I’m a long-time fan of Kathryn Edin and Maria KefalasPromises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (University of California Press, 2005).  Only recently, however, did I discover that Edin had partnered with Timothy Nelson to write a sequel: Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City (University of California Press, 2013).  I’m delighted to report that the companion volume is even better than the original.  Indeed, it’s the finest work of social science I’ve read in years.

The set-up: Edin and Nelson moved to an inner-city neighborhood in East Camden, then started meeting single fathers in poor neighborhoods in the greater Philadelphia area.  Once their subjects were comfortable, they interviewed them in great detail about their lives and families.  In the end, they got to know 110 fathers – often in a very personal way. 

Over the seven years we spent on street corners and front stoops, in front rooms and kitchens, at fast food restaurants, rec centers, and bars in each of these neighborhoods, we persuaded 110 low-income unwed fathers to share their stories with us, sometimes over the course of several months, or even years.  We recruited roughly equal numbers of African Americans and whites… Fathers ranged in age from seventeen to sixty-four, yet we made sure that roughly half of the fathers were over thirty when we spoke with them so we could tell the story of inner-city unwed fatherhood across the life course…

Because the men we were interested in talking with were often not stably attached to households, and some were involved in illicit activities they were eager to hide from outsiders, we did not attempt a random sample; instead, we tried for as much heterogeneity as we could.

Doing the Best I Can is immersive.  As I read, I felt like I was there.  Even better, though, Edin and Nelson never take their subjects’ words at face value.  They peer through the fog of self-justification, painting a gripping portrait of a dysfunctional subculture.  Like Promises I Can Keep, the new book leaves little doubt that poverty is a state of mind – and that state of mind is low conscientiousness.

The men in these pages seldom deliberately choose whom to have a child with; instead, “one thing leads to another” and a baby is born.  Yet men often greet the news that they’re going to become a dad with enthusiasm and a burst of optimism that despite past failures they can turn things around… In these early days, men often work hard to “get it together” for the sake of the baby – they try to stop doing the “stupid sh*t” (a term for the risky behavior that has led to past troubles) and to become the man their baby’s mother thinks family life requires.  But in the end, the bond – which is all about the baby – is usually too weak to bring about the transformation required.

The book later elaborates on the “stupid sh*t”:

What goes wrong between the euphoria of a baby’s arrival and that child’s fifth birthday, when surveys reveal that only one in three men will still be in a relationship with their child’s mother?  This chapter, an autopsy of relationship failure, doesn’t focus on the proximal causes that feature again and again in the narratives throughout this volume – substance abuse, serious conflict, infidelity, incarceration, and so on… The corrosive effects of these factors have been well-documented.  Instead, we attend here to the often-tawdry finales that blow their relationships apart.

After the baby comes, single moms expect their children’s fathers to change.  But as many dads freely admit, they don’t want to change – at least not much.

Dayton, a day laborer, says that he broke it off with his youngest child’s mother “because she is the type of female that don’t want to listen.  She think she know everything.  But I am not the type of guy that tolerates things like that.”  Donald and the mother of his fourteen-year-old child tried living together for a short time when his child was young, but “it ain’t work,” he states bluntly.  “It lasted about three or four weeks.  I couldn’t take it.”  What went wrong?  “I couldn’t deal with her ‘I’m the boss’ attitude.  She is a very controlling person, always trying to run my life and everybody else’s life.”

Thus, as soon as a woman has the baby, she can easily be perceived as just one more authority figure – the kind they’ve been rebelling against all their lives – who insists that he shape up and toe the line.

Edin and Nelson radiate compassion for their subjects – far more than I could ever muster.  But without their positivity and patience, they probably wouldn’t have written nearly as good a book.  And when they move from data collection to data analysis, they’re hard-headed realists. 

Even the title is far bleaker than it sounds. For the typical man they interviewed, “Doing the best I can” means “Doing the best I can… with what is left over.”  “Left over” after what?  After the man takes care of himself – including the ongoing costs of alcohol, drugs, gambling, fighting, womanizing, and related vices.  Next, if he’s living with a new girlfriend, he helps her and her kids.  Finally, if there’s anything left, he doles it out to his biological children if and when the timing feels right to him.  It’s not quite “the least they can do,” but Edin and Nelson readily see why the children’s mothers deeply resent their exes’ corrupt priorities.

Ten years ago, Scott Beaulier and I published a piece on “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State.”  Our central claim: If behavioral economics helps explain anything in the real world, it helps explain poverty.  Everyone deviates from the rational actor model from time to time, but the poor deviate far more.  Few economists have shown much interest in our approach, but Edin and Nelson, using a radically different framework, reach essentially the same conclusion.