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American Dream

In his book The Unheavenly City, political scientist Edward Banfield explains urban poverty as the end result
of what he calls "the logic of metropolitan growth," (23). Many of the urban poor, Banfield argues, come to the
city in search of better opportunities, bringing with them lower-class behavior patterns that are passed on to their
children and that are inconsistent with the labor markets in urban areas and the polite sensibilities of the upper-
class, urban inhabitants. Without going into further detail on the causes of these lower-class behaviors, Banfield
focuses on the negative habits of the urban poor and firmly believes that they will end their poverty only when
they change their habits. However, Banfield's theory does not touch upon the roots of this culture of poverty; it
does not answer why there are lower classes, or why the poor view the urban labor market with such a high
degree of fear, disappointment, and anger. It is likely that a culture of poverty does indeed hamper one's chances
of rising to higher socioeconomic ranks. However, the direction of cause and effect does not run in only one
direction. The American social, political, and economic structures themselves -- the same institutions whose
purpose is to open new doors of opportunity for disadvantaged people -- also maintain and feed into this culture
of poverty. Increases in the minimum wage have lagged well behind inflation (Levy, 183), relegating the poor to
low-income jobs carrying little or no benefits. Mediocre schooling for minorities has "contribute[d] to black-
white achievement differences," (Sourcebook, 355). And inequality in after-tax income has grown faster than
inequality in pre-tax income (Levy, 208), providing indication of a tax system that allows few financial breaks
for poor families to invest in higher education and training for their children. Therefore, the culture of poverty
seems in many ways a mass reaction to the numerous insults of the American structure upon the poor. A review
of the ethnographies documented in Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner and Jay Macleod's Ain't No Makin' It brings
to light the negative effects of American society upon the urban poor's behaviors, ambitions, and opportunities.
By examining the persistence of intergenerational models of poverty transmission, we are able to discern
inherent and underlying structural conditions that drive behavior and consign the poor to a culture of poverty. As
a result, to alleviate this culture of poverty, we must strike at the root and look to reform the social structure of
American society, so that these people are given the opportunity to and instilled with the belief that they can


Tally's Corner and Ain't No Makin' It are two compelling works that follow the lives of poor, disadvantaged
individuals whose dismal life stories support Macleod's belief like actors in a play:

There is a strong relationship between aspirations and occupational outcomes; if individuals do not even
aspire to middle-class jobs, then they are unlikely to achieve them. In effect, such individuals disqualify
themselves from attaining the American definition of success – the achievement of a prestigious, highly
remunerative occupation – before embarking on the quest (2).

Liebow's Tally's Corner describes a shifting collection of anchorless adult Negro males who came together
regularly at Tally's Corner, an unsightly urban section of Washington's inner city during the early 1960's.
Severely handicapped by lack of education and skills, and inadequate income, these men considered the
streetcorner a source of security and self-esteem, since failures were transformed into successes, and weakness
turned into strengths. The men of Tally's Corner were in their 20's and 30's when Liebow conducted his research.
As young and full adults, these men were perfect subjects to observe and interview in order to understand the
complexities of and reasons for their adult lifestyles: unstable marriages, low-wage, low-responsibility jobs,
heightened friendships, and a lack of preparation for the future. Liebow's comprehensive and poignantly
personal observations of his subjects bring a certain logic to their unacceptable, uncivilized behaviors. In a world
where society expected one to be a "loser" and left one very little room for self-improvement, the men of Tally's
Corner could find some self-worth, a sense of belonging, and freedom only amongst themselves.

