Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2004 / 4 Teves 5765
A black father on the brink of becoming a real parent
If he's lucky, Kenyatta Q. Thigpen can make as much in a week of delivering pizza and chicken as he used to make in a few minutes of selling crack.
Other men in his situation have been known to slip back to the streets, ending up dead, back in jail or screaming at their babies' mamas on some tacky daytime television show.
But "Ken," also known as "40 Kal Yatt," aspiring star of Milwaukee's so-far very underground Killa G's rap group, says he is determined to beat the odds. He does not want to disappoint his kids, he says, the way his own parents did after crack destroyed their marriage and left him to be raised in foster homes.
At 32 and four years out of the slammer, the tall former high school football player sounds devoted to his 2-year-old son Kevion, the kid's mom, Jewell Reed, and Reed's other two sons from previous relationships.
Fathering, we both agree, is not for wimps. "I got to play sheriff all the time," he said, emphasizing the "all." Yes, parenting is a 24-hour-a-day job. But somebody has to do it.
I met Ken through the author of a book in which he appears: "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare" by Jason DeParle, who has been reporting on welfare and poverty for The New York Times since the 1980s.
Eight years have passed since Congress and President Bill Clinton ended "welfare as we know it" with new time limits and work requirements.
To find out what happened to the 9 million women and children who were the guinea pigs of welfare reform, DeParle spent the last seven years following three welfare recipients in one extended Milwaukee family: Jewell Reed, her cousin Opal Caples and their best friend Angela Jobe, who had children with Reed's brother, Greg.
Of the three subjects, Reed and Jobe made the transition to low-paying jobs successfully. Inept privatized welfare agencies continued to send checks to Caples, despite her slipping deeper into crack addiction. She eventually lost her kids to foster care.
Nationwide, welfare reform has worked better than many liberal skeptics, including me, feared it would. Child poverty, particularly among black children, fell to new lows. Even when the late 1990s economic boom faded, employment among former welfare moms did not.
But, as DeParle's book shows in a sweeping scope and dramatic detail worthy of Charles Dickens, welfare reform worked better as an employment program than a remedy for restoring traditional two-parent family life. Low-skilled black men, in particular, continued to leave the job market at an alarming rate, right through the late 1990s economic boom. The percentage of unskilled young black men who report having jobs dropped from 62 percent in 1979 to 59 percent a decade later and to only 52 percent by the end of the 1990s while employment among young unskilled whites and Hispanics held at almost 80 percent.
That's why I called Ken for a chat. He's a crucial, yet rare and amazingly overlooked component in the national welfare-reform drama: A father holding down a steady job and helping to provide for his family.
When I asked him how other men in his situation might be prevented from falling back into the street hustle, he did not have a lot of answers. He did recall a personal epiphany, a lesson he picked up from a teacher in a prison job-training class five years ago: "He was asking us about the streets and he asked me, `What would you rather do? Sell drugs for $100,000 and get arrested and go to jail for 20 years? Or get yourself a $20,000-a-year job and after five years earn $100,000?'
"Hey, I had never looked at it like that. That made the most sense I've heard in my life. He helped me get focused on what my game plan was." It was the sort of hard-knocks lesson Ken often imagines he would have learned from his own father, had his parents' marriage stayed intact. Now he tries to pass it on to his sons, he says.
That's what dads are supposed to do, among other duties. The 1996 welfare reform bill mentions two-parent families among its stated goals. "The problem, then and now," DeParle writes, "was that no one knew how to legislate a dad."
We still don't. Probably the best that government can do is to pay attention to jobs, marriage and parenting programs that already are working in the public and private sectors. Then apply as many of their lessons as possible to help families who need it.
Welfare reform has done a lot of good. But the job of liberating families from dependency is not done.
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