The Social Problems That Must Not Be Named
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.