TOPICS > Economy

Former Gangster Tells His Story of Reform

April 21, 2005 at 6:00 PM EDT
In the second of a two-part series on how families are faring in the era of welfare reform, business correspondent Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston looks at the role of fathers and one man's success story.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the importance of men. It is the second of two stories on the fate of families after welfare reform. It is drawn from Jason DeParle’s new book “American Dream.” The reporter is our economics correspondent, Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a dark and musty basement in North Milwaukee, a pizza delivery man records a rap.

KEN THIGPEN: Life is complicated so early in the day being chased by the devil, and I’m gasping for words ’cause I don’t know what to say through the suffering through the killing there’s got to be a better way.

PAUL SOLMAN: Former gangster, crack dealer, and pimp Kenyatta Thigpen says his raps come from his own experiences.

KEN THIGPEN: My name is Kenyatta Thigpen. I was a person dedicated to the streets. I was a drug dealer; I did a little pimping. I’ve been in and out of jail. I’ve been stabbed, shot five times. My life was upside down.

PAUL SOLMAN: On this day, Thigpen was practicing for the biggest performance of his life, at an event Bill Cosby would be hosting in Detroit on the subject of black men. He was being coached by the man he calls his best friend, Jason DeParle, New York Times poverty reporter since the 1980s.

JASON DE PARLE: It’s your speech. I’m just giving you some feedback. What’s the message you want them to take away from it? If you could do it, they could do it?

PAUL SOLMAN: DeParle met Thigpen the day he left prison five years ago. The author had been chronicling the lives of three women as they made the transition from welfare to work, including Thigpen’s girlfriend Jewell Reed.

The result was “American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare.” But the longer DeParle thought about welfare policy and about Ken Thigpen, the more he came to think there was a missing ingredient in the story: The men.

JASON DE PARLE: We’re 20 years behind where we were with the women. You know, two decades ago, we thought, how will we ever get millions of women on welfare into the workforce?

PAUL SOLMAN: And yet, we have. For black men however, little has changed. Nearly one in three still goes to jail at some point in his life; more go to jail than to college. For women, says DeParle, we succeeded with a carrot-and-stick approach.

JASON DE PARLE: The stick side we know about: That was welfare reform. We had tougher welfare laws, work requirements, time limits. The carrots were in the sense of wage subsidies; child care budget was doubled; there was some modest expansions in health care.

With the men, we only had sticks. We’ve got prison; we’ve got these tougher child support laws. But there’s been nothing to subsidize the men. I think the challenge for the men’s policy is to develop the carrots that go with the sticks that they now have in their life.

PAUL SOLMAN: So DeParle wrote an article featuring Thigpen for the New York Times Magazine last summer. It prompted the invite from Bill Cosby, and also attracted the notice of First Lady Laura Bush, who is heading the administration’s initiative to support inner city boys, which includes programs to promote marriage and fatherhood.

LAURA BUSH: The person who inspired my whole interest in this issue happens to be here today. The whole article about him is what made me start thinking about what we could do in our country to make sure all children, girls and boys, are nurtured and get the kind of nurturing that all of us know children need so they can build successful lives.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ken Thigpen says he keenly felt the absence of such nurturing.

KEN THIGPEN: I didn’t have nobody to say, “Well, you’re doing the wrong thing” or “You’re doing the right thing,” or if I did the right thing, “Congratulations, we proud of you.” Or if you fell –you know, I didn’t have any of that. So, you know, more or less, me growing up, I wanted a role model. I wanted a father, but I didn’t have that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Instead, he had a dad who beat his mom, and both parents smoked crack.

KEN THIGPEN: There’s been times when we didn’t have anything to eat. I mean, if you looked up in the sky on a clear day and you see nothing, that’s what a lot of times you see in our refrigerator. So I mean, drugs really tore down a nice family.

PAUL SOLMAN: So why did he start selling drugs, we asked him?

KEN THIGPEN: The only thing for a kid is, like, if they don’t have no food, you know, streets is always — to them it’s the best option, because there’s when you have no father or no parent there to tell you, “No, drugs is not the best way,” “OK, we’re struggling, let’s get jobs.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Thigpen says the allure of dealing drugs was simply too strong to resist.

KEN THIGPEN: When you can make probably $100 worth in that hour, why only make $3.45 or $4.35 within that hour? I’m going to have to choose $100 than $4 an hour, because I can’t eat off of $4 what I can eat off $100.

JASON DE PARLE: You’ve been emphasizing the money, but I always have had the sense from talking with you that it was more than the money. You liked the way of life.

KEN THIGPEN: Actually, I did. I liked it, it was more than the money. It was like a shine, you know?


KEN THIGPEN: Yeah, an image.

PAUL SOLMAN: A glamorous image, and a violent one.

KEN THIGPEN: I felt like, I don’t know, like, if I had an “s” on my chest and I couldn’t be touched or I couldn’t be stopped.

PAUL SOLMAN: But one day, he was stopped cold.

KEN THIGPEN: I just remember, like, it being slow motion like a movie or something. He just came and he shot me. And then I fell, I got up, and he shot me again. I’m still trying to run and I fell, and he stood up over me and shot me again, which caught me in my stomach.

