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Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations & Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood

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Author Jay MacLeod's classic ethnography--a defining work on the cycle of social reproduction and inequality as lived through the young men from the ... Show synopsis

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Reviews of Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations & Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood

Overall customer rating: 5.000
Martin H

Best book for studying mobility over life course

by Martin H on Jul 7, 2011

I read this book from cover to cover (which, in its current edition, is quite some doing) and was absorbed by the reality of the stories all the way through. It's not always the easiest book to read, but the fact that the author really immersed himself in the lives and world of his subjects for several years, seeking to truly understand them, is evident on every page. Tracking two groups of lower-class men from 'the projects' (one black and one white) for more than twenty-five years, the book remains the gold standard for exploring the issue of social mobility over the life course in the United States. That the original edition was written before the author even graduated from college, and that he went on to a career as a parish priest instead of an academic sociologist, makes it all the more impressive. The author does have his own biases, but he never draws conclusions that aren't supported by the evidence. And the evidence is overwhelming: it usually takes more than a 'good attitude' or a 'strong work ethic' to get ahead in America. It also takes many of the substantive and symbolic resources that middle-class children take for granted, yet middle-class parents are careful to pass down to them. Meanwhile, the mistakes and poor choices that middle-class youth easily overcome can be devastating for poor youth, starting a downward spiral from which it is very difficult to recover. Lastly, this book describes in vivid detail what all the statistics report: that, on average, poor black children have more ambition than poor white children. It isn't for lack of *wanting* the American dream of a middle-class life and a willingness to play by the rules; it's the lack of other things which MacLeod discusses: inside connections to good jobs, mentoring and sponsorship, and frankly, in some cases the 'right' skin color. Yes, racism is alive and well among U.S. employers, especially those hiring entry-level employees in major metro areas. Ironically, the 'Brothers' refuse to see this racism as an obstacle, choosing instead to blame themselves for their failings -- thus we cannot explain their disappointing outcomes in terms of a 'victim mentality.' Meanwhile, the white 'Hallway Hangers' frequently resort to racist explanations for their own inability to get or keep a job. It's the white subjects who claim racial victimhood, not the black ones. By midlife many of these men, black and white alike, are struggling personally and professionally. And yet most are persevering, one way or another. And there are some exceptional cases too, where an individual has 'made it' into the middle class. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule, and the rule is this: where you finish depends a lot on where you start. It's certainly possible to rise up out of poverty, but it's certainly not likely -- for reasons that have as much to do with unsupportive (or even opposing) social structures as they do with individual (in)action and choices. Mainstream culture is no help, either. It's not that most of us hate the poor, it's just that we fear them, misunderstand them, have no patience for them, or prefer them less than the more affluent (people more like us). This book isn't a 'liberal' book, even though its author's own political agenda is clearly identifiable as such. He doesn't pull any punches; he holds his subjects accountable for their actions, whether positive or negative. Yet he does so with gracious humanity, possibly because of his calling as a minister of the gospel. I wish that every conservative would read this book, and could do so with an open mind. How often do we speak of people we know so little about? At the same time, I wish that every liberal would read it, too, and acknowledge that capitalism has a vital role to play in developing poor people's lives and communities. Although the author didn't emphasize its significance, I took note of the fact that the real standouts in the book are both successful as self-employed entrepreneurs. Liberals should welcome business education and entrepreneurship as a more effective and efficient path out of poverty than any number of government programs. Poor people -- especially poor men -- need more steady well-paying jobs, to be sure, but we need to stop thinking of them exclusively or even primarily as job-holders and start seeing them also as job-creators.

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