I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
The worker's flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
"No Right! No wrong! All's perfect, evermore."
The indefatigable Robert Rector draws attention to the ongoing disaster created by the de-stigmatization of bastardy and the state subsidization of illegitimate children:
"Last week, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that the U.S. just saw the largest annual increase in poverty recorded in our nation’s history: In 2009, 3.7 million more Americans joined the ranks of the poor.
"The recession bears part of the blame, but media outlets have failed to inform the public about the long-term root cause of poverty in this country: unwed childbearing. Buried in the Census report are startling figures revealing that the collapse of marriage is creating this crisis of poverty. Single-mother families are almost five times more likely to be poor than are married couples with children; overall, nearly 70 percent of poor families with children are headed by single parents.
"The biggest secret in the Census report: Marriage is America’s number-one weapon against child poverty. Tragically, however, marriage has been rapidly declining in our society and the number of women who have children outside of marriage has soared. Historically, unwed childbearing was rare. In 1964, when the federal government launched its War on Poverty, 6.8 percent of births were to single mothers. Today, the unwed birthrate has climbed to 40 percent: four of every ten births are to single mothers. For Hispanics and African Americans, the rates rise to nearly 50 and over 70 percent...
"It’s not a question of money: The government has continued to pour funds into welfare programs over the past several decades, to the point that the United States will soon be spending $1 trillion a year on programs for the poor. Yet poverty rates have significantly climbed...
"If Americans are serious about reducing poverty and getting control of federal welfare spending, it is vital to strengthen the institution of marriage."
Unfortunately, Rector's suggested solutions are very weak tea, indeed:
"There are two steps that the United States can take to help low-income couples build healthy marriages, and by so doing, break the cycle of poverty. First, the federal government must reduce the marriage penalties in current welfare programs. Second, government and society should send a clear message to young people in low-income communities that having a child outside of marriage dramatically increases the odds of long-term poverty and other ills..."
Like that's going to work. Sigh.
But I don't blame Rector. For there's no policy that has any real chance of working, here, which can even be mentioned in polite society. So instead what we'll get - indeed, what we've already got - is a policy that doesn't work: the policy of "Social Apartheid".
Over to Charles Murray, in a little noticed article he wrote for British readers, not too long ago. As always, he casts a cold eye on life, on death. I highlight only a single passage, among many that deserve it.
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Underclass is an ugly word, and we live in an age that abhors ugly words, so it is good to hear that the Blair government has devised a cheerier label: Neet, an acronym for “not in education, employment or training”.
Once a government has given a problem a name it must develop effective new strategies for dealing with it. That too is in train, The Sunday Times told us last week, replete with urgent cabinet meetings, study groups roaming about the country and even a “Neet target” to reduce the Neet population by 20% by 2010.
You may use whatever euphemism the government adopts, but it’s still the underclass. Its numbers are not going to be reduced by 20% by 2010. Its numbers will increase. The good news is that the rate of increase will probably begin to slow in a few years and in another decade or two Britain will have learnt to manage the problem — meaning you will have learnt how to keep the underclass from getting underfoot, even though its numbers are undiminished.
When The Sunday Times first asked me to look at the British underclass in 1989, the American underclass was about 15 to 20 years ahead of Britain’s. You were tracking the American experience with remarkable fidelity then and you are still tracking it.
From the beginning I have used the simple-minded assumption that Britain 16 years on would look like America did when I was writing, and that’s more or less the way things have worked out. Nothing about the underclass is rocket science. It’s all basic, the kind of thing our grandparents took for granted. It just has to be rephrased to accommodate today’s delicate sensibilities.
Our grandparents thought bastardy was a problem to be avoided at any cost. Today’s translation: children who grow up without being nurtured by two biological parents are at risk. Poverty isn’t the problem. Inadequate educational opportunities aren’t the problem. Social exclusion isn’t the problem.
Throughout history, societies around the world have been poor, with inadequate educational opportunities and with socially excluded people. Those same societies have been remarkably successful at ensuring that almost all children came into the world with two biological parents committed to their care. That’s the difference between societies with small underclasses (for every society has had an underclass) and with large ones.
