Monday, January 31, 2011

From Shame to Saintliness

Food for thought on ed reform in urban schools and one big problem it doesn't address:
Here’s my prediction: the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children—all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy... .Within my lifetime, single parenthood has been transformed from shame to saintliness. In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama’s mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies....

Connecticut is among the most generous of the states to out-of-wedlock mothers. Teenage girls like Nicole qualify for a vast array of welfare benefits from the state and federal governments: medical coverage when they become pregnant (called “Healthy Start”); later, medical insurance for the family (“Husky”); child care (“Care 4 Kids”); Section 8 housing subsidies; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; cash assistance. If you need to get to an appointment, state-sponsored dial-a-ride is available. If that appointment is college-related, no sweat: education grants for single mothers are available, too. Nicole didn’t have to worry about finishing the school year; the state sent a $35-an-hour tutor directly to her home halfway into her final trimester and for six weeks after the baby arrived.

In theory, this provision of services is humane and defensible, an essential safety net for the most vulnerable—children who have children. What it amounts to in practice is a monolithic public endorsement of single motherhood—one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock.

As the author suggests, this is a real 3rd rail. We're cowards if we can't face that there's a lot of truth to what the author says. I certainly don't support a return to stigmatizing per se. But I see no way out of this part of the problem without a serious effort to combat teen pregnancies.


  1. Welcome to the welfare-industrial complex of the Great Society.

    With the best of intentions, we turned stupidity, social pathology, and societal disintegration into a respectable and reasonably well-paid profession.

  2. This is indeed a problem but the author seems to be focusing on the wrong sub-issues of fathers and marriage as well as devolving into pedantic moralizing, when we're long past a point where that will work anymore.

    We're not going to be able to legally compel or shamefully cajol these fathers to marry their baby mamas, and it isn't clear that it would even be a viable solution to the real problem, beyond superficially resembling the ancient regime of the nuclear family and stigmatization of everything else.

    Moreover, as one of the subjects in the piece says, marriage is increasingly obsolete and there's no signs that this trend will abate.

    So, what can we do? A few suggestions:

    1. Sex education. Not BS abstinence education that only backfires, but real, clinical, and if necessary, off-putting sex education. The less sex is glamorized, and the more it is approached intelligently, the smarter kids will be when they begin having sex.

    2. Access to contraceptives. Birth control should cost pennies and be highly available. I'm for subsidizing it and perhaps even monetary/scholarship incentives for high school mothers to remain childless.

    3. Access to abortion.

    4. Subsidizing research into fertility-control measures like reversible surgical and chemical vasectomies, and offering these procedures to delinquent fathers on a voluntary basis in return for a decrease in child support, to stem the tide of fatherless children.

  3. I don't really buy the whole "marriage is on the decline" meme as some sort of horrifying irreversible trend. I did some quick math and it's down a little bit from 1980 to 2000 using data from my old on-hand stat abstract.

    About 40 percent of Americans are married based on these numbers. 56.5 million couples out of 281 million people as of the year 2000. Subtract the roughly 80 million who aren't adults, and the numbers get even better. 113 million married plus 80 million who aren't really ready is 193 million. Then add in your widows and widowers... . Then add in gays and lesbians who still aren't allowed to marry. Then account for, let's face it, the unattractive and the maladjusted... .

    The notion that marriage is some sort of charming anachronism that folks are opting out of in droves just isn't borne out by the data. But young adults like to say such foolish things, so the notion endures. Fact is, it endures as a dominant institution, and will continue to do so as long as families are the primary human organizing unit.

    My problems with 1, 3, and the first part of 2 are that they do absolutely nothing to deal with the issue of minors who are essentially choosing to get pregnant or letting it happen out of passivity and a sense that there's nothing to lose and nothing unwise about letting yourself become pregnant.

    I don't object at all to sex ed, but I am unconvinced it's going to magically ratchet up the instance of wise choice-making by adolescents. Same with contraceptives.

    Abortion isn't going to help the girls who think having a kid is the thing to do. Even if they were free and easily available in every town, they still have to compete with seeing friends get pregnant and then get their own subsidized apartment and gov't stipend.

    I like notion 4, but am agnostic on voluntary. It doesn't trouble me that we'd consider preventing pregnancies by minors and others by a variety of means. I'd even consider, as you, suggest, offering bonuses to minors on public assistance. Stay unpregnant (or don't impregnate) until you're 21 and you get 20 grand towards college. Don't want college? Get and keep a job and stay totally off the dole until you're 26 and we'll simply cut you the check.

  4. On target once again, KK. The big damage to marriage was done over a generation ago (with contraception and the automobile) and it's settled down to pretty much steady-state again.

    If you subsidize single parenthood and poverty you get what you always get with subsidies -- more of it. We made single motherhood a viable "career path" for teenage girls and young women. The effects of that are (unsurprisingly) strongest among the poorest segments of society.

    Moynihan warned LBJ about this obvious pitfall of the "Great Society," and he was right.