Lessons in Humanity (and Poverty Policy) Just in Time for the Holidays
As the holidays approach and thoughts turn to spending time with family, my mind frequently shifts to those families who are experiencing difficult times this year. One in particular stands out—that of the “praying robber.” Greg Smith is a 23-year-old African American who walked into a payday loan center with the intent to rob it. He was confronted by Angela Montez, a white female working at the loan center who somehow encouraged Greg to pray with her, shed some tears, hand over the bullet in his gun, and simply walk out of the store with only $20. It was a definite win for humanity, and deserving of the coverage it received on Oprah. But is also represents a tremendous system failure that is illustrative of some serious breakdowns in poverty policy, which too often ignores men’s needs despite their ability to contribute to family well-being and reductions in child poverty.
Here’s what we know about Greg. Before his arrest, he was living with his fiancé Sherrie and their daughter Amaya. On the day of the incident, he picked Sherrie up from work and Amaya up from daycare. When Angela Montez asked him why he was doing this horrible thing of committing a robbery, he said that he was unemployed, had been searching for work for a long time, and that his family would soon be homeless if he didn’t find a way to bring in some money. He told Oprah that he was tired of seeing his fiancée struggling and crying about money—she was the family’s sole breadwinner—and that he felt like a lesser man because he couldn’t provide for his family. To make matters even worse, Amaya’s second birthday was days away, and he wasn’t going to be able to do anything for her.
Society often discounts low-income unmarried fathers like Greg. Many assume that men like this are hopelessly absent from their children’s lives, being unwilling to financially and emotionally care for their families. Many poverty programs are built around serving “families,” but the emphasis has typically been on women and children, too often neglecting the men who are a part of families, whether or not they live in households. Since children are more likely to live with their mothers, there is an assumption that serving women will help provide for the basic needs of children. But could investments in some fathers also support this end goal?
It is clear that this family didn’t only consist of Amaya and Sherrie. Greg was very much present, and an investment in him would have likely helped Amaya. Some men are deadbeat dads, but we must be careful not to paint all low-income men with that broad brush. Over half of all low-income children—defined as below 200 percent of poverty level—live with both of their parents, and many nonresident fathers regularly pay child support, or would if they had steady employment. Reducing men’s barriers to adequate work and income is one of several reasonably calculated approaches for reducing and eliminating child poverty and breaking the cycle of poverty within families.
It would be a mistake to think that what happens to men has no impact on their families. Family members are tied together even if some policies do not recognize their connections. Consider the following:
Men. Low-income men directly experience their own lack of resources, which jeopardizes their ability to provide for their own basic needs. Greg couldn’t find a job and was at risk of homelessness and not being able to provide for other necessities. He was under stress, and his mother indicated that Greg had been suffering from depression tied to his inability to find work. He was clearly feeling elevated levels of desperation. He ultimately ended up in jail—a fate that occurs far too frequently, but should not be used to stereotype all low-income men.
Women. Women disproportionately bear the costs of child rearing when fathers are not contributing to their full potential. They also suffer from watching their loved ones suffer and can bear collateral consequences. Greg’s troubles harmed several women—especially his family. Sherrie was experiencing severe amounts of stress, carrying the financial burdens of the entire household on her shoulders, and trying to balance work and her own schooling. His mother is, and was, worried. His daughter clearly misses him. And of course there is also the woman who Greg pulled the gun on. All of these women would probably agree that it is also in their interests to address Greg’s needs.
Families. Economic pressures and the problems experienced by one family member could rip apart families that want stay together. It is evident that Sherrie and Greg love and care for each other. But Greg’s inability to find a job was causing the two of them to argue. Perhaps their relationship wouldn’t have survived this discord. A potential breakup could decrease the amount of time Greg spends with Amaya and force the couple to find the income to maintain two separate homes while caring for their daughter.
Policy has touched on these issues over the years. It has sought to make fathers financially responsible through the creation of a child support system, offered job programs, and created a federal fatherhood program. The federal government should place more focus on such efforts and their interactions with one another.
Yet there is at least one barrier that is worth mentioning: The stereotypes that society holds about low-income fathers, particularly African-American fathers. It is far too easy to be negative about the group, perhaps on some level questioning their value to families, and society more generally.
The best policies will only come from following the lead of Angela Montez, the employee at the other end of Greg Smith’s gun. Angela didn’t seem to buy into the far too common frames about young black males—even when this one was holding a gun. It is true that she was understandably frightened, but she saw a human being before her and questioned why he was committing this crime. She suggested that there had to be some people out there who could help him. She was concerned that a man so young was throwing his life away, her prayer included the line, “Jesus, let him know he is a good person.” Letting him take the money and leave was an option.
Policymakers should learn from Angela and think about how they would want their own children to be treated. To the extent that statistics indicate that low-income black men are disproportionately attached to some negative outcomes, policymakers should be asking why and thinking about how to help, all with the notion that solutions that benefit fathers benefit families.
Greg’s reaction to Angela was to listen. Taking the money and leaving was an option. When she suggested that there must be help out there, he replied that no one listens to him. What he was doing was really a cry for help, and what he needed was something that every human being on earth needs at one time or another—a helping hand, and perhaps some redirection toward a better path. The reason he prayed with her: “No one has ever talked to me the way that she did—like a mother to her child . . . I think it was the man upstairs talking to me through Angela.”
A significant number of men like Greg have been involved in the criminal justice system. Many others have not. Either way, these young men are, or can be, of value to their children and families. National sentiments and policy should reflect this fact.
For more informaiton on how to support families, see:
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Senior Policy Analyst