Raising Kevion

By JASON DePARLE
The New York Times Magazine
August 22, 2004

In a worn town house on the edge of Milwaukee, a father and son are lying in bed. A bag of Pampers spills across the floor beside boxes of juice bottles and soda cans, stashed so the older kids won't drink them. Mounds of laundry flank the bed -- clean to the north, dirty to the south -- as bare-chested men on TV chant about pistols and weed. ''I been having this TV forever,'' the father says with a yawn. ''Bought it in, like, '96 from a hype'' -- a drug addict. ''Gave her two bags for it. It was like 6 o'clock in the morning. She was fiending for a hit.''

he father is six feet tall with a linebacker build, copper skin and soft hair, which until recently he kept in a ponytail. He says that light skin and long hair, a lure for women, were among his main assets when he worked as a drug dealer and pimp. So were quick fists. ''You can pay me or pay the doctor,'' he used to say. His boxer shorts end just above a three-inch scar from a prison knife and cover the gunshot wound in the groin that nearly killed him. His 2-year-old son isn't feeling well, but the hollering of the rappers on BET perks him up. He raps in gibberish.

''This guy I know, Blue, came over,'' the father says, continuing the story. ''He said a girl wanna sell her TV. She was in bad shape -- skinny, crackish, she wanted a hit bad. Actually, I don't even believe it was her TV.'' With a built-in VCR, the set was worth more than $500. Finding the woman, he offered her two $10 bags of crack. ''That's what I'd always say.'' And if the women with the bug eyes and bad breath argued, he would cut the offer in half. It was a strategy that netted not only a cache of home electronics but five cars. From the sunrise television thief, he earned more in 15 minutes than he now makes in a week.

He yawns some more. He was on the job delivering pizzas till 11 p.m., then up half the night as usual, in the basement mixing raps. His pay stubs come to Kenyatta Q. Thigpen, but in the basement he's 40 Kal Yatt, would-be star of the Killa G's. Beneath the piles of laundry are notebooks filled with his raps, which amid the standard paeans to Glocks and rocks, thank God for the birth of his son. The son, Kevion, is starting to fuss. ''You hungry? Huh? You hungry, baby? C'mon, Teebie, let's go get you something to eat.'' Ken sits on the bed, and the boy climbs up for a piggyback ride. Forty and his shorty head down the stairs. It is time for Barney.

The child's mother, Jewell Reed, left the house at 5:30 a.m. for her job at a nursing home -- she spent eight years on welfare but left the rolls long ago, as soon as Wisconsin's work rules kicked in -- and her 15-year-old, Terrell, with whom Ken has been feuding, is at summer school. Tremmell, 12, Jewell's middle son, has been sleeping past noon, so at 10, Ken and Kevion have the house to themselves. Ken isn't the father of the older boys, which is a source of intermittent conflict. He fusses at Jewell in absentia for not buying eggs. As though she heard him, the phone rings. ''You up?'' she says.

''Man, I been up,'' Ken says.

''Kevion still got a fever?''

''He feels sorta warm, so I don't know. I gotta take his temperature.''

''Put it up under his arm and just hold his arm down.''

''Yeah, I was thinking about doing that.''

With the receiver broken, Ken is using the speakerphone, and Jewell sounds excited when Kevion giggles. ''That him?'' she asks.

''I was gonna fix us some eggs, but there ain't none,'' Ken complains.

''I bought some. They're on the shelf.''

Something beyond eggs is bothering Ken. ''What you doin'?'' he says. ''Why you sneaking up on the phone?''

''I ain't sneaking. I'm just seeing is y'all up and what is y'all doing.''

Jewell signs off with a pledge to call again, and Ken tells the echoing dial tone his real complaint. ''She don't even need to be calling,'' he says. ''I do a helluva job with Kevion.''

It's a job, he is quick to add, that most men he knows aren't doing. Not Terrell's daddy, Boon, who hasn't been seen since Terrell was in diapers, or Tremmell's father, Tony, who dotes on him with cards but sends them from a prison where he's serving 85 years. Not Jewell's old boyfriend Lucky, who drank too much to hang on to a job, or her brother Robert, who has been jobless and living in the basement after serving nearly six years for shooting at two undercover cops. ''I'm about the best man a woman could ever have -- in history,'' Ken says. '''Cause all I do is work, come home, pay bills and take care of Kevion.''

Nearly a decade has passed since the country ''ended welfare'' with a landmark bill imposing time limits and work requirements, and low-skilled women like Jewell have entered the work force in record numbers. But low-skilled men have not. And low-skilled black men, the sea in which Jewell has spent her life swimming, have continued to leave the job market at disconcerting rates, even during the late-90's boom. In cutting the rolls and increasing work, the 1996 welfare law, and a related expansion of services, has been celebrated as a rare, even unique, triumph, and on one level it is. But with about 90 percent of welfare families headed by single mothers, it is also a lesson in the limits of a policy that is focused on one sex. Whatever it has done to put women to work, it won't really change the arc of inner-city life until it -- or something -- reaches the men.

I spent the last seven years following three welfare recipients in one extended family: Jewell, her cousin Opal Caples and their best friend, Angela Jobe, who by having kids with Jewell's brother Greg is counted as kin. Across six generations of poverty, the family story encompasses slavery, sharecropping (on the Mississippi plantation of the late Senator James O. Eastland) and the migration north, first to Chicago and then onto the welfare rolls of Milwaukee. A common assumption about ghetto life -- that generations have been raised without seeing anyone go to work -- ill fits this or most other welfare families. Growing up in Chicago, Jewell, Opal and Angie each had working mothers, and each of them worked sporadically themselves even while drawing a welfare check. The working mother with a passel of messed-up kids is a staple of the inner city.

What's really missing from the family story are stable fathers. None of the trio had one growing up, and neither -- until Kevion -- have their kids. At one point or another, virtually everyone in their network of family and friends -- mothers, grandmothers, boyfriends and children -- has described the absence of a father as a painful, life-altering loss. Dig down almost anywhere in their world, and you hit a geyser of father-yearning.

To read the full story, visit The New York Times Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/22/magazine/22WELFARE.html?pagewanted=all&position=
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