Don't just stand there...
Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were in Chicago yesterday, doing what politicians do best: making earnest promises to solve a problem they can’t do anything about.
The visit was prompted by something that wasn’t really unusual except that it happened to be caught on video and seen around the world: a Chicago teenager being killed by other Chicago teenagers.
That happens all the time. Last school year, thirty-six students in the Chicago school system were murdered; this year so far three have been killed. The overwhelming majority were African-American or Hispanic, and were killed by kids just like them. This has been going on for years, of course, but the toll has finally gotten so high that it has caught a level of attention that makes politicians uncomfortable.
So President Obama dispatched two cabinet members to make promises. To prove they were serious, they brought cash: they promised a grant of half a million bucks to the local school system to be used to combat violence.
This is pure theater, of course; nobody really thinks half a million bucks or some new Federal laws or a spate of committees and initiatives will stop poor kids from killing each other. But Obama has to do it, because most people’s first response in any social crisis is to scream for the government to not just stand there but do something.
Most people are reluctant to say out loud what they must know at some level: the government can’t solve this problem. It’s a social and cultural problem, and only social and cultural change can ameliorate it. This may come as a shock, but the government is mostly irrelevant to problems like this.
There are many elements involved in a crisis like endemic child homicide, and of course poverty plays a role, as does easy access to firearms. (As if embarrassed that the victim in this latest case was beaten to death, an op-ed writer in the Chicago Tribune hastened today to remind us that most of these killings use guns.) But if poverty was the main cause of this, Calcutta and Cairo would have astronomical homicide rates, and they don’t. And if firearms were the main cause, farm kids in Iowa would be capping each other as much as kids on the South Side of Chicago, and they’re not.
What it’s hard to come out and say is that poor black and Hispanic kids in American cities kill each other because too many of them are not being raised with the scruples, inhibitions and self-imposed restraints that keep people from resorting to violence as a first reflex.
Where do those restraints come from? They come from parents. And the great unmentionable factor in the moral collapse of the urban poor is the disintegration of the two-parent family. Around seventy percent of black children are now born out of wedlock, as are an increasing percentage of Hispanic children, now around forty-five. Most of them are being raised by their mothers, more or less alone. While fathers are present in the lives of many of these children to some degree, in most cases they are not there on a day-to-day basis.
I don’t want to single out the mothers: let’s call this the Absent Father problem. But let’s stop pretending it’s not a problem. The correlation between single parenthood and all manner of social, educational and economic disadvantages is well established. Now, correlation is not causation, but correlation is certainly information. And when you look at the demands children make on two parents, let alone one, it’s easy to see how a poor woman trying to make a living while raising children is going to struggle to be successful at either. Don’t take my word for it; ask them.
There are many reasons why a woman might wind up raising a child on her own: widowhood, divorce and abandonment are the classics. But increasingly, women are explicitly choosing to have children outside of a stable relationship. Some of them do a heroic job of it and raise happy, successful children. (It helps to be a well-off middle-class single mother with lots of family support and professional child care.) I don't want to demonize single mothers. But when that choice becomes the default option, you have to ask if that’s a good thing for the community.
It will be pointed out that out-of-wedlock birth rates are going up in a lot of countries, including prosperous European ones, without a corresponding spike in the types of problems poor black kids in the U.S. have. But we need to consider that a phenomenon like family disintegration hits vulnerable, economically weak communities harder than it hits stable, prosperous ones. If your community’s hold on economic success is precarious to begin with, adverse social phenomena pose a greater threat to it.
Of course there are lots of two-parent households that neglect, abuse and otherwise harm their children. And I’m sure you can give me any number of examples of successful single parents. I can give you some. But at some point you have to pay attention to the sociological evidence and admit that for a fragile community, single parenthood might not be the best model.
It’s easy to say that the government should just make it easier for that struggling single mother to make a living, but we’ve been down that road before: Bill Clinton even got a lot of liberals on board for welfare reform when it became evident that subsidizing single motherhood tended to produce more of it, with all the attendant problems. At some point we’ve got to revive the stable two-parent home. It has to become the norm again.
Eric Holder can’t fix this. Barack Obama can’t fix it. Only the people in the community can fix it. How can we get people to start valuing marriage, or at least permanent in-home fathering, once again? The conservatives have an answer: re-stigmatize single motherhood. Sometimes they’re quite explicit about that, as in Ross Douthat’s New York Times op-ed. Predictably, he took a lot of flak for that piece. (One measured response ended with a simple “F*** you.”) But that’s what moral codes have always done: they’ve tried to make people ashamed of behavior that hurts the community.
If that seems harsh and mean-spirited to you, then it’s up to you to come up with a better way. Be as positive as you want. But you have to find a way to make girls determined to delay child bearing until they are in a stable and economically viable situation, and, more importantly, you have to get boys to invest in codes of conduct that exalt restraint and responsibility.
This is one the government can't fix. It’s up to you.