Poor neighborhoods don't mean poor parenting

In work that contradicts fatalistic studies of urban youth and their parents, Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., along with four other sociologists and psychologists, tackles how and why some poor, inner-city children overcome social disadvantages and create opportunities despite the dangers that surround them in their neighborhoods. A big answer: parents.

Frank F. Furstenberg Jr.

Almost 10 years ago, Furstenberg began the work that will hit bookstores in February - "Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success."

"Managing to Make It" debunks pesimistic studies of urban youth and their parents, offering instead portraits of families that exhibit many competencies in steering their children out of poverty.

Based on interviews with almost 500 families randomly selected from low-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia, "Managing to Make It" details qualitative case studies of why some families move beyond mere survival and instill strategies of mobility for their youth.

"Sociologists often ignore how much the process of achievement - not simply an opportunity structure - helps individuals find the nooks and crannies of opportunity," Furstenberg said. "It's a way of connecting what families do with their settings."

New ground broken in "Managing to Make It," according to Furstenberg, lies in the contextual look at family dynamics - how they operate in relation to their neighborhoods.

"There is an ecology of family life which is as important to describe and understand as the internal dynamics of families and how the social world affects how they function," Furstenberg said.

Other myths reversed in the book are the assumptions that low-income people are all alike and that low-income people are vastly different from other groups in society, Furstenberg said. "We have fashioned a sociological stereotype that overstates the differences and understates the similarities between the poor and the rest of society."

Furstenberg first explored those similarities and differences of the urban poor while he was a graduate student at Columbia in the 1960s, studying teen parents, which was then an exotic subject. "Babies having babies" was not to enter the public conscience for another decade or so. Two books - "Unplanned Parenthood" and "Adolescent Mothers in Later Life" - came out of those studies, and a third is in the works.

Neighborhoods and parenting get the treatment they deserve in "Managing to Make It." And Furstenberg and his colleagues cannot stress enough that poverty does not equal poor parenting.

"The important message that emerges from our data is that the great majority of low-income parents are competent caregivers - neither insensitive to their children's needs nor unskilled in meeting them," the book asserts.

The challenge for even the most skilled parents, Furstenberg said, is managing the "social capital" of their children, and creating real opportunities for them when faced with dismal, and sometimes dangerous, surroundings and educational systems.

"The stakes are getting higher and families are aware of it, but they only have a certain capacity to deal with the limitations of living in highly disadvantaged circumstances," Furstenberg said.

Front page for this issue | Pennsylvania Current home page

Originally published on November 12, 1998