Children today usually still have a mother with them. The problem is the growing number of children who have no father and who live in areas where hardly anyone has a father. Girls without fathers tend to be emotionally damaged.
Among other things, they tend to search for father substitutes among young males, which in turn increases the likelihood of repeating their mother’s experience. Boys without fathers tend to grow up unsocialised. They tend to have poor impulse control, to be sexual predators, to be unable to get up at the same time every morning and go to a job. They tend to disappear shortly after the baby is born. These are not the complaints of a conservative lamenting the lost good old days. They are social science findings that are as robust and unambiguous as social science findings get.
I use the word “tend” because none of these outcomes is carved in stone for any particular child. But we can’t deny a problem exists because some children of single women do well. Of course, there are many exceptions but the statistical tendencies are pronounced, and tendencies produce a large and problematic underclass.
Our grandparents thought you couldn’t “do” with a youngster who wasn’t brought up right. Today’s translation: social programmes for intervening with children at risk have consistently meagre results. This finding has even longer shelves of analysis than the literature on the children of single parents.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Americans tried everything: pre-school socialisation programmes, enrichment programmes in elementary schools, programmes that provided guaranteed jobs for young people without skills, ones that provided on-the-job training, programmes that sent young people without skills to residential centres for extended skills training and psychological preparation for the world of work, programmes to prevent school dropout, and so on. These are just the efforts aimed at individuals. I won’t even try to list the varieties of programmes that went under the heading of “community development”. They were also the most notorious failures.
We know the programmes didn’t work because all of them were accompanied by evaluations. I was a programme evaluator from 1968 to 1981. The most eminent of America’s experts on programme evaluation — a liberal sociologist named Peter Rossi — distilled this vast experience into what he called the Iron Law of Evaluation: “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large-scale social programme is zero.” The Iron Law has not been overturned by subsequent experience.
I should add a corollary to it, however: “The initial media accounts of social programmes that ultimately fail are always positive.” Every training programme for young men or parenting programme for young women can produce a heart-warming success story for the evening news. None produces long-term group results that survive scrutiny.
None of this experience crosses the Atlantic. When the Blair government began its ambitious job-training programmes, I wondered whether anyone within the bowels of the appropriate ministries said: “You know, the Americans tried lots of these things years ago. I wonder how they worked?” But apparently nobody did or nobody listened. Now the government seems ready to admit that the results of the training programmes have been dismal. But as it sets off on the next round of bright ideas, I still don’t hear anyone saying: “You know, the Americans tried those programmes too . . .”
The bottom line for this accumulation of experience in America is that it is impossible to make up for parenting deficits through outside interventions. I realise this is still an intellectually unacceptable thing to say in Britain. It used to be intellectually unacceptable in the United States as well. No longer. We’ve been there, done that.
Our grandparents’ most basic taken-for-granted understanding, which today’s intellectual and political elites find it hardest to accept, is this: make it easier to behave irresponsibly and more people will behave irresponsibly. The welfare state makes it easier for men to impregnate women without taking responsibility for them, easier for women to raise a baby without the help of a man and easier for men and women to get by without working. There is no changing that situation without reintroducing penalties for irresponsible behaviour.
This is the sticking point for every political figure in Britain, Labour or Tory. Frank Field has been miles ahead of other politicians in recognising the growing problem of the underclass and in speaking out, but last week even he was saying: “Surely we can say that the traditional family unit is the best way to nurture children without making it a campaign to beat up single mums.” With respect: you cannot. If you want to reduce the number of single mums you have to be ready to say that to bring a child into the world without a father committed to its care is wrong.
The government need not sponsor publicity campaigns to beat up single mums. Put the cost of irresponsible behaviour back where it belongs — on the man and the woman, their families and their community — and the recognition that the behaviour is wrong will revive instantly, along with powerful social pressures to make sure it happens as seldom as possible.
Some of those pressures will be positive, celebrating marriage as a uniquely valuable institution and bestowing social approval on the bride and groom. Some of those pressures will be negative, consisting of various forms of stigma. This is good. Stigma is one of society’s most efficient methods for controlling destructive behaviour.