Ain't No Makin' It by Jay Macleod complements Liebow's work by focussing on the youths of Clarendon
Heights, a low-income housing development in a northeastern city. However, whereas Liebow's subjects were
adult Negro men, the most disadvantaged and resentful group in Macleod's study was composed of white
teenagers. Although Macleod conducted this research twenty years after Liebow's work, one can see that these
children still possess and express many of the same "unacceptable" behaviors and bleak ambitions as Liebow's
subjects. The similarities between both groups reveal that a minority group -- even if it is of the same race as the
dominant social group -- will probably exhibit lower school achievement and socioeconomic rank if the group
experiences discrimination and relegation to society's least-valued occupational roles. The twenty-year time span
between the two studies, on the other hand, supports the existence of the transmission of "undesirable, lower-
class" values and behaviors across generations, a process sociologists have named "social reproduction."
Macleod defines "social reproduction theory" as: "a tradition of sociological literature that strives to illuminate
the specific mechanisms and processes that contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social inequality,"
(6). In other words, the theory strives to identify the reasons why the rich become richer and the poor remain
poor in America, the "land of opportunity." As we take a closer look at the lives of those described in Macleod's
and Liebow's works, we will begin to realize that American society's structure itself provides the "specific
mechanisms and processes" that maintain social reproduction among the poor.


Tally's Corner follows the lives of a group of Negro men who lead different lives yet share similar feelings of
failure and low self-esteem within the same oppressive environment of downtown Washington, D.C. Liebow's
main character is Tally, a brown-skinned man of thirty-one years with the physique of a professional
heavyweight fighter. Tally's father left the family within months after Tally was born. Tally never went to school
and started working regularly by the age of eleven, doing menial tasks, such as washing dishes and cleaning up
offices. In 1954, he moved to Washington, D.C. and began working as a semiskilled construction worker,
earning about one hundred dollars a week. However, due to the harsh winters, rainy days, and lack of
construction work, Tally only works about six or seven months during the year. During his eight years in
Washington, Tally has lived in many sections of the city and has married, separated, and fathered eight children,
three with his wife, and five more with five different women. Although this is only a basic outline of Tally's life,
it is enough to convince the reader that his life deviated significantly from the lives of middle-class Americans in
the 1960's.

Liebow also focuses his attention on Tally's close friends and ex-friends, such as Sea Cat, Richard, Stoopy,
Wesley, and Leroy. They each have a different personal history, but they share many of the same experiences
and lifestyles: 1) some or no education; 2) unstable, low-wage, physically exhaustive work; 3) lack of money; 4)
broken marriages and "serial monogamy;" and 5) the fathering of many illegitimate children. Why do these men
have broken family structures? Why can't they have successful marriages and stay monogamous?

