Category Archives: Children and families

The Weiner-ification of America

Carlos Danger -- a man ahead of his time.

Carlos Danger — a man ahead of his time.

by James A. Bacon

When I was raising my oldest offspring, now about 30 years old, a public awareness campaign would ask, “It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” Parents don’t seem nearly as worried where their children are these days — odds are, they’re at home. A better picture is, what are they doing?

Nancy Jo Sales, author of “American Girls,” knows. She spent two-and-a-half years investigating the online lives of teenagers, especially girls. And it’s not a pretty picture. Yes, even here in the Eden of Virginia, far from the Sodoms of California and Gamorrahs of New York City, it’s very disturbing indeed. Apparently, an entire generation of our youth has followed the path blazed by disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner.

From the book review in the Wall Street Journal:

It turns out that one of the main uses teens make of their phones is to watch, wield and circulate naked pictures of themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, the most commonly shared pornographic images are not of the girls themselves but “dick pics,” self-portraits of the penises of teenaged boys. Texting a photo of one’s genitals would seem to be an off-road perversion, not to the taste of any boy but the odd flasher. In fact, the stories Ms. Sales presents, whether of humiliation or triumph, often turn on a plot point involving such pictures.

“Do they think we want that? Because we don’t,” Sally, a 17-year-old in Boca Raton, tells Ms. Sales. So why do boys do it? One in James City County, Va., explains: “I send them my dick, so they’ll show me something of theirs.” This is a full economy: While a nude photo of a guy is practically worthless, a nude photo of a girl can be used as currency, traded with friends for marijuana or liquor — that’s “lq” in text speak.

“If you don’t send them nudes, they say you’re a prude,” says Casssy, another Floridian teen, says of boys.

“Lord of the Flies” depicted the descent into barbarism of teenage boys marooned on a desert island with no adult rules or guidance. Beelzebub has left the island and now lives in our homes. Smart phones enable girls and boys to interact in ways that their parents could never imagine — entirely out of view. Teenagers are obsessed with sex and peer status; they always have been, and always will be. In the past adults exercised some control and reined in those instincts. Now it’s much harder to. Even if we were of a mind to spy on our their communications, our kids are more tech savvy than us, they’re willing to devote their every waking moment to thwarting us, and they will assuredly develop a work-around to anything we concoct.

Where this trend will lead us, I do not know. I just hope that my 17-year-old doesn’t do any of this stuff. Meanwhile, my wife and I will go back to watching the Victorian morals on display in “Downton Abbey.”

A Poverty-Fighting Program that Pays Its Own Way

Long-Acting Reversible Contraception -- poverty-fighting tool

Long-Acting Reversible Contraception — poverty-fighting tool

by James A. Bacon

People have lots of ideas about how to address poverty. Most of them don’t work, as the United States has learned from more than 50 years of building a welfare state. Ever-hopeful social reformers always have some bright new idea they believe will make a difference — unlike all the bright new ideas that failed in the past. In the process, poverty has metastasized from a condition of material deprivation into inter-generational family breakdown and social dysfunction atop of material deprivation.

Some people would rise out of poverty if the economy could create more jobs and pay workers more. How to accomplish that falls under the rubric of economic policy. But escaping poverty for others means overcoming the challenge of dysfunctional parents — typically poor, single women — raising children in a dysfunctional environment. The odds are mightily against them. A few extraordinary individuals break out of the cycle; most do not.

Inter-generational poverty is, at its root, a demographic problem: baby mamas having babies of their own before they have the means and maturity to be good parents. As I have blogged before, poor women give birth to more children, and earlier in life, than women in higher income brackets. That’s why, while 11.7% of all Virginians live in the poverty, according to 2013 numbers, 15% of all children live in poverty.

When Ralph S. Northam, Virginia’s Democratic lieutenant governor, opines about how to build a healthier, more prosperous Virginia, as he did this morning in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he places great emphasis on contraception — something you don’t see much of from Republicans. Northam also espouses traditional remedies like expanding Medicaid and pre-K education, which to my mind may alleviate the symptoms of poverty but do little to lift anyone out of it. But Northam’s discussion of birth control gets to the heart of the matter.

Citing recommendations of the Commonwealth Council on Childhood Success, of which he is chairman, he advocates expanding education and access to birth control, including Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC) such as IUDs and birth control patches. The goal is to empower young women to decide when they want to start a family and when they want to focus on other life goals like getting an education or starting a business.

One such program in Colorado reduced teen births by 40% and teen abortions by 42%, Northam writes. “For every $1 invested in educating women and providing access to contraceptive options, the program saved Colorado more than $5 in Medicaid costs.” You can’t beat that: a program that funds itself out of the identifiable savings it generates.

