Month: March 2018

My Name In Bright Lights

The Social Problems That Must Not Be Named750x450 stage lights

It happened on the morning of February 11, 2010.  I was walking from my parking spot on the grounds of the state capitol (one of the few perks of being a member of the General Assembly) to my business office on the other side of Broadway.

As I walked, I looked up to see the headlines crawling across The Denver Post building.  While I don’t remember the exact words, it said something like this: “Swalm: Dems bristle at his anti-poverty remarks.”  I made that walk many times during my eight years in the House; it was the only time my name made it into those bright lights (they’ve since gone dark).

The dust up came over an obscure bill dealing with a change to a state tax credit that redirected tax refunds from citizens who had paid the taxes in the first place. To low income Coloradans-some of whom may not have paid any taxes at all.  The Democrats who argued in favor of the bill said it was an anti-poverty measure.  I was particularly agitated because the ballot measure that created the tax originally contained a provision that any refunds would be shared by all taxpayers.  This bill overturned that voter expectation.

But what got the Dems worked up was my arguement that a transient, relatively insignificant tax refund would do virtually nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty.  And that what was really needed was a fundamental shift in attitudes among poor people around the issues of out of wedlock births, divorce, education, and employment.

As I worked my way down those talking points from the well of the House, more and more of my Democratic colleagues, their faces a picture of horrified astonishment, rushed from their seats to follow their Speaker, Terrance Carroll, to the front of the chamber. Where they gave voice to their outrage.

Carroll, who is black and was born in poverty to an unwed mother, thundered at the mic, “Representative Swalm’s comments are an insult to every single person who lives in poverty, who works their butt off every single day just to keep their head above water.”

Don’t Have Kids Out Of Wedlock

Note that Speaker Carroll didn’t argue that my facts were incorrect-they’re not.  Just that they’re “insulting”.  And, therefore, shouldn’t be discussed.  Why?  Because they’re politically incorrect. A classic example of hate facts-realities that the politically thin skinned, usually liberals, declare out of bounds for discussion because they put a favored group in a bad light.

Well, hate facts be damned.  I’m more concerned about the welfare of kids than I am about offending unwed mothers-who, after all, are adults.  Or should be.

The outcomes for illegitimate children, by virtually every meaningful measure, compare unfavorably with those kids born into families with a married father and mother.  Poverty, to be sure.  But that’s just the beginning of the bad news:  infant mortality, lower academic performance, emotional instability, criminality, drug use-all these, and more, significantly worse for children born to unwed mothers.

Does this mean that every child born out of wedlock is destined for failure?  Of course not.  Speaker Carroll is an obvious exception.  But it does mean that the odds of success are stacked against them.  And, unfortunately, those odds are rapidly getting longer as the percentage of kids born out of wedlock explodes, rising from 10% forty years ago to over 40% now.

These are the figures for the population at large, but across various ethnic groups the statistics often tell an even more disconcerting story.   Among whites, 30% unwed mothers; blacks, a catastrophic 77%; hispanics 60% (and the fastest growing segment); Asians 27%.  And, even in the few years since my name crawled across The Denver Post building, these numbers have gotten worse.

Don’t Get Divorced-In The Absence Of Abuse Or Infidelity

Elizabeth Taylor was the Hollywood star who, infamously, was divorced 8 times.  One anonymous wag said that she would often wake up in the morning, stretch luxuriantly, and say, “I feel like a new man.”

Such marital chaos might make sense, at least financially, for a woman pulling down a cool $1 million per film. But for the average person, especially a woman who winds up with custody of children, divorce is usually a financial tsunai from which she will probably never recover.  The numbers are daunting: 37% of households headed by a single woman are likely to be in poverty as opposed to just 9% of those headed by a married couple.  Marriage, in other words, drops the likelihood of child poverty by 82%.

The extent to which Hollywood glamorizes the social cancers that gnaw at our nation’s vitals are virtually limitless:  sex, violence, drugs, etcetera. Pick your poison.

But the example set by scantily clad starlets and their hunk, “husband of the month,” and which they wear on their arms like so many oversized baubles, is perhaps the most damaging.  Treating marriage like Kleenex might work, after a fashion, in La La Land.  And you have money to burn.  But for the average woman, who takes her cues from what she sees on the silver screen, it’s a prescription for financial disaster in her very different, very gritty reality.

Get A High School Degree

How’s this for a news flash?  “It doesn’t cost a dime to get a high school degree.  And,” I told Jessica Fender, the former Capitol beat reporter of the now much diminished Denver Post and whose story was translated into the bright lights,  “a high school degree goes a long way toward getting a person out of poverty.”