Most people first learn how a marriage is maintained and how a family is run by direct experience during
his/her childhood as he/she observes parents, siblings, and other families. In the case of Tally and his friends,
their first impression of a family consisted of a non-existent father, a female-headed household, and many
siblings, most of whom were fathered by different men. This kind of childhood experience could have
contributed to their irresponsible choices and behaviors as husbands and fathers. But the men of Tally's Corner
tend to explain their failures in terms of their inability to adjust to the built-in demands of the husband-wife
relationship. Stoopy blames the failure of his marriage on his alcohol dependence; his wife could not understand
why he would irresponsibly spend the rent money on whiskey and gambling. Sea Cat, on the other hand, could
not stand having his freedom and independence compromised by his wife's demands. Another widely held view
among the men on why their marriages failed is that no man can be satisfied with only one woman at a time. The
men completely agree with Clarence, another streetcorner man, who concludes that, "It don't matter how much a
man loves his wife and kids, he's gonna keep on chasing other women....A man's got too much dog in him,"
(Liebow, 121-122). Blaming one's own personal flaws for failed marriages is a common characteristic among
the men of Tally's Corner, but the root or cause of these behaviors lies deeper, according to Liebow. The wife
also plays a significant role in a deteriorating marriage. Similar to the men, the women of Tally's Corner as
children often experienced a family structure in which the father did not fulfill his responsibilities as father and
husband. As adults, the women hope that their husbands will be "the man of the house" and provide financial
and emotional support for the family. However, their experiences with men in the past cause them to expect the
opposite. The men of Tally's Corner find extreme humiliation in their wive's and society's expectation of their
failures; their reaction to this humiliation leads to either crying sessions or abusive, physical fights. It is
intolerable for the men to live with a wife's constantly unmet hopes, standing reminders of their failures as
husbands and fathers. With unstable, low-wage jobs, a wife whose standards of manhood are beyond their reach,
and visions of an increasingly desperate life, these men have no other way to prove their masculinity and
manhood other than by exerting their masculine energies abusively, physically, and sexually. Most
unfortunately, under a social system that makes no progress for the life chances of the disadvantaged, the
children of the men of Tally's Corner -- legitimate or illegitimate -- likely will experience the same broken
family structure, and therefore, will expect the same failures -- as does society -- once they are husbands and
wives themselves.
While Liebow describes how childhood experiences of family structure can affect one's marital and parental
behaviors in adulthood, Macleod's focus on poverty's youths provides more information on how a broken family
structure can have an earlier impact on a child's outlook, ambitions, and behaviors. Ain't No Makin' It follows
the lives of children in two main peer groups of Clarendon Heights, a project community. One group calls
themselves the Hallway Hangers, while the other is called the Brothers. The Hallway Hangers are composed of a
core of eight youths between the ages of fifteen and eighteen who enjoy congregating in the stairwell and on the
landing of one of the project entries. Often, one can find them there, at doorway #13, drinking heavily, verbally
and physically abusing each other, smoking pot, and/or sniffing cocaine at all times of the day. Therefore, they
spend little time in school; if they do attend class, they are often drunk or high. The American dream, according
to the Hallway Hangers, is a road of disillusionment. From direct experience and observation of their parents and
older peers, they find the effort too long and arduous and the chances of social upgrading too risky and remote to
even attempt. These boys, therefore, reject the values of the dominant culture and subscribe to their own
distinctive cultural norms. The Hallway Hangers are mainly white boys of Italian or Irish descent, which
contrasts with Liebow's all black subjects. It is interesting to assess the psychological and characteristic
similarities between the black men of Tally's Corner and the white youths, even though they come from different
racial backgrounds but the same environmental insults. Once again, the father figure is absent in the lives of the
Hallway Hangers. Either they have never met their father, their father is in jail, has moved out, or is dead. Only
one Hallway Hanger, Jinks, has a father living with him. Additionally, most of the Hallway Hangers' parents did
not graduate from high school, have low-paying blue-collar jobs, and have sporadic employment records.
Although the parents do encourage their boys to do well academically, they are also hesitant to instill high
aspirations in them for fear of setting them up for disappointment (Macleod, 114).

In contrast to the Hallway Hangers, the Brothers are mainly black boys with the exception of one white
member. They accept the standards of behavior and strive to fulfill socially approved roles. None of them
smokes, drinks heavily, or uses drugs, and they attend high school on a regular basis, although their academic
achievements are mediocre. However, they only blame themselves for their average achievement, not the
American lower-class social system. The Brothers firmly believe in America's equality of opportunity and the
efficacy of schooling. By applying themselves in school, they have a chance to move up the ladder of
opportunity, occupation, and wealth.

By examining the Brothers' family lives, we can see differences between their families and those of the
Hallway Hangers. Three of the Brothers have a male authority figure living with them, and they all work
regularly. Nearly half of the Brothers' parents obtained their high school diplomas, and most of the Brothers'
older siblings have achieved significant educational marks. Furthermore, the parents continually encourage
extremely high aspirations in their sons. Another main difference between the two peer groups is the duration of
their stay in public housing. Whereas the Hallway Hangers' families have lived in public housing for at least
twenty years, some through two generations, the Brothers' families average five to thirteen years (Macleod, 131).
This fact lends credence to the supposition that the length of exposure to a low-income environment -- which
American society has allowed, developed, and maintained -- has some direct correlation to the degree of
unacceptable, rebellious behaviors expressed by these boys. Macleod agrees with this assessment:

The view that the problem resides almost exclusively with the children and their families, and that some sort
of cultural injection is needed to compensate for what they are missing, is not only intellectually bankrupt but
also has contributed to the widespread popular notion that the plight of the poor whites and minorities is entirely
their own fault (99).


