Poverty. A word frequently heard, yet often misunderstood. Does the average mainstream person genuinely understand poverty? Do I understand? When contemplating which chapter to select for the Song Assignment, In the Ghetto was the first song that came to mind, which led me to Chapter 10: Poverty. I recall hearing In the Ghetto on the car radio when I was a child and found the lyrics both sad and confusing. Growing up in a 1960s middle-class, blue-collar neighborhood, my parents chose to shelter us from impoverished neighborhoods. I wish they had exposed us, or at least told us more about the poor side of town. Sociologist David Grusky shared with Conley, If one would wave with a magic wand [and] change one thing about American society, [the] one change that would have the biggest effect, in terms of reducing poverty and inequality, [would] be to de-legitimate residential segregation. And simply make it as part of the commitment that Americans take on that we should all live together, no matter how rich or poor we may be. And that segregating rich people in one neighborhood and poor people in another neighborhood is simply illegitimate. I think that one change would have major effects on how much poverty and inequality we see. (Conley, 2011C) (Conley 417). After considering the perspective of Grusky, I view my parents well-intentioned isolation of our family from impoverished neighborhoods upsetting and hauntingly similar to those families in disadvantaged communities who had little exposure to the possibilities and opportunities outside of their environment. Neither of our families knew much about the world outside of our own little neighborhood bubbles. We both were socially isolated for different reasons.
I reflect on the early life of Marlin Card (Conley 395) when I hear, As the snow flies on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’ a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto. Marlin was conceived in a real nice ride, parked at the top of a hill in Roslyn Heights in Long Island, New York. (Conley 395) His mother, Annie, was just 19 years old and spent the majority of her time man hunting, sipping homemade hooch from a mayonnaise jar, and waiting in line in a welfare office. (Conley 397) Life was tough for Annie. At the age of 16, she had a back-alley abortion with traumatic consequences and of two of Marlins live-birth siblings, both died in infancy. Annie used the only methods she knew to get housing and food: welfare, HUD, food stamps, and stealing. The lyrics And his mama cries ’cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need it’s another hungry mouth to feed in the ghetto whispers of her life experiences. Marlins mother taught him how to steal food. He learned at a young age that stealing was what one had to do if one wanted to eat. It did not take long before Marlins petty crimes turned into serious offenses that eventually landed him in prison. And his hunger burns signifies to me how Marlins learned behaviors served him as he continued on the criminal path of stealing from businesses to feed his hunger for, and subsidize, his growing drug habit. Marlins life certainly does fit with the argument of the culture of poverty. In simple terms, the culture of poverty simply means that poverty-stricken people live in ways that are typically quite different from those of mainstream society in order to acclimate to and endure grim economic circumstances. Once these survival tactics are in place, they take on a life of their own, and hold the poor population back. The intergenerational cycle of poverty continues.
Oscar Lewiss publication of The Culture of Poverty, and his argument that poor people adopt certain practices that differ from those of higher-class people in order to adapt and survive, fit all the lyrics of In the Ghetto. Conley states, Lewiss self-perpetuating cycle of poverty played right into the already raging debate over the state of the black family that had been ignited by Daniel Patrick Moynihans controversial 1965 report on black families, in which he argued that a tangle of family pathology holds back the African American population. (Conley 400) Although the lyrics do not indicate race, I find Lewiss findings relevant to the era in which the song was composed (1969). In 1965, the assumption that those in the lower class were there because they had the learned personality traits and experiences of those around them seemed logical to the masses. It was easier to believe the perception that society was not to blame, but rather the communities in the lower classes were responsible for their own situation. The lyrics of In the Ghetto begins with a mother crying and ends with another mother crying, both because the cycle of poverty began again. Perhaps in another ghetto, or another deprived neighborhood.
One of the most moving phrases in the lyrics of In the Ghetto is the writers plea, People, dont you understand the child needs a helping hand or hell grow to be an angry young man some day? Take a look at you and me. Are we too blind to see? Do we simply turn our heads, and look the other way? In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address and declared a War on Poverty. In his March 1964 special message to Congress, Johnson made the commitment to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankinds enemies. Johnson refused to turn his head and look the other way. The Social Security Amendments of 1965 (created Medicaid and Medicare and expanded Social Security benefits for widows, retirees, the disabled, and college age students), The Food Stamp Act of 1964, The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (established federal work-study programs and a number of other initiatives), and The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (established the Title I program) were four programs put into place under Johnsons watchful eye. While government intervention provided benefits for American citizens, and did reduce the United States level of poverty, none of these programs truly addressed the real reasons for continued poverty nor provided any permanent solutions. Conley suggests that perhaps poverty is neither cause nor effect but rather a reflection of an underlying social disease namely, inequality and economic segregation. (Conley 396) While I am in agreement with this suggestion, I also believe there is a lack of accountability from those caught in the swirling circle of cultural and social stagnancy. The programs established to help the poverty-stricken help themselves, and the intentions of those programs, have been lost to those who are content to stay just as they are. With this contentment, or lack of drive to make a change in their way of life, many have fallen victim to learned antisocial behaviors (petty crime, violent crime, drug use, drug sales, etc.). These behaviors can lead to prison, or even death. And then one night in desperation the young man breaks away. He buys a gun, steals a car, tries to run, but he don’t get far and his mama cries. As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand, in the ghetto. And as her young man dies A heartbreaking situation, realized far too often in poverty-stricken areas.
I believe the song In the Ghetto depicts the social world in both a negative and a positive way. Merriam-Webster defines poverty as the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. The Oxford Learners Dictionary says poverty is the state of being poor. When I contemplate the lyrics of In the Ghetto, these definitions seem emotionless and they minimize the severity of poverty in the United States. The entire song speaks of desperation, violence, and loss. And as her young man dies on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’ another little baby child is born. In the ghetto. And his mother cries. I believe it is virtually impossible to listen to In the Ghetto without hearing the words, as can happen with other songs. The words are to the point and the meaning is clear. If only others would really listen to the lyrics of the song, they might be more inclined to take action to address the seriousness of poverty. The lyrics can also be inspiring! People who listen to the song might find themselves ready to take action against poverty. They may donate to causes, get involved in charity events, and join action committees to help make a difference.
In conclusion, after analyzing the lyrics of In the Ghetto, and completing this assignment from a sociological viewpoint, I have come to understand so much more than that little girl in the car whose parents isolated her from the reality of poverty. Researching, reading the textbook, and writing this paper has helped me to see the depth and breadth of how poverty continues to be a major issue in our society. I feel I have become more sensitive to how one can feel trapped in the environment and the culture in which they live. I realize more now how the inequality of income and lack of opportunity plays a huge part in my perception of the song. I now have a newfound appreciation of the meaning of In the Ghetto. Poverty. A word frequently heard, yet often misunderstood. Does the average mainstream person genuinely understand poverty? After completing this assignment, I now understand.