Some Republicans and conservatives are reluctant to support birth control on the grounds that teenagers should practice abstention. Well, in an ideal world that would be nice. Republicans and conservatives should feel free to teach abstention in their own homes and churches, and even to include it as part of sex-ed curricula in schools. The idea might work in stable social environments where parents retain a lot of control over their children’s lives. But in the real world of inner cities and trailer parks and mountain hollows where peoples’ lives are more disordered, sex is happening regardless.

Think about it: A program like the one that Northam describes (1) reduces pregnancies and births among poor teens and young women, (2) reduces abortions, and (3) pays for itself with identifiable Medicaid savings. That’s about as close to a win-win-win as you can get in social welfare policy.

Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline


The case of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an 11-year-old autistic child in Lynchburg schools, started with kicking a trash can and ended with a charge of felonious assault, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

by James A. Bacon

Amid growing national concerns about “mass incarceration,” particularly of African-Americans, a Center for Public Integrity study found in August that Virginia schools refer students to law enforcement agencies at a higher rate than schools in any other state in the country — and three times the national average. The report highlighted the case of an autistic, 11-year-old African-American student in a Lynchburg school, Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who, in a series of incidents that started with kicking a trash can, wound up being charged with disorderly conduct and felony assault on a police officer.

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States puts too many people into jail and prison, and that there has to be a better way to deal with minor crimes and misdemeanors.  There is less agreement about what that “better way” might be.

Fortunately, the federal system of the U.S. government creates a “laboratory for democracy” that allows lots of experiments at the state and local level. One such experiment for reducing the school-to-prison pipeline will take place in the City of Richmond when schools resume next year after the Christmas break. A new program called LIFE, reports Louis Llovio with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will divert students into an after-school program designed to “get them the skills needed to make better decisions.”

Richmond police arrested 149 students last year; of those arrests, 59 were for disorderly conduct for such behaviors as not sitting down in class or cussing at a teacher. In the hope of plugging the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” LIFE will be open to students committing minor offenses. Students will attend nine 90-minute sessions covering topics such as conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, gangs and respect for self and others. Parents are expected to attend three of the nine classes.

Diversion programs have a mixed record, according to Llovio’s reporting — some research finds that they lead to increased recidivism. But program organizers continue to tweak them in the hope of improving outcomes, so it’s possible that the Richmond program will enjoy better results. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that 13 to 14 hours in an after-school program can do much to change a student’s behavior by the time he’s reached middle school or high school. But I’m willing to entertain the notion that if participants are chosen based on a teacher’s appraisal of their potential willingness to change, and if parents participate as well, the program might rescue a few kids from jail.

The key is to set goals and metrics by which to measure those goals. If results don’t improve, adjust the program. If they still don’t improve, shut it down.

Bacon’s bottom line. Two things worry me. First, one of the few clear public policy successes of the past two decades has been so-called “broken windows” policing, in which police crack down on seemingly minor offenses like vandalism in order to avert an escalation into major crimes. The thrust of the movement to roll back “mass incarceration” seems to go against the broken-windows philosophy. We need to be vigilant against a retrogression to the widespread public disorder of the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, we must remember the silent victims of school disorder — the majority of students whose education is disrupted by the behavior of a noisy, troublesome minority. The hand-wringing over “mass incarceration” paints criminals as the victims while ignoring the plight of their victims. While it’s true that the jailed and imprisoned population is disproportionately African-American, let us not forget that the vast majority of their victims are African-American. Affluent white Virginians living safely in their leafy suburbs have little to fear from the consequences of social experiments gone awry. Poor African-Americans have the most to lose.

So, let’s try experiments to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, but let’s monitor them very closely and make sure they accomplish what we expect of them.

Time to Reform Juvenile Justice

by Chris Braunlich

If the evidence showed that taking a particular medication actually made the disease worse, would you keep on taking it?

Of course not.

But a recent paper, Juvenile Justice Reform, co-issued by Justice Fellowship, Right On Crime, and the Thomas Jefferson Institute makes the case that, when it comes to Virginia’s juvenile justice system, that’s been exactly the prescription for too many years.

In fact, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) admits in its latest guidelines that “current policies and practices are not effective in preparing juveniles to be successful citizens in the community.”

According to DJJ, “after controlling for offense and risk and protective factors … the probability of a juvenile’s re-arrest increases by 32.7 percent for every additional year” that a young person remains incarcerated in the Commonwealth.

In short, the longer someone stays in the system, the more likely they are to return to the system. Some might argue that, after all, these are hardened criminal youth who deserve to be locked away.