Macleod's research is most valuable for his assessment of the American educational system and its adverse
effects on the children of lower-class neighborhoods. Social reformers have rallied and cried for better schools
and equal access to quality education for poor and minority children; only then would the gap between rich and
poor reduce significantly (Macleod, 157). Macleod finds this approach problematic and argues that schooling
actually maintains and legitimizes social inequality. Schooling tends to reproduce the structure of inequality,
because the educational system has high regard for the culture possessed by the upper classes over that of the
lower classes. Therefore, by the definitions and standards of the schools, lower-class children are consistently
evaluated as deficient. For example, the Brothers and the Hallway Hangers attend Lincoln high school. The
school has the money, resources, and faculty of any middle-class high school, which convinces parents and
society that the poor children of Clarendon Heights are receiving an "equal, high quality" education. The
Brothers are also convinced of this. They hold high esteem for the American equal opportunity system, blaming
only themselves if they fall short of realizing their goals. Macleod argues that while these boys are nurturing
their increasingly rising high aspirations, they are being prepared psychologically for jobs at the bottom of the
occupational structure: "They are unaware of the discriminatory influences of tracking (different educational
paths and alternatives), the school's partiality toward the cultural capital of the upper classes, the self-fulfilling
consequences of teachers' expectations, and other forms of class-based educational selection," (126-127). In
some ways, Macleod admires the Hallway Hangers, because they do see the dismal truth of their society.
Although these boys do believe that a select, lucky few will climb the social ladder with determination and
effort, they also understand that these chances are much too risky and remote, especially in a condescending
educational environment where the middle-class teachers have little or no experience of their personal, lower-
class lives. Like the students at Capital High in Fordham and Ogbu's study (Sourcebook, 312), the Hallway
Hangers are aware of the obstacles and barriers in their society and, as a result, have polarized their subculture
away from the dominant cultural norm as a defense mechanism against these onslaughts to their self-esteem
(Macleod, 117).

Aside from the American educational system, other factors arising from the structure of our society also
significantly discourage and deter the lower-class children from achieving high academic performances. One
reason why the Hallway Hangers see little value in schooling is that they are convinced that they are headed into
jobs for which they do not need an education: "A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you need it for that job.' You get a high
school diploma, and they're still gonna give you a shitty job," (Macleod, 102). This may sound somewhat
offensive to us because it runs counter to our beliefs, but Macleod argues that this assessment is based on the
Hallway Hangers' experience and rational. Jinks, for example, has four older brothers. One graduated from high
school but is no better off than the rest. Another high school graduate brother is in the Navy, as was another who
did not graduate. Jinks would think about how the older boys in Clarendon Heights, some high school graduates,
some dropouts, are all unemployed or in lousy jobs. Gradually, Jinks's attitude toward school changed, and his
straight-A grades from freshman year dropped significantly. Like Jinks, the other Hallway Hangers do not see
the reason for academic excellence if they will eventually end up with jobs in the army, as construction workers,
or as auto mechanics (Macleod, 102). Additionally, perhaps the biggest cost of going to school every day is the
deferred income from full-time work. With only a mother's income, the Hallway Hangers are in pressing need
for money to support their families and themselves. In contrast to middle-class teenagers, the Hallway Hangers
do not have the money to live off as they invest time into long-range educational or occupational plans.
Furthermore, since 1975, outright grants as a percentage of all financial aid declined from 80% to 46% by 1986,
making a college education less and less attractive to lower-class adolescents, because more loans would be
needed to compensate (Sourcebook, 349). To low-income, economically unstable families, loans are considered
very risky. With present financial needs and the firm belief that "makin' it" is a highly remote possibility, the
Hallway Hangers want immediate financial success even at the cost of an advanced education. This analysis
supports Macleod's claim that, "the leveled aspirations of the Hallway Hangers are to a large degree a response
to the limitations of social class as they are manifest in the Hallway Hangers' social world," (141).

