Illusions and Realities: At Last A Family Policy!

The United States, Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out many years ago, is the only major nation without a fami­ly policy. It looks as if the nation is suddenly going to get one, if President Reagan has his way

And just in time. The fastest-growing segment of the poor in the U.S. consists of young single women and their fatherless children. In some areas of our central cities, as many as 85 percent of black children are being born into un­formed families. “A lot of women are more married to welfare than to the guys layin’ in bed next them,” a black Newark detective says, who is trying his best to be a father to many fatherless children.

Children without fathers during their growing years are far more likely to be poor than other children. They are like­ly to miss out on many kinds of fatherly discipline, instruc­tion, counseling, and protection.

The family is the original department of Health and Human Services, and Education. When the family fails to form, or when it breaks down, too often the state is asked to play Father Sam. This is a form of serfdom and dependency far inferior to having a real father.

The beautiful young black women from Newark shown on the sensitive Bill Moyer’s “CBS Reports” recently melt the heart. One can only admire their bravery and determina­tion as they accept the full burdens of motherhood with joy and affection. They want their children. They love their children. Hardly more than children themselves (although I remember that my grandmother was married at sixteen, to an older widower who already had three children), they seem in some ways much older than their years.

Columnist Carl Rowan has written that young black males need special understanding and help. They were taught, he says, to think of themselves as “inferior.” They face deprivation in education, employment, and housing.

Feelings of inferiority. The best — the only — cure for feelings of inferiority: is a sense of self-mastery and ac­complishment. Human persons achieve personal dignity in two ways: from the look in the eyes of others, and from the look emanating from the inner eye of their own conscience. The latter is the only one that counts.

History shows that people most discriminated against typically show more determination and do better than the others. This is true of Jews, Asians, and “outsiders” around the world, in culture after culture. Discrimination can be a spur to excellence.

It will not help those who feel inferior to tell them that they are victims. That is to deprive them of responsibility and strength for self-achievement. It is to teach them passivity.

Deprivation in education. Education is not like oats to be fed a horse; it does not come from outside in. All educa­tion is self-education. Teachers can inspire, help, and lead. Mostly, though, each person must educate himself. The thirst for learning is deep in the human breast. Books are cheaper than sneakers. Thus, study circles for young males should be formed outside of school. Evenings and weekends should be used for reading and self-improvement. Nearly everyone can teach himself to read. Neighborhoods can be organized as learning circles. They have been in the past.

Deprivation in employment. Thirty years ago, teenage employment among blacks was higher than among whites. Today, very few are organizing black teenagers into working groups, to undertake the immense amounts of work quite visible in black neighborhoods. Windows need to be repaired. Almost everything needs to be painted. Countless objects need fixing and repair. Self-help in upkeep can be a matter of pride and inner satisfaction. It imparts a range of working skills. It imparts habits of self-discipline. Who is today organizing work squads in neighborhoods?

Deprivation in housing. Those who own their own homes have every reason to improve them, thus gaining value for resale or for their children to inherit. The Homestead Act helped to give the United States one of the world’s highest proportions of home-owners. We need a movement of home ownership among blacks. Converting public housing to private ownership would be a tremendous step forward.

For many poor families, the bequest of the family home is one of the major transfers of capital to the younger generation. Wages may only stay about even with inflation, but property tends to appreciate.

Meanwhile, even renters can reap advantages from the upgrading of homes and rooms. At the very least, they learn basic skills and gain a sense of dignity and satisfaction.

On all four of these points, there are many things that all of us can do. The nation needs to encourage inner pride, inner growth, a strong sense of personal accomplishment. Every skill learned at home becomes one more skill available for employment outside the home. Every discipline acquired and every responsibility well acquitted becomes the foundation for future learning.

What is clearly wrong is a sense of floundering, passivity — and, yes, victimhood. The struggle is spiritual as well as material. “Confirm thy soul in self-control” run the words of a crucial American hymn. The project of self- mastery and self-improvement used to be the main project of private American life. That project still beckons us.

And, as Carl Rowan says, “a sex-filled society in which Ryan O’Neill and Farah Fawcett or Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall can produce babies out of wedlock and never lose stardom and acceptance” supplies for young people no im­age of self-mastery. Our celebrity culture has a lot to answer for. The cult of impulse-release is devastating to those who indulge in it, but to no one more than to the poor, who need all the inner strength they can muster.

And the truth is, God shed his grace on thee — and thee and thee — and perhaps upon no one more frequently than the poor. God lavishes talents of science, art, entrepreneur­ship, and invitation upon the poor, perhaps even more so than upon the slightly spoiled children of the affluent. Again and again in our history, the great creative talents of the morrow have been born among the poor. So it was with astronaut-hero Ronald McNair, born among the poor of South Carolina, only to excel at MIT and NASA.

Such talents must be nourished in the home, the church, the extended family, the neighborhood. The effective call to excellence is local. The spirit of self-mastery, self- improvement, and excellence is within our own power. The mass media would help tremendously if they made this their prim

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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