How can the government realise this desirable state of affairs? By ending all government programmes that subsidise having babies. But this moves us into the realm of solutions that haven’t a prayer of becoming reality. They haven’t in the United States, where the total package of benefits for single mothers has not been diminished despite the hoopla about welfare reform, and there is no reason to think Britain will act any differently in the foreseeable future.
Now for the good news, if you want to call it that. You don’t need to reduce the underclass to reduce the problems the underclass creates for the rest of us. As evidence, I point to a dog that no longer barks. The underclass, the most important domestic policy issue of the 1980s, is no longer even a topic of conversation in the United States.
The American underclass isn’t any smaller. The three indicators of an underclass — the proportion of children born to single women, criminality among young men and young men who have dropped out of the labour force — have all grown or remained steady during the past 15 years. The underclass is no longer an issue because we successfully put it out of sight and out of mind.
Consider the presence of the underclass in American cities. Fifteen or 20 years ago, the homeless, panhandlers and street hustlers were everywhere. Today they are virtually gone in most cities (San Francisco remains the exception). Graffiti used to be everywhere in American cities. Today it is rare in the better parts of town. You have no idea how depressing graffiti is until you’ve lived without it and then encounter it again, as you do in cities throughout Europe.
The social segregation of the underclass has been nearly perfected. We have not learnt how to compensate for the parenting deficits that cripple the lives of children of the underclass, but we have learnt how to avoid dealing with the consequences.
American children of the middle and upper classes no longer go to school with the children of the underclass. For a number of years, progressive American educators managed to dilute the old principle that a school drew only from a restricted geographic area. That principle has been reinstated so parents can be sure that if they move to the right neighbourhood their children won’t have large numbers of disruptive, foul-mouthed, sexually precocious and sometimes violent classmates. Middle and upper-class parents who remain within large cities commonly send their children to private schools.
Increased geographic segregation of the underclass has facilitated social segregation. In many large cities, urban renovation has reclaimed deteriorating downtown areas for glitzy shops and gleaming offices. Gentrification has retrieved much of the urban housing stock that had fallen into disrepair. The “inner city” is seldom literally located in the inner city but in decrepit neighbourhoods on the periphery that need not be on the travel route of the rest of us.
Most importantly, America has dealt with its crime problem. The crime rate has dropped by about one-third since the early 1990s. It has dropped even more in the better parts of town. People walk the streets of New York and Chicago without taking the precautions they used to take. Triple-locked doors and bars on the windows are not as necessary as they used to be. People feel safer and are safer.
We didn’t solve the crime problem by learning how to get tough on the causes of crime nor by rehabilitating criminals. We just took them off the streets. As of 2005, more than 2m Americans are incarcerated. That number is inefficiently large — it includes many minor drug offenders — but it responds to the question “Does prison work?”.
If you are willing to pay the price — a price that would amount to a British prison population of roughly 250,000 if your sentencing followed the American model — you can reduce crime dramatically.
All of these are policies that the British political establishment may come to accept in another decade or so. If London were to get a mayor who decided to take the homeless off the streets, scrub away the graffiti and adopt a zero-tolerance policing policy, I suspect he would find the same surge in popularity that Rudy Giuliani experienced in New York.
British parents are increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with schools, and especially with their spinelessness in dealing with disruptive children. In every area of life that the underclass affects, the public mood is shifting towards support of the American solution. Politicians who covet votes will come around eventually.
Hence my prediction that in 15 years, perhaps less, the underclass/Neet will no longer be a political issue in Britain and urban life for most of you will be more pleasant than it is now. The price will have been a great deal of money spent on prisons and, in effect, the writing-off of a portion of the population as unfit for civil society.
In the United States I have called this the coming of custodial democracy — literally custodial for criminals, figuratively custodial for the neighbourhoods we seal away from the rest of us. Custodial democracy is probably headed your way.
It is not a happy solution. On the contrary, it means abandoning a central tenet of a free society — that everyone can exercise equal responsibility for his or her own life. But Britain, like the United States and western Europe, is locked into a welfare state that by its nature generates large numbers of feckless people. If we are unwilling to prevent an underclass by giving responsibility for behaviour back to individuals, their families, and communities, custodial democracy is the only option left.
* * * * *
Hat tip to Laban Tall, with special thanks for pointing my way toward that glorious bit of verse by John Betjeman.