Bryan Caplan  

Doing the Best I Can: Social Science at Its Best

The Catalonian Mess... The Power of the Median Voter ...
doing.jpgI'm a long-time fan of Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas' Promises 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.

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Jared writes:

Heh. I read this book *because* of your post on Promises I Can Keep. I know it's been a while since you read the former, but if you read them back-to-back, you can actually recognize how some subjects are part of the same families across books (as the research all took place at more or less the same time, despite the delay in publication).

The most striking part is how fathers really only have interaction with the most recent and physically proximate child. Paired with national data on how little most fathers do even with custodial children, it's pretty striking.

David R Henderson writes:

Excellent post.
And even more excellent point that the payday for behavioral economics is in explaining poverty.

Floccina writes:
But I am not the type of guy that tolerates things like that.

I have heard similar things from my poorest friends many times.

When my one friend whines about having so much less than others, which he occasionally does, I remind him but you get to be the kind of guy who doesn't take be treating bad. So you are living the life you want.

Now what would be good would be if there was a way that these guys could work alone an make a living.

DWAnderson writes:

I wonder to what extent the pathologies described could be overcome by pier pressure. Would the men behave better if their piers looked down on them for failure to do so? This might come in many forms, but it seems like it might have some success.

Mark writes:


I hang out at the pier all the time and the only thing I've learned from it is how to fish. Sorry, couldn't resist making that joke.

More seriously, I think once a pattern of behavior becomes common enough in a certain milieu it approaches normalization and people no longer view it as pathological. Most of these guys had lousy parents themselves, as did likely most the people they know, and most of the parents they know aren't very good parents. The expectation is gone.

In wealthy and middle class communities (and Asian communities) abdicating parental responsibility is still viewed as a source of shame. Perhaps part of the issue is that the costs of abdicating said responsibilities isn't as severe as it use to be. Especially if one had to pay child support no matter what.

Roger Barris writes:

This sounds like the urban version of Hillbilly Elegy.

Seth writes:

@Roger Barris - Thomas Sowell explains why in his book, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals."

[broken url removed. Please check your links in Preview before posting your comments.--Econlib Ed.]

Matthias Goergens writes:

I am not sure whether the poor deviate more from the rational economic actor model, but often their deviations are punished much harder.

Eg I can do something stupid, break a leg or have a hangover, then take a few sick days at work, and still have my job afterwards. Or eg quite a few bankers are highly functional users of cocaine---and even if they binge on it a few times, it doesn't wreck their whole budget for months, because they earn enough and have a few savings.

JFA writes:

I wonder what Edin's thoughts on Bryan's conclusions would be.

IronSig writes:

@Matthias Goergens

It reminds me of this exchange in the Justified episode "The Spoil," set in a small town Kentucky public meeting, where pro- and anti-coal interests lend to a tense atmosphere:

Coal Executive Carol Johnson: "Now your salary as a law enforcer officer is is about 1100 a week. Isn't that right?"

US Marshal, former miner & Main Character Raylan Givens : Base pay, starting out, about that.

Carol: Same thing as what a miner makes, isn't that right?

Raylan: Uh, we get overtime. And, uh, marshals get paid 52 weeks out of the year. I put in 15 years. That's... what?... Around 800 weeks of pay without a miss. And if I have to take a day off... if, for example, I have a ferocious hangover... [ Crowd Laughter ]

Coover Bennett: Or got your ass whopped.

Coover's brother Dickie Bennett: Ho ho!

Raylan: Or that. If I take a sick day, I don't get fired. I get paid.

M Bishop writes:

Some Amazon reviews actually state the book led them to resist judging low-involvement fathers... I'm really curious how a variety of audiences will interpret this book.

Jacob Egner writes:

I agree with David R Henderson: excellent post, Bryan. Exactly the sort of post I hope to read when I visit here.

Your previous posts on Promises I Can Keep and its subject matter have been my favorite and have also stayed in my thoughts throughout the years.

I look forward to any more posts you'd like to make on either of these two books' subject matter.

Thaomas writes:

Not sure if public policy can do much to improve this kind of behavior. Better enforcement of child support payments (and a higher EITC/child tax credit to help pay for them) probably stands a better chance than removing CHIP.

One thing I AM pretty sure about it that more "white Liberals" feeling indignant about the behavior will not do a lot of good.

JFA writes:

Maybe Russ Roberts could do an Econtalk with her.

B.B. writes:

Are lower class men really not rational?

Or do they just have different utility functions and different budget constraints.

The answer matters a lot in framing policy about these men.

If we gave them more money (changed budget constraints), what would they do differently?

Can we change their utility functions?

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