PAUL SOLMAN: Amazingly, Thigpen was out of the hospital in two weeks. But he continued to deal drugs and pimp, and eventually landed himself in prison for two years. Girlfriend Jewell Reed visited regularly. Did it bother her that he had been selling drugs?

JEWELL REED: Yes and no. Yes, because I know the dangers of it. You know, I didn’t want him to be out there selling drugs or somebody try to rob him, or somebody end up killing him or him going to jail. And in a way no, I didn’t think anything was wrong with it because like I say, it was his job, you know? That’s what he was doing.

PAUL SOLMAN: “It was every black man’s job,” Reed once told DeParle, which made him think that in the struggles of the inner city poor, welfare dependency was a less important issue than the absence of responsible men.

JASON DE PARLE: Did you grow up with your father?


JASON DE PARLE: Did your mom grow up with her father?

JEWELL REED: I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

JASON DE PARLE: And your oldest son, Terrell, did he grow up with his father?


JASON DE PARLE: His father was around for how long?

JEWELL REED: He hadn’t seen his son since he was one.

JASON DE PARLE: Since he was one. And your second son, Tremell, did he grow up with a father?


JASON DE PARLE: His father?

JEWELL REED: His father’s in prison.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ken agreed. It was the case for all the kids he grew up with in Chicago. But — and this is what makes him the hero of the story — he vowed he would do it differently when he became a dad.

KEN THIGPEN: Do you have to go pee-pee?

PAUL SOLMAN: And he is a dad now to Kevion, the son he and Jewell Reed had three years ago.

KEN THIGPEN: So, like, with Kevion it’s like, wow, I finally got my first son. I’m cherishing this moment. I can’t wait to do everything with him, everything my father never done with me. I’ll never turn to the streets again, because if I do that, my chances of going back to jail. I’m going to miss my opportunity with my son. So I mean, he’s like my everything in my life. Every time I cook, everybody comes running.

PAUL SOLMAN: During the day, while Jewell works at a nursing home, Ken cares for Kevion, for Jewell’s teenage sons, and for Dawan, the teenage son of Ken’s former girlfriend. When Jewell comes home, Ken goes to work at a pizza and chicken delivery restaurant, a job the teenagers at first disdained.

KEN THIGPEN: I would rather do this than any job that I had before because it’s not hard. It’s not slave driving. Basically right now, I’m my own boss because I’m in my car. I get to do what I want to do. I’m playing music all day.

PAUL SOLMAN: Plus there’s no risk of going to jail. But of course, there is a downside.

KEN THIGPEN: Days like this, when business is down, then you don’t make no whole lot of money. Then tipping ain’t that good, and a lot of times you got to look at it puts a lot of wear and tear on your car.

PAUL SOLMAN: The job pays a meager $3.45 per delivery.

KEN THIGPEN: Delivery.

PAUL SOLMAN: And no one can control how many orders come in, how far the drives will be between deliveries, how much people will tip.

KEN THIGPEN: Do you all want to know what the tip is?


KEN THIGPEN: OK. It was $19.37.


KEN THIGPEN: I got $20, so I got 63 cents for a tip.

PAUL SOLMAN: How would you characterize that?

KEN THIGPEN: I would have said he was cheap, more or less.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thigpen saves as much as he can to invest in a vending machine, which he hopes to turn into a small business. But for the past four years, it’s been just pizza and chicken bringing in about $300 a week.

So what’s the moral of the Ken Thigpen story? Why did he make the switch when so many others don’t? Are there policies to encourage the choices that Ken Thigpen has made?

David Pate, whose mother spent time on welfare, studies inner city men. His research suggests that the methods we now use, like punishing deadbeat dads, can have paradoxical effects, pushing the men into unreliable off-the-books jobs, or even illegal ones.

DAVID PATE: The way we get more Kens is that, one, you need programs to look at how do you help men to be involved in employment services, to be involved in educational services, to stay out of prison. Ken was fortunate that he met Jason. Ken was fortunate that he met the woman he met. He was fortunate that he was able to make decisions that have turned out to help him be successful.

PAUL SOLMAN: But how, besides coming up with more Jewells and Jasons, does society encourage such success? The Bush administration has one answer: Promoting fatherhood and marriage. But though he is, by all accounts, a model father, Ken has declined to wed Jewell.

So Ken Thigpen is not exactly an advertisement for tying the knot or any other current policy, perhaps. But maybe his relevance to the story Jason DeParle set out to tell about welfare reform is Ken’s message, and how it resonates with people, like the audience at Bill Cosby’s event.

KEN THIGPEN: In 1998, I went to jail for drug dealing. When I got out of jail in the spring of 2000, a friend came by my house to drop off some drugs to get me started again. At that point, my life could have gone either direction. I had to think for a minute.

I would be crazy to put myself in that predicament. So I tossed the drugs. I found a job. I’ve been out of prison for five years. I hope that all of us coming together here tonight can help us become the kind of people that we want to be for our families and our community. Thank you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ken Thigpen: A celebrity of sorts, and a model for a key but neglected group of low-income Americans: Inner city men. Even though, the day after addressing Bill Cosby’s crowd in Detroit and not a dime wealthier for any of his public efforts, he was back on the job serving fast food.

KEN THIGPEN: Here you go. Thank you.