This semester, I completed an excellent qualitative methods course. The professor, Kathryn Edin, is a renowned sociologist who has directed several in-depth studies on low-income, single mother households in urban settings throughout the United States as well as other projects related to housing and household economic dynamics. Asides from the field observations and interviews that we had to conduct and transcribe, she asked us to read several ethnographic and interview-based studies and review them (in 500 words or less). I chose to read and review one of her most recent books–coauthored with Maria Kefalas–Promises I can Keep, which examines the lives of poor, inner-city mothers. The text below is what I came up with.
If you want to keep up with the debate on motherhood and marriage, check out the following entry in the NYTs Room for Debate Blog: A New Trend in Motherhood. If you want to understand the dynamics at play, read Kathy and Maria’s book.
In the 1970s, while campaigning for the presidency, Ronald Reagan introduced the concept of the “welfare queen” to underscore the problems with the administration and design of welfare programs in the United States. The story of a poor black woman from Chicago’s South Side who drove a Cadillac while befitting from government-sponsored programs was transformed into a condemnatory legend that served to dismantle parts of the welfare state throughout the 1980s and also advanced a derogatory, gendered and racialized image of being poor in America. While several decades have passed since the tale was first muttered, it has stayed fresh in the minds of many and fueled misinformed ideas of how women navigate through the harsh experiences of being destitute. Although not concerned specifically with the experiences of women on welfare, Edin and Kefalas’ book is an antidote to such perspectives, since it advances informed and thought-provoking answers to an important question that has also been in the radar of reactionary pundits: “why childbearing and marriage have become so radically decoupled among the poor” (4).
Promises I Can Keep depicts the stories of poor mothers who strive to get ahead in eight Philadelphia neighborhoods that offer very little in terms of physical amenities, social relations and economic opportunities. Using primary data collected through 162 interviews and numerous ethnographic observations, the authors are able to demonstrate how, contrary to popular accounts, poor women hold marriage to very high standards and see motherhood as “the possibility—not the promise—of validation, purpose, connection and order” (185) in “a social context where the achievements that middle class youth see as their birthright are little more than pipe dreams…”(49). Edin and Kefalas argue that the poor have not turned their backs on marriage but rather redefined it the wake of important cultural and political shifts that have redefined all aspects of family life. Having sex, raising children and establishing a household outside of married life is not as socially suspect as it once was. Thus, in this cultural context—and for the poor and well-off alike—“marriage loses its day-to-day significance” (201) but acquires a new symbolic meaning.
The narrative style used in the text allows the reader to hear the mother’s voices. The authors’ detailed interview guide (which is included in the book) helps extract countless stories of lives turned around thanks to childbirth, the unreliability of male partners and how much of their problems are also rooted in the decline of their neighborhoods. This last point, while not addressed in detail, opens the door for future research on how space and place affect family life. I agree with the authors that the policy responses should be as diverse as the types of families that exist and targeted enough to deal with the specificities of poverty contexts. Yet, I would suggest that they also add place-based approaches to their list of solutions since it seems like many of the challenges faced by poor mothers lie in the political economy of postindustrial cities.