Friday, June 18, 2010

Big Daddy

In the mid nineties, the Clinton administration and the Republican controlled congress passed landmark welfare reform legislation-and in New York Mayor Giuliani followed up with reforms of his own that have greatly reduced dependency. The lesson? Toughen up the eligibility rules, introduce work requirements, and disincentivize utilizing the state as daddy.

This brings us to the creative policy mind of NYC’s billionaire mayor. Mike Bloomberg, not unmindful of the harmful effects of fatherlessness, is creating a new position. The NY Post has the story, one that sounds as if it first appeared in the Onion: "Here comes Big Daddy. New York City is about to become the first in the United States to name an official in charge of fatherhood. The new post will oversee a wide variety of expanded services involving 13 city agencies, and it is aimed at encouraging men to become better dads. "Those of us lucky enough to have grown up with a father know how valuable that support can be," Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday, announcing the move at the Fortune Society in Queens."

You've heard of the overly intrusive Big Brother government-an apt description of the way in which Bloomberg loves to intrude into the intimacies of everyday life-but, Big Daddy? And, as usual, the political correct Mayor Mike misses the central point. Spending more government money to "teach" men to be better fathers, elides the fact that it is the existence of an extensive panoply of government programs that makes Dad in many cases irrelevant to the teen mothers who are having too many babies without the benefit of marriage.

Heather McDonald captured the tragedy over a decade ago-underscoring the original observations of Daniel Patrick Moynihan who wrote the seminal, "The Negro Family..." back in 1965 (for which he was excoriated by social welfare and civil rights advocates). As McDonald has pointed out, babies having babies is the root of the problem:

"Standing uncertainly in the middle of a lavish high school day-care center on Manhattan's Upper West Side is the future downfall of welfare reform. Eighteen-year-old Tamiesha has just dropped off her two-year-old and now watches impassively as the baby throws his bowl of Cheerios over his head. While a host of beaming day-care workers rush to clean up the child, Tamiesha, tall and so thin that her slacks hang from her hips in folds, distractedly pours a gold necklace from one hand to another. As usual, she has arrived late and is at that moment missing her second-period class, but no one seems in a hurry to get her on her way. The day-care director has tried to persuade her to come on time, without much of an impact. "I tell 'em I can't give them a 100 percent guarantee," Tamiesha explains. Tamiesha may not strike an observer as an overwhelmingly fit parent, but she has no intention of getting help from a husband. "I don't want to get married," she says emphatically. "My aunts 'n' stuff tell me what's going on, and it's, like, a hassle."

Nor does she have to as long as government can be in loco parentis. And the absence of a father is what's at the center of the problem-not the skill set of absent daddies that Mike Bloomberg is looking to upgrade. McDonald made this manifesto for our last mayor, one who at least understood what was going on: "By speaking clearly about the obligations of people receiving public assistance, Mayor Giuliani shifted the ethic of welfare and made work part of the equation in New York. He should now set a national precedent and do the same for illegitimacy—the other, and much more important, part of the welfare equation. He should announce unequivocally that the most pressing issue affecting child welfare is the breakdown of the family. The persistently lagging well-being of the city's black children, he should point out—from low birth weight to school failure—is inextricably linked to the prevalence among blacks of teen pregnancies and illegitimate births. More social services, the mayor should emphasize, can never compensate for the absence of a father."

What could be a better message as we approach Father's Day? But we hear nothing from our current mayor about the absent parent-only yet another government program when it is the expansive role of government and its misplaced empathy that is the underlying cause of the culture of poverty. As McDonald highlights, it is the public welfare ideology that needs to be deconstructed-something outside of Bloomberg's ken:

"Any defender of marriage can expect charges of racism and "classism." Emily Marks, head of the United Neighborhood Houses, a coalition of local settlement houses, accused me of bias against the poor when I asked if her organization was concerned about family breakdown. Then, displaying a favored debating tactic of the single-parent lobby, she established a precondition for marriage: "It all goes back to the job situation," she maintained. "Jobs are just not available."

This is doubly specious. First, plenty of poor people find jobs and marry. Second, Marks's reasoning presumes that children are an inevitability and marriage a mere add-on—when conditions permit. But if, as Marks claims, no jobs exist that would allow men to support a family, why are women having babies with them anyway? The question answers itself: because they expect the state to pick up the tab. Marks belongs to the right-to-have-a-baby school, which holds that regardless of the economic and emotional stability of the parents, a woman has a right to a baby at the government's expense. The question turns only on her rights, not the baby's fate."

We went through many of these arguments when we attended the Governor's Conference on the Family-in 1980! And there were many who didn't see any benefits in a two parent family-most famously the late Bella Abzug who we had the temerity to challenge; withstanding her foghorn-like admonitions. The reality is that it is government and its desire to replace the responsibilities of the citizens that is the main culprit-so the Bloomberg effort is as wrongheaded as anyone could imagine. It does underscore, however, the mayor's narrow world view and ideological limitations.

What we need are policies that strongly discourage the single parenthood that is so destructive to children: "But in addition to conducting a battle of ideas, the city should comb through its policies and eliminate all explicit or hidden encouragements for illegitimacy. To be blunt, rather than easing the way for single mothers, the city should restore the burden of having a child out of wedlock. Only in the last three decades did society facilitate illegitimacy, with predictable results. First to go should be the LYFE centers, as the high schools call their day-care centers. If there's any doubt that the centers have put an official stamp of approval on teen childbearing, just ask high school students what they think about them. A Brandeis ninth-grader, sauntering to class, summed up the prevailing attitude nicely: "Sure it's normal; schools are supposed to provide shit like that." Many of the nurseries are placed front and center; at Brandeis, the large, cheerful room is virtually the first classroom students encounter on entering the building. They are extravagantly funded at $10,000 a girl and boast lavish staffing ratios and employee perks. The obvious message is that the city considers teen parenthood a normal, highly valued part of school."

Now it's true that the McDonald observations may be a bit dated, but the proliferation of children out of wedlock continues apace; with no strong movement that would counteract the tend-let alone stigmatize it as McDonald suggests. So Mike Bloomberg's prattling about improving fathering skills-and his adding to the city bureaucracy to do it-is a part of this social welfare mindset; and is miles away from a constructive solution to the underlying problem that he purports to address.