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The fatherhood factor

The worst systemic injustice in America is one the left ignores


The fatherhood factor

As a doctor, Theodore Dalrymple worked for 15 years among the poor in a hospital and prison in a major city. Writing about the experience, Dalrymple noted the routine violence in the lives of his patients, “the fluidity of relations between the sexes,” and “the devastating effect of prevalent criminality” in the community.

Fatherlessness among children born in the urban hospital was almost universal, and in most homes any adult male was “generally a bird of passage” instead of a long-term resident. The people had a poor work ethic and a sense of entitlement to welfare. They also shared a belief that the consequences of their destructive choices were someone else’s fault. Dalrymple argues these traits contribute to “the worldview that makes the underclass.”

The underclass Dalrymple describes may sound familiar to American ears—but Dalrymple is English, the hospital and prison in which he worked were in Birmingham, England, and the underclass he served was almost entirely white.

That’s important, because Americans tend to think of the poverty and the social pathologies of urban areas in terms of race. But the reality of a white underclass in England—with behavior mirroring that of the black underclass in America—suggests that something other than race or racism is the problem.

If you ask someone on the left about urban poverty, he will likely blame systemic racism. And it’s certainly true that vicious racism has been common in American history. However, Census Bureau data on other nonwhite races (and, increasingly, black immigrants from Africa) don’t paint a picture of a systemically racist America in the 21st century, at least with regard to the economy.

Nonwhite persons from all over the world come to the United States and excel, in some cases spectacularly so. If the American economy were systemically racist, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and others wouldn’t have higher per-capita incomes than white Americans have. Their success is strong evidence that the American free-market system, in 2020, is wide open.

What do these immigrant groups have that the urban poor do not have? Engaged fathers in intact families that stress education, no sense of entitlement from the state, and a belief that achievement is possible. They didn’t grow up in the culture created by the sexual revolution and the welfare state, a culture that considers fathers unimportant in the lives of children and that treats lifelong welfare dependency as normal.

Larry Elder, in a video for Prager University, outlines how fatherlessness in particular is a crisis in America. He points to statistics showing that fatherless children are five times more likely to live in poverty, nine times more likely to drop out of school, and 20 times more likely to go to prison. These statistics constitute a crisis because so many children are born to unwed mothers now: In 2015, it was 41 percent of American children overall (compared with 5 percent in 1960, before the sexual revolution and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty) and 73 percent of black children.

Why does our country have so much fatherlessness? Because the government subsidizes it: “Our generous welfare system allows women to, in effect, marry the government,” Elder says. But the government cannot provide what children need specifically from a father: discipline, structure, protection.

To be clear, this column is not a blanket call for personal responsibility in a vacuum. I’m aware enough of my own sinful tendencies to know that if I grew up fatherless and poor in Chicago, Ill., or Birmingham, England, I would likely make the same destructive choices so many people in those places make. To help the urban poor, we have to change the culture—the system—that leads to the toxic worldview Dalrymple and Elder describe.

That won’t be easy. How can we begin a successful sexual counter-revolution (absent a spiritual revival along the lines of the Great Awakening)? How can we untangle a welfare state that so many have come to depend upon so heavily? Those are daunting questions, but they are where any discussion about solutions must take place.

“Fathers matter,” says Elder. “Until we have a government policy that makes that its first priority, nothing will change.”

Timothy Lamer

Tim is executive editor of WORLD Commentary. He previously worked for the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.


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