in Liebow’s time. “It is commonly assumed,” he wrote, “that it is too late to do anything about the values, goals and life styles of adults but that there is still time, perhaps, to effect a change in children whose ways of thinking and behaving have not yet settled into the traditional mold prescribed by their parents or by the conditions of lowerclass life.”
Liebow strongly objected to this approach. No matter how generously society provides programs for children, he believed, they are doomed to fail if the problems of poor adults are not simultaneously addressed. Hence his insistence on intervening at all periods of life. Until black youths see their fathers succeed in society, they will lack confidence in their own ability to succeed, regardless of how much extra schooling and training they receive. And until black men and women can help support their families, those youths seem unlikely to live in an environment in which they feel they can advance.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right to point to the deterioration of the black family as a crucial factor in the growth of the underclass. Yet as Tally’s Corner suggests, black family life is itself highly susceptible to broader forces in American society. Among the most important of these is the nature and availability of work. Liebow’s achievement was to show how economic realities mold the attitudes of black men and, in turn, affect the fortunes of the black family. It is not simply promiscuity, illegitimacy, and irresponsibility that account for the deepening woes of the inner city, but also stagnant wages, the decline in unskilled jobs, and persistently high rates of unemployment. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently reported, the proportion of men 25 to 34 years old earning less than the amount needed to lift a family of four above the poverty line increased from 13.6 percent in 1969 to 32.2 percent in 1993.* So long as black adults have trouble finding decent-paying work, the black family’s woes will continue.
Of course, the prospect of providing such work may cause society simply to “wring its hands,” as Liebow put it. In today’s atmosphere, the untrained and the undereducated seem doomed to fight among themselves for the economic scraps. Yet there is much that the government could do, starting with the minimum wage. At $4.25 an hour, this works out to about $9,000 a year—barely above the poverty level. Raising this floor would help provide something more closely resembling a living wage for those at the bottom of the scale. Even then, there simply is not enough work to go around. In the end, addressing the problem of the underclass would require programs to provide jobs. Certainly there is no lack of tasks to be done. In the nation’s cities, for instance, people could be put to work cleaning streets and subway stations, maintaining parks, painting buildings, and otherwise improving the urban landscape. This may sound utopian, but such programs are already being tested in many parts of the country. In Manhattan, for instance, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation is paying formerly homeless people to keep the park clean. As anyone who has visited it recently can see, the program has succeeded admirably.
In Washington, however, the idea of putting people to work is dismissed as naive, unworkable, un-American. Even the notion of raising the minimum wage elicits howls of protest, and not just from conservatives. In The Washington Post recently, James K. Glassman, a former publisher of The New Republic, argued for abolishing the minimum wage altogether. “Ultimately the cure for low working wages may be nothing more mysterious than high personal diligence,” he wrote in a column that shows how thoroughly the Republicans’ ideas have taken over. As long as such thinking persists, so will the desperation in our cities.
Elliot Liebow himself lived long enough to witness the consequences of society’s neglect. After writing Tally’s Corner, he went to work at the National Institute of Mental Health, remaining there until 1984, when he was diagnosed with cancer. Told he had less than a year to live, Liebow began volunteering at a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter for women. When he realized that he was not going to die immediately, he began taking notes, and in 1993 he came out with Tell Them Who I Am, a study of homeless women that, like Tally’s Corner, attempts to describe the world of social outcasts as they themselves perceive it. Last September, Liebow died, an event that received as little notice as his moving and pioneering first book.
See The New York Times, April 25, 1995, p. A14.↩
See The New York Times, April 25, 1995, p. A14.↩