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Bad Parents, Poor Kids

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Am I the only one who thinks it is immoral to bring children into the world if you don't have the means to support them? I must be one of the few. I rarely see anyone else make the point. Before anyone objects, let me concede up front that a lot of things in life are unpredictable. Women become pregnant despite their best efforts to avoid it. Women can lose their husbands from accidents, war and even homicide. Few of us have a tenured job. Few of us are safe from the economic reversal that would attend the loss of a job.


Still, when you find that:

•Almost four in every ten children is born on Medicaid,

•One in every four children is living in a food stamp household,and

•Entire classrooms — no entire schools, wait, even in entire areas of whole cities — all the children are on the school lunch program.

And,you just can't write it all off to bad luck! What we are witnessing are patterns of behavior. All too often it's intentional behavior.

From teachers we hear a constant drumbeat of anecdotal evidence. Some parents don't care what their children learn in school. They don't encourage learning. They may even belittle it. Also, more and more scarce education dollars are going for what should be parenting rather than schooling functions. The school lunch program exists because tens of thousands of parents apparently can't afford lunch for their children. Now, schools across the country are subsidizing breakfast as well — for the same reason.

Charles Murray has warned that the really important inequality that has been emerging — a dangerous inequality — is not inequality of income. It is the separation of two cultures. Upper-income, highly educated households (including politically liberal households) tend to respect traditional values. They may say they are cultural relativists. But they don't practice cultural relativism. These tend to be intact households — ones with mothers and fathers — where parents invest a lot of time, money and energy in their children. Among lower-income, less-educated households there is starkly different behavior.


Harvard researcher Robert Putman finds that there is a "growing class gap in enrichment expenditures [day care, tutors, games, etc., but not private school] on children, 1972-2006." At the bottom of the hierarchy, the expenditure has increased about $400 per child over the past 40 years, but at the middle income it's gone up $5K.

The time people invest in their children — reading to them, etc., but not including diaper changing time, etc. — shows a growth gap between those with more education and those less. In the 1970s, mothers with only a high school education were investing slightly more time with their kids. Now the number of minutes for both is going up. But the growth has been "much, much faster" among college educated moms. When you add in the dads, the gap grows even larger — it's up to an hour a day of more quality time with their parents.

Moreover, the gap in parent time with children is even greater the younger the child. That is, higher-income, more highly educated parents devote the most extra time with their children during the years when parental involvement is thought to make the greatest difference.

It would be a mistake to think that this is primarily a racial or ethnic divide. Murray's study focuses only on white families, ignoring blacks and Hispanic whites. Putman and his colleagues recently made a PowerPoint presentation at the Aspen Institute. One graph shows that the gap in math and reading scores between black and white children has actually gone down over the past 40 years. But the gap between high- and low-income children (of whatever race) has been progressively widening.


Another stunning graph shows a trend in out-of-wedlock births among non-Hispanic whites. For college graduates, the number is less than 10% and there has been little change in the past 15 years. However, among those with no more education than a high school degree, the number has been soaring and is now above 50%!

I don't have an immediate answer to this problem. Here is one proposal to take the children away from rotten parents. I'm not in principle opposed to that proposal, I'm just afraid there are way too many children for this to be a practical idea.

There are two very bad ideas in Putnam's Aspen Institute presentation that need to be nipped in the bud, however. One is the idea that the behavioral problems of the underclass are caused by poverty. Wrong. Their behavior is what is making them poor and keeping them poor; not the other way around. One hundred years ago almost everyone in the whole country was poor by our standards. That didn't keep our ancestors from building the greatest country on earth.

The second bad idea appears on the last slide of the Aspen PowerPoint presentation. It says, "These are all our kids." But, of course, they aren't all our kids. They are in the custody of some adults rather than other adults. And the adults who have custody are all too often bad parents.


Lloyd Bentsen IV helped with this editorial.

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