But are they? More than 11 percent of youthful prisoners are there on a misdemeanor offense, and more than a third are incarcerated on non-person felonies – crimes that didn’t include confrontations with another person. One of the largest such crimes is larceny.

In fact, more youths were jailed in Virginia on a primary conviction of larceny than any other offense. And while that may sound a bit frightening, consider the fact that Virginia has the lowest threshold in the nation for felony larceny: $200.

That $200 threshold hasn’t changed since 1980, with the result that theft of a ubiquitous cell phone or a college textbook now meets the definition of felony larceny, with a much higher potential prison sentence. If the definition had simply kept pace with inflation, that threshold would be $565 today. Put another way: That $200 had purchasing power of $63.29 in 1980. Is that really our idea of felony larceny and a community risk?

The result is that youths are jailed in Virginia for crimes that would be misdemeanors in every other state, driving up our incarceration rates and costs.

More importantly: Non-violent youths who may have simply made a mistake are put in a prison environment with more hardened criminals. Removed from their family (often hundreds of miles away) and other community support networks like their local church, they are more likely to turn to the internal “support networks” of a juvenile prison – and that frequently leads to a worsening turn, not a better one. One result: Virginia’s rearrest rate three years after release from juvenile correctional centers is 80 percent, even while recidivism rates in several other states is declining.

This process is expensive. Virginia’s two existing juvenile correctional centers cost $28-35 million each, or about $150,000 per youth per year. In other states, the daily cost of incarcerating a single youth is about $240; in Virginia, the cost soars to more than $400.

To its credit, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has already begun instituting reforms – closing most of the big facilities and opening wings in their remaining facilities with a high premium on workers trained in both security and rehabilitation.

But the paper issued by three center-right organizations suggests going the extra mile by decentralizing the juvenile justice system even further. A youth incarcerated in a prison that may be up to five hours away from their community is cut off from the resources most likely to aid him in rehabilitation and a return to a law-abiding life. Parental communication may be severed for disciplinary reasons, and home-based faith institutions are unable work early-on to help transition youth into jobs, school, and a better life. Continue reading

Highland View: a Poor School that Works

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

Highland View Principal Pam Smith dispenses a hug.

by James A. Bacon

Highland View Elementary School educates children from one of the poorest districts in Bristol, a city where the poverty rate is nearly twice the state average. Poor families, mostly white, grapple with the same kinds of issues commonly associated with inner-city black families in Virginia’s urban crescent: broken families, high unemployment, alcohol and drug addiction, disorganized lives, abuse, neglect, hunger and a lack of interest in academic achievement.

Yet somehow, Highland View accomplished something that 556 other schools with large at-risk student bodies did not. Reports Jim Nolan with the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “For the first time since 2011, it earned full accreditation from the state Department of Education. More than 70 percent of its students passed the Standards of Learning exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent cleared the benchmark in English.”

How did Highland View achieve full accreditation despite a 11% cut in per-pupil spending over 10 years?

Much of the credit goes to Principal Pam Smith, who recognizes that it takes more than textbooks and teaching to help poor children. “The school is their counselor, their doctor, their nutritionist, their mother,”she said. “We’re their family.” As Nolan tells the story, Smith knows the story behind every child, whether he or she is homeless and couch surfing (sleeping on couches in different homes), is hearing disabled, is being raised by a grandparent or has a father with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Credit goes, too, to the Bristol community, which has rallied behind the school. Home Depot has given Kindergarten cubbies. O’Reilly Auto Parts chipped in $800 to fund snacks for the after-school program. The local Kiwanis Club provides free vision screening and has contributed 100 pairs of shoes. Churches donate “snack packs” for kids to take home on weekends. Families contribute second-hand clothing so the school can maintain an inventory for when children appear at school in hopeless dirty, ragged or inappropriate clothing. A not-for-profit group, Communities in Schools, works closely with the Highland View to help families obtain counseling, housing, clothing, food, school supplies and transportation from local government agencies and not-for-profits.

By providing essential needs that parents have failed to provide their children, Highland View gives its pupils a fighting chance to earn an education and become productive citizens rather than fall into the quicksand of inter-generational poverty.

Bacon’s bottom line: Highland View is a success story. It is an example to be emulated. However, the nature of poverty in America today is such that, despite the existence of food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, nutritional programs for women with infants and young children, school lunch programs, housing assistance, child welfare services, and substance abuse & mental health programs, not to mention a host of private, not-for-profit enterprises filling gaps in the social safety net, the number of dysfunctional families appears to be increasing.