The reason why the determined, optimistic Brothers only achieve mediocre academic marks in not as clear.
Macleod argues that the Brothers' overly faithful, but naive outlook on the American dream is to blame.
Although the Brothers have a close relationship, they do not have their own subculture like the Hallway Hangers
do to protect themselves from low self-esteem as a result of their average academic performances. As the
Brothers continue to blame themselves and not the structure of education for their academic marks, they are
legitimizing the school's simple-minded claim that lower-class children are deficient and, therefore, need
alternative schooling. Like the example of the student accused of plagiarism in Fordham and Ogbu's study
(Sourcebook, 312), the continuing assaults on the Brothers' self-esteem probably hamper their academic
performances in school. Macleod believes that although one or two of them will probably rise economically and
socially, the others will eventually end up with blue-collar jobs like their parents. For example, Juan, one of the
Brothers, always expressed his dislike for jobs that make you "stay on your feet." However, after many failed
attempts to acquire a high blue-collar job in an office, Juan now is in training to be an auto mechanic, the kind of
job he said he would never want; his present financial need forced him to level his occupational aspirations. It
seems as though another round of cultural transmission or social reproduction will pass on to the next generation
of low-class adults as they grow up to encounter the same social system of their forerunners.


In Tally's Corner, we can see how the workplace also contributes to the culture of poverty. Employers often
find men like those on Tally's Corner suspicious, dumb, and lazy. They justify this finding by emphasizing
certain lower class characteristics, such as the inability to achieve high academic performances and the lack of
ambition to acquire jobs with higher degrees of responsibility and stability. The men of Tally's corner do have a
tenuous man-job relationship; oftentimes, the commitment to a job one already has is shallow and tentative. Sea
Cat, for example, quit his construction job after two weeks, and Sweets, another streetcorner man, quit his
restaurant busboy job after three months without notice or a sure reason why.

There are many reasons, Liebow argues, for this "irresponsible" behavior. One of the most compelling is that
these men still have some pride and self-esteem that they try to protect from total destruction. The employers
themselves offer ridiculously low wages, no job stability, and few benefits to their workers, while submitting
these men to hazardous jobs and long hours. Furthermore, the men of Tally's Corner do not have any reasonable
expectation that their jobs will lead to better things. Employers do not promote the hard-working busboy or
dishwasher to chef or manager. They hold the job of dishwasher or janitor or unskilled laborer in low esteem and
contempt, and so do the streetcorner men. This is why the men hold no value or respect for their jobs, for
quitting his job to search for a new dead-end job is an easy task for the streetcorner man. These men do not strive
for jobs with more responsibility and prestige, because their self-esteem is under continuous assault by their job
experiences and job fears, until their self-worth is eventually drained. The men of Tally's corner have no escape
from the constant reminders of their failures other than at the streetcorner where all their failures become
phantom successes and their weaknesses transform into strengths. Therefore, in retrospect, American society
itself has molded the streetcorner man with these undesirable "lower-class" characteristics and behaviors.


To say that the lower class's "culture of poverty" is the cause of their inability to socially upgrade
themselves out of poverty is quite simple-minded. To believe in such a theory is to believe that a woman's sex is
the cause of her lower income compared to her male colleagues. Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner and Jay
Macleod's Ain't No Makin' It allow us to surmise that the "culture of poverty" is a mere collection of individual
characteristics that are found undesirable and irresponsible to middle- and upper-class Americans. These works
evidence the negative effects of American society upon the urban poor's behaviors, ambitions, and opportunities.
By analyzing the intergenerational models of poverty transmission, we have distinguished inherent and
underlying structural conditions that drive the behavior of the "lower-class" and relegate the poor to a culture of
poverty. Only by working to improve societal social structure will we be able to help these disadvantaged
individuals gain the self-esteem within themselves and the resources and opportunities from their society to once
again believe in the "American Dream" of success.