Exchange and Intimacy in the Inner City: Rethinking Kinship Ties of the Urban Poor

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Drawing on three years of fieldwork among a group of young men and women from a poor urban community in Northeastern United States, I explore the salience of sibling ties in the lives of poor urban youth. Observations reveal that siblings provide crucial support in navigating institutions such as school, work, and criminal justice system. Proximity in age combined with familial piety and exposure to almost identical family, school, and neighborhood often means that sibling ties have unique implications for survival against poverty. However, I also point out several negative effects of influence through intimacy. While scholars have long grappled with the issue of survival through kinship ties, as well as its role in limiting upward mobility for the poor, I illustrate the cost of exchange on intimate ties. Obligatory exchange under the constraints of poverty often blur the line between exchange and unconditional love. Those who provide resources desire obedience or make decisions for those they provide for, and dependency makes relationships fraught with hostility.