The case of a welfare mother of six pulling herself into the ranks of the middle class is rare enough to compel experts on class and poverty to zero in on a single question: What would it take to create more Angela Whitikers?
"It shows the importance of work and marriage," said Sara S. McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton who specializes in family and poverty. "She found a good man and a good job. The thinking now is, it takes both to move out of poverty."
Walter Allen, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose areas of specialization include stratification and inequality, said: "She reflects a Horatio Alger kind of American dream story. The great news is that her efforts and initiative were rewarded. She got herself credentialed. The bad news is how challenging and how difficult it is to replicate her path."
The reason is that upward mobility requires what sociologists describe as the twin pillars of success: human capital and social capital. Human capital is a person’s education, job credentials and employability. Social capital usually means emotional support and encouragement from a reliable stakeholder in one’s life, an asset commonly associated with marriage that is itself a form of wealth.
Often, single mothers have neither, as was the case with Ms. Whitiker. In fact, as a mother with six children by five fathers - a situation sociologists call multiple partner fertility - she faced more obstacles than most.
"The things going against this woman were phenomenal," Professor McLanahan said. "Women who have children with other men are the least likely to find a mate."
In the current political climate, conservatives extol marriage as the solution to many of society’s ills, while liberals argue that it alone cannot compensate for the effects of imperiled neighborhoods and failing schools. In fact, the research suggests that marriage may indeed be crucial to mobility out of poverty, but that it is not always enough.
Of the small number of poor single mothers who marry, 56 percent are lifted out of poverty, according to a 2002 study conducted by Signe-Mary McKernan and Caroline Ratcliffe for the Urban Institute. Getting a job is more common, and 39 percent of poor people who are hired rise out of poverty, as against 35 percent who get at least a two-year college degree.
Because of high rates of joblessness and incarceration among black men, marriage is not a viable option for many poor single mothers. Only 1.4 percent of them marry in any given year, the Urban Institute study found.
"Why do we feel that promoting marriage will solve the problem when there are so few marriageable men?" asked William Julius Wilson, professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard. "We need to find ways to duplicate the kinds of support that come from an encouraging partner."
Professor Wilson says the government should increase its support for low-income women who want to go to college. "The more education these women receive, the more money they will make," he said. "They will be in different social settings and be exposed to more marriageable men."
"The liberals and the conservatives are both right in a sense," Professor McLanahan said. "A good relationship is part of the story. But it can’t be any relationship. It can’t be any man. This case underscores that it must be a healthy relationship. The liberals are wrong because they’re too dismissive of marriage, even though they want it for themselves. Everyone wants a strong helping hand. This woman represents the best of both ideals."
Still, the ups and downs of Ms. Whitiker’s middle-class existence show that the transition out of poverty is not an easy one. "As well off as her economic situation is, her success is precarious," Professor Allen said. "This is a reminder that you can be middle class but in a very unstable situation."
For most of the country’s history, race was a fairly clear class marker - black usually meant poor, and white middle class or better. Only in the second half of the 20th century, with the dismantling of legal barriers to opportunity, did the lines begin to blur. Still, race continues to shape the experience of being middle class, sociologists say.
First, blacks tend to be first-generation middle class, as in Ms. Whitiker’s case, which means they have fewer resources to draw upon as they navigate the middle-class world.
Second, there is the issue of wealth. "Not only do blacks earn less on average than whites, but the differences in wealth and race are staggering," Professor Allen said. "Their status depends on current earnings, not accumulated wealth that provides a safety net. They don’t come from families that could save and acquire property or teach them how things work in society, the mores and cultural capital.
"These things have not been as available to blacks as to whites. It translates into whether your family could buy that $23,000 home decades ago that is now worth $2 million or $3 million. Blacks weren’t allowed to buy those $23,000 homes. Blacks fall at least a rung below their white counterparts because of the wealth factor alone."
There are other pressures as well, Professor Wilson said. "Whites with the same educational attainment have better schooling and are able to get better jobs," he said. "Blacks are much more likely to live near poor segregated areas. They are much less insulated from crime and other manifestations of social disarray that grow from racial exclusion."
In the end, everyone profits when people like Angela Whitiker succeed, the experts said. "She is an object lesson," Professor Allen said. "If you want to see this kind of success, you have to provide opportunity for a highly motivated woman to recover from her past mistakes. Ultimately, society benefits. Her younger children won’t be a burden on society. And the next generation will do even better."
By Isabel Wilkerson
June 12, 2005