Again, the facts are there:

  • On average, someone without a high school degree earns about $25,000 annually and faces an 8% unemployment rate in the job market.
  • A high school degree?  About $35,200 annually and a 5.8% jobless market.  That’s a 40% jump in earnings and a 20% improvement in job prospects.  For a degree that doesn’t cost a dime.

Of course, it goes without saying, the higher the level of educational attainment, the brighter the earnings and job prospects.  But at least to begin, let’s begin at the beginning-a high school degree.

Get A Job.  Even A Minimum Wage Job. And Stick With It.

You might think that this one is the “duh” factor:  having a job reduces the chances of poverty.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as it may appear, given the bewildering array of welfare type programs, and their complex eligibility rules, that came into existence with the “war on poverty.”

For example, one of the issues we repeatedly discussed in the legislature was the “cliff effect“-the circumstance where a welfare recipient would lose some or all of their benefits if their job related income went above a certain level.  And, as a result, the family would actually be better off financially without a job than with one.  Crazy.  And, trust me, you really did have to be something like a rocket scientist to calculate the impact of job earnings on eligibility for things like low income tax credits, food stamps, child care assistance, and health care coverage.  It’s like three dimensional Chinese checkers.

This isn’t the place to try to resolve the cliff effect puzzle, an issue that has bedeviled policy makers ever since it gained prominence as a result of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform efforts in the ’90’s.  Nonetheless, any solution should encourage work and avoid penalizing marriage.

But far more important than welfare in alleviating poverty is a robust economy.  As President Kennedy once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”   And this is particularly true of low income people.

In the late 1990’s the unemployment rate fell to about 4%, the lowest it had been in three decades.  That “tight” labor market raised wages across the board, but especially for low income workers.  For instance, the unemployment rate for blacks is typically two to two and a half times the rate of whites.  Which means that if the white jobless rate can be lowered by 1%, the black unemployment rate may fall by as much as 2%.  For black teens, whose unemployment rate is about 6 times higher than whites, each 1% drop in the white jobless rate may translate into a 6% drop for unemployed black teens.

Colorado is fortunate in that its current unemployment rate, at 3.1%, is less than the 4-6% that economists usually term “full employment.”  Which translates into rising incomes for all.  But especially those in poverty.

To Solve These Tough Problems, We Must Be Able To Talk About Them

I’m certainly not the first to spark a heated response by discussing these issues.  That distinction may belong to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a brilliant and daring sociologist who was a lieutenant in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Moynihan was responsible for what became known as the controversial, but still to this day influential, Moynihan Report.  Or, officially, The Negro Family:  The Case For National Action.

In it, Moynihan, initially set out to prove what, as he described it, “‘everyone knew’: that economic conditions determine social conditions.  Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so.”  In other words, the poverty that bedeviled most black families wasn’t causing black families to fail.  And that, instead, the implosion of the black family was the cause of it’s poverty.

As it did for me, Moynihan’s conclusion set off a firestorm of controversy. And charges of racism.  Nonetheless, Moynihan persisted.  As do I.

If political correctness is allowed to stifle a frank discussion of these politically charged issues, what hope is there?  The facts are clear that rates of out of wedlock births are not just a calamity for the black and Hispanic communities.  They affect everyone.

And it’s not as if there’s no hope.  As recently as 1950, the illegitimate birth rates for whites (about 3%) and blacks (about 18%-and much lower than the current 30% among whites) were at least within hailing distance of one another.  The historical evidence is clear:  black families can remain intact and succeed, even in the face of the often intense discrimination they faced before the enactment of civil rights legislation.

It’s not without reason that Pope John Paul II said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”  The Pope was a wise man in many ways.  But not least in his understanding of how strong families can be an “anti-poverty” strategy par excellence.  As well as inoculate people against many of the other social pathologies that beset us.

Just So Sad . . .

school shootings 2Compared To . . . ?

About two months ago there was a high school shooting in Aztec, New Mexico that resulted in the deaths of two students.  The shooter, who died in the incident, was armed with a Glock pistol that he legally purchased.  The weapon is widely used by both law enforcement and civilians.

My sister lives in Albuquerque.  With the tragedy occurring in her figurative backyard, my sister an sent an indignant email to me.  The subject line was, “Just so sad . . .”

Because immigration is often a bone of contention between us, that vexed topic also worked it’s way into the discussion.  She was particularly upset that the shooter was a white, American male. And, according to her, that these are the people that pose a real threat to our safety-as opposed to illegal immigrants.  As she put it, “Who is killing more of us?  White American males or illegal immigrants?”

And now we now have an even worse school shooting in Florida.   Again, the shooter was a white, American male.  But this time the shooter survived the episode, was arrested and charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.  The latest reports are that while the shooting was underway, four deputy sheriffs were hiding behind their nearby patrol cars-rather than storming the building. And that law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, ignored warnings signs of the danger posed by the shooter.  The shooter was armed with a legally purchased, semi-automatic, AR-15 rifle.  It’s estimated that there are several million of these weapons in circulation in the country.

