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July 27, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (City Journal/Reducing Poverty in the Long Run Department)

it's a dirty job. Bradford Plumer reads City Journal so we don't have to:

Bradford Plumer: City Journal always strikes me as one of the most noxious magazines around... its writers... wade into decades-old debates... disregard all... research, and then flatly declare that liberals are stupid and conservatives were right all along about everything. Exhibit A is Kay Hymowitz's piece this month on how... legions of liberal academics... have kept people poor and stupid for 40 years... [and] the one true cause of black poverty is that most black children grow up in fatherless homes. Liberals, Hymowitz declares, need to step out of their "don't blame the victim" mentality and realize this hyper-obvious fact.

Well, okay. Plenty of liberals have been thinking about the importance of family structure for quite some time: she even mentions two (William Julius Wilson and Sara MacLanahan), and then there was, um, the last Democratic president--a pretty prominent liberal, when you think about it. (Hymowitz makes it seem like Clinton was only "forced" to worry about family structure in the post-Gingrich era, but in fact, his 1992 campaign speeches included lines like, "Governments don't raise kids; parents do.") Beyond that, though, the relationship between marriage and childhood problems--let alone wider poverty--is complex and deserves a bit fuller treatment than the shallow gloss Hymowitz gives.

As it happens, the other day I was reading a collection of essays called The Future of the Family, edited by none other than Hymowitz' hero, Pat Moynihan, with a literature review of the effects of fatherlessness co-authored by... yet another one of Hymowitz' heroes, Sara MacLanahan! And lo, the results are a bit more ambiguous than the City Journal essay suggests.... MacLanahan argues that... fatherlessness is associated with lower test scores, greater levels of poverty, behavioral problems, delinquency, etc. for children.... What's not clear... is why... perhaps poverty causes both fatherlessness and negative outcomes for children, in which case single motherhood wouldn't be the root problem. One study, for instance, found that "when pre-divorce circumstances are taken into account, the associations between family disruption and child outcomes become smaller, sometimes statistically insignificant." (Not all studies, though.) And then some of the findings are just plain odd. For instance, the academic achievement gap between kids in one- and two-parent families is moderately small in many social democracies like Sweden and Iceland--smaller than the gap in "neo-liberal" states like the U.S. or New Zealand--suggesting that a sturdy safety net can overcome the supposed disadvantages of single-parent families. On the other hand, the achievement gap is even smaller in Mediterranean countries....

Basically, it's just not clear.... The facts here aren't speaking for themselves, or else they are, but in ancient Aramaic.

[I]nsofar as the fact of single motherhood itself is actually a "problem" (and I'm not convinced it is, but let's suppose...), there are basically two remedies. One, we can try to reduce the number of divorces by, say, making divorce harder... that seems like a terrible option....

So let's look behind door #2. And door #2 is... reducing out-of-wedlock births in the first place. This seems like a pretty unambiguously decent policy goal, especially since 60 percent of all births are unintended.... Now the tried-and-true way to reduce unintended out-of-wedlock births involves teen-pregnancy prevention programs that emphasize, yes, condoms and other "icky" items. (Hell, they can teach abstinence too, since that seems to work, though "abstinence-only" programs pretty clearly do not.)... But these are all pretty well-known liberal policy goals, I daresay.

Posted by DeLong at July 27, 2005 02:28 PM