The problem is not simply that families are poor and have fallen on hard times, a predicament which some manage to work their way out of. The problem is that an increasing number of families are hopelessly irresponsible and disorganized. They lack the skills to function in contemporary society. They perform so badly as parents that society increasingly has to step in and fill their role. If children suffer from dysfunctional families in elementary school, does anything change when the children move onto middle school? How often are the gains achieved at Highland View lost in later years?

As a society, we are morally compelled to try to rescue these poor children. But I have to ask, do our good intentions aggravate the problems they are meant to solve? Do we make it easier for lousy parents to be even lousier parents? There has always been poverty in America. But I fear we are unintentionally creating a generation of poor people more lacking in basic life skills than at any time in American history.

Maximizing the ROI on Investments in Human Capital

heckmanby James A. Bacon

There is a sterile quality to the debate over universal childhood education. Liberals cite studies that say that it makes sense to invest in pre-school for poor children on the grounds that it increases the odds that kids will perform better academically, thus less likely to drop out of school, more likely to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated, saving society billions of dollars in the long run. Noting that pre-school can’t overcome the affects of dysfunctional families and lousy schools, skeptics (usually conservatives) say the positive effects fade within a few years and question whether creating another massive entitlement program will do any good.

As a society, we’re desperate to find something that helps poor children overcome the debilitating consequences not only of material poverty but an upbringing so impoverished that many don’t know their colors, numbers or ABCs by the time they enter kindergarten.

James V. Koch, professor emeritus of Old Dominion University, puts a different spin on the pre-K issue in the “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015.” He sides with those who believe that high-quality early childhood education has a large positive benefit but proposes a funding source for pre-K that makes the idea more palatable to conservatives.

Drawing upon the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman, Koch argues that social investment in human capital accomplishes more in a child’s early, formative development than later in life when his or her cognitive abilities have been largely set. As seen in the conceptual graph above, investing in enriching a child’s development at ages 0-3 yields a higher return than in preschool, which in turn provides a higher return than school, which in turns pays back more than job training.

Koch cites the famous Perry Preschool Project which began in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s. A $21,000 per pupil investment (in today’s dollars) yielded cumulative savings of $240,000 by age 40. Whether those results could be replicated is the subject of debate. But an even bigger problem is political. Someone is going to have to pay for universal pre-K. Middle-class parents are not likely to be thrilled about paying more in taxes so poor children can attend programs that cost two to three times what they can afford for their own children.

That political calculus could change if the funding comes from elsewhere. Writes Koch: “There is now a strong argument for shifting resources away from later-in-life job training programs and re-directing them to early childhood programs.” But that creates a political problem of its own, he concedes: Benefits from early-childhood programs take years to become manifest; the pain of training cutbacks is immediate.

Koch advances another novel argument: Early childhood education is good economic development.

One must compare these salutary results with the much less impressive outcomes that are generated by conventional businesses subsidies (usually tax incentives) that government units at all levels habitually utilize in hopes of improving their economic situations. … In general, tax incentives yield low returns for cities and counties that rely upon them, and typically yield negative returns for regions and states.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m skeptical of the whole ball of wax — early childhood intervention, government-administered job training programs, business subsidies, tax incentives, you name it. But if government has got to “do something” to reverse the pathologies and dysfunctions created by previous efforts to “do something,” then voluntary universal pre-K arguably would make a better long-run investment than jinky tax breaks and duplicative and ineffectual job training programs. Make universal pre-K spending neutral by cutting less effective programs, and I just might buy into it.

Speaking of Gay Rights…

gay_marriageLike a lot of other Americans, I have been slow to embrace the right of gays to marry. That’s because I respect the sanctity of an institution — marriage as the union between a man and a woman — that evolved over thousands of years. But, ultimately, my libertarian instincts prevailed.

As a libertarian/conservative, I espouse a win-win view of human rights. I don’t think, for example, that there is a fundamental human right to education or health care. Those so-called “rights” are derived, or subsidiary, rights. Financing one person’s “right” to health care can be achieved only by taking someone else’s property, thus harming that person. That’s not to say that society shouldn’t provide health care to all, but universal access to health care is something to be bestowed through legislation, not as a fundamental right.

What is a fundamental right? The right to vote is fundamental. Giving John the right to vote does not deprive Mary of the right to vote. Giving John the right of free speech does not deprive Mary of the right to free speech. Giving John the right to a trial by jury does not deprive Mary of the right to a trial by jury. Giving all citizens equal treatment under the law is a fundamental right.

By the same logic, giving Heather’s mommies the right to be married, along with all the privileges and appurtenances permitted under the law, does not deprive John and Mary of the right to marry.  So, while my heart tells me to support the traditional idea of marriage (not because I’m anti-gay, but because I’m pro-traditional marriage), reason tells me to support gay marriage. In this particular matter, I follow my head over my heart.