Rivers of electronic ink have already been spilled discussing gun violence in this country.  What can be said that hasn’t already been said?  Well, here are a couple of ideas.

Compared To Most Of The World And Most Of Its History, America Is Peaceful

This is going to sound crazy coming on the heels of these horrific shootings, but by comparison to most of the world and for most of it’s history, America is peaceful.

The bloodiest war we ever fought was our Civil War, which left about 700,000 dead, more than the rest of our wars combined.  A terrible tragedy, without question.  But by comparison to the rest of the world, the US is a piker when it comes to blood letting.

One hundred years ago, Europe was nearing the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars”-which did nothing of the sort for that bloody continent.  In four years of savage trench warfare, over 9 million combatants lost their lives; additional millions of civilians perished.

But World War I was just the prelude to an even more horrifying conflict:  World War II.  This time, there were over 24 million military deaths, and nearly 30 million civilian.  American deaths (about 419,000), were a tiny fraction of these mind numbing totals.  And behind most of these countless deaths and maimings there were loved ones who, no doubt, experienced every bit as much grief as those who were left behind by our school shootings.

Am I making light of the shock and intense sorrow that has followed the school shootings in our country?  Of course not; it’s just to put it in context.  Do you charge me with being cold hearted?  Fair enough.  But what’s it called when you’re more grieved with 19 murders-than with the industrial scale slaughter of 24 million?

In light of these terrifying numbers, preachy articles like this one from an English newspaper, comparing European and US gun violence, and which are so prevalent after something like the Florida shooting, strike me, at best, as historically myopic.  And, at worst, as hypocrytical.

“But,” you say, “those wars were a long time ago.”  That’s right.  So was The Holocaust-and the 6 million who died in the gas chambers.  Are you saying, “It’s time to put The Holocaust behind us and focus on Florida”?  The question answers itself.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you the gruesome details.  But please, don’t lecture me about how “peaceful” Europe is in comparison to America.  Scholars estimate that the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, may have been responsible for up to 50 million deaths.  This quote, usually attributed to the Communist monster, is particularly apt here: “A single death is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic.”  Yes, America has its share of tragedies.  But, thank God, we’re short on statistics.

Compared To Whom?

There’s an odd thing about these mass shootings that you probably haven’t noticed.  And that’s that not all of them are committed by white, American males.  In fact, a sizable number of these killings are committed by culprits that aren’t white, American males.   And the reason you haven’t noticed this fact? Because the main stream media doesn’t want you to notice it.  It doesn’t fit into their meme of white, American males as violent, gun happy criminals.

But the facts, here, tell a different story.  Immigrants of all races, both legal and illegal, have killed at least 635 and wounded at least 2,160 as of December, 2017.  And that doesn’t even count the 3,000 killed and over 6,000 injured in the September 11 attacks.  But these facts are often concealed in the coverage of these immigrant crimes because the main stream media usually doesn’t even talk about these attributes of the culprit. Unless he’s a white, American male.

So, is it atrocious when a white, American male is involved in one of these horrific crimes? Absolutely.  But it’s every bit as bad when the criminal is an immigrant, regardless of his race.  And if it’s relevant that some of these crazed criminals are white, American males, then the ethnicity and immigration status of the the culprit should be relevant and reported in all cases.

Compared To What, Realistically, Can Be Done

I live within a few miles of where the Columbine High School massacre occurred.  The body count in that tragedy left 15 dead (including the 2 perpetrators) and 24 wounded.  The Superintendent of that school district, Jason Glass, knows all too well the suffering caused by these crimes. Since the Florida shooting, he has weighed in on school safety with some ideas worth paying attention to.

First, he doesn’t believe that more restrictive gun control laws or arming teachers will get any more traction this time than it has after the numerous, previous incidents of this kind.  Thus, he doesn’t believe we should waste energy on the politically impossible.  And, that, instead, we should focus on the politically possible.

Superintendent Glass thinks the following are possible:

  • Putting trained, armed law enforcement officers in every school.
  • Increase funding for school mental health services.
  • Redesign schools to be more like airports, stadiums, and other public facilities, so that access is better controlled.
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security.

I think three of the four of these ideas make sense.  I’m opposed, however, to turning the problem over to the federal government-even the funding.  If the feds fund school safety research, it will almost certainly try to impose a “one size fits all” solution.  When I was in the legislature, I learned that the “golden rule” rigidly applies to federal funding:  he who has the gold, makes the rules. Colorado isn’t California or North Dakota or New York or Alaska. We’re smart enough to come up with a solution that works for Colorado; keep the feds out of it.