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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Bad Parents, Poor Kids


Am I the only one who thinks it is immoral to bring children into the world if you don’t have the means to support them? I must be one of the few. I rarely see anyone else make the point.

Before anyone objects, let me concede up front that a lot of things in life are unpredictable. Women become pregnant despite their best efforts to avoid it. Women can lose their husbands from accidents, war and even homicide. Without tenured employment, few of us are safe from the economic reversal that would attend the loss of a job.

Still, consider that:

  • Almost four in every ten children are born on Medicaid.
  • One in every four children is living in a food stamp household.
  • Entire classrooms—no entire schools, wait, even in entire areas of whole cities—all the children are on the school lunch program.

You just can’t write it all off to bad luck. What we are witnessing are patterns of behavior. All too often it’s intentional behavior.

That was the last time I saw my momma when I left that rickety shack The welfare people came and took the baby. Momma died and I ain’t been back.

Furthermore, I suspect that behavior of parents is part of the explanation for America’s low life expectancy for the population under age 50. More on that below.

From teachers we hear a constant drumbeat of anecdotal evidence. Some parents don’t care what their children learn in school. They don’t encourage learning. They may even belittle it. Also, more and more scarce education dollars are going for what should be parenting rather than schooling functions. The school lunch program exists because tens of thousands of parents apparently can’t afford lunch for their children. Now, schools across the country are subsidizing breakfast as well—for the same reason.

Charles Murray has warned that the really important inequality that has been emerging— a dangerous inequality—is not inequality of income. It is the separation of two cultures. Upper-income, highly educated households (including politically liberal households) tend to respect traditional values. They may say they are cultural relativists. But they don’t practice cultural relativism. These tend to be intact households—ones with mothers and fathers—where parents invest a lot of time, money and energy in their children. Among lower-income, less-educated households there is starkly different behavior.

Harvard researcher Robert Putman finds that there is a “growing class gap in enrichment expenditures [day care, tutors, games, etc., but not private school] on children.” At the bottom of the hierarchy, the expenditure has increased about $400 per child over the past 40 years, but at the middle income it’s gone up $5,000.

The time people invest in their children—reading to them, etc., but not including diaper changing time, etc.—shows a growth gap between those with more education and those with less. In the 1970s, mothers with only a high school education were investing slightly more time with their kids. Now the number of minutes for both is going up. But the growth has been much faster among college educated moms. When you add in the dads, the gap grows even larger—with the advantaged children receiving up to an hour a day of more quality time with their parents.

Moreover, the gap in parent time with children is even greater the younger the child. That is, higher-income, more highly educated parents devote the most extra time with their children during the early years when parental involvement is thought to make the greatest difference.

It would be a mistake to think that this is primarily a racial or ethnic divide. Murray’s study focuses only on white families, ignoring blacks and Hispanic whites. Putman and his colleagues recently gave a PowerPoint presentation at the Aspen Institute. One graph shows that the gap in math and reading scores between black and white children has actually gone down over the past 40 years. But the gap between high- and low-income children (of whatever race) has been progressively widening.

Another stunning graph shows a trend in out-of-wedlock births among non-Hispanic whites. For college graduates, the number is less than 10% and there has been little change in the past 15 years. However, among those with no more education than a high school degree, the number has been soaring and is now above 50%!

Could this be the reason a recent study finds America generally ranks dead last in life expectancy up to about age 50? According to a New York Times article on the study:

Car accidents, gun violence and drug overdoses were major contributors to years of life lost by Americans before age 50.

The rate of firearm homicides was 20 times higher in the United States than in the other countries, according to the report... Americans lose more years of life before age 50 to alcohol and drug abuse than people in any of the other countries.

I don’t have an immediate answer to this problem. Here is one proposal to take the children away from rotten parents. I’m not in principle opposed to that, I’m just afraid there are way too many children for this to be a practical idea.

There are two very bad ideas in Putnam’s Aspen Institute presentation that need to be nipped in the bud, however. One is the idea that the behavioral problems of the underclass are caused by poverty. Wrong. Their behavior is what is making them poor and keeping them poor; not the other way around. One hundred years ago almost everyone in the whole country was poor by our standards. That didn’t keep our ancestors from building the greatest country on earth.

The second bad idea appears on the last slide of the Aspen PowerPoint presentation. It says, “These are all our kids.” But, of course, they aren’t all our kids. They are in the custody of some adults rather than other adults. And the adults who have custody are all too often bad parents.

Here is a third bad idea. After lamenting that:

Something is profoundly wrong when we can point to 2-year-olds in this country and make a plausible bet about their long-term outcomes— not based on their brains and capabilities, but on their ZIP codes.

Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times goes on to observe that:

Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” the United States has spent some $16 trillion or more on means-tested programs. Yet the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration.

His solution: more federal spending! A real war on poverty would attack the culture that produces poverty. Kristof wants to surrender before the first shot has been fired.

Lloyd Bentsen IV helped with this post

A version of this appeared over the weekend at Townhall.


John C. Goodman is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. The Wall Street Journal and the National Journal, among other media, have called him the “Father of Health Savings Accounts.”

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