Category Archives: Children and families

Virginia Welfare Trends

I came across some interesting data on the Virginia Department of Social Services website showing the number of Virginians receiving social welfare benefits. I offer the data without commentary. — JAB

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance PrograM (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.



Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

Energy Assistance -- heating and cooling

Energy Assistance — heating and cooling

Energy Assistance -- crisis

Energy Assistance — crisis

Hospitalization claims

Hospitalization claims

General relief

General relief

The High Cost of Disruptive Behavior at School

school_disciplineby James A. Bacon

It seems intuitively obvious that allowing students to “act out” in the classroom disrupts teaching for the students who want to learn. But it’s impossible to tell from anecdotal information what effect the disruption has on student achievement and graduation rates, much less upon future earnings.

In “The Long-Run Effects of Disruptive Peers” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Scott E. Carrell, Mark Hoekstra and Elira Kuka have tapped longitudinal data from Alachua County, Fla., to demonstrate that the negative effects of disruptive behavior in elementary school is measurable and long lasting.

“With respect to college attendance, our findings indicate that one year of exposure to a disruptive boy peer reduces college enrollment by 0.2 percentage points,” the authors write. “We estimate that one year of exposure to a disruptive peer in elementary school reduces the present discounted value of classmates’ future earnings by around $100,000.”

While not as important as teacher quality in explaining differential outcomes, the authors argue, the presence of disruptive students is nevertheless a significant factor, accounting for 5% to 6% of the rich-poor earnings gap. “Our estimates imply that with respect to college enrollment, a year of exposure to a disruptive male peer is equivalent to a 7 to 11 percent increase in class size for one year, a 2 percent reduction in Head Start participation, or a one-fourth standard deviation reduction in teacher quality.”

And that’s just exposure to one bad actor for one year. In some schools the earnest students are subjected to the disruption of multiple kids with disciplinary problems over many years.

Bacon’s bottom line: The researchers do not measure the impact of disruptive students directly. They use a proxy, children from households experiencing domestic violence, on the logic that there is a strong correlation between children experiencing or witnessing violence at home and their tendency to disrupt classrooms at school. It is not a perfect proxy, of course. Not all children from families experiencing domestic violence create disorder at school; likewise, some disruptive students come from non-violent families. The negative impact of students known to be disruptive arguably would be even stronger.

Acknowledging this impact does not tell us what to do about it. It does not tell us how to discipline or isolate disruptive students. But it does reinforce a point that I have made frequently on this blog: that disruptive pupils cause harm to pupils who come to school prepared to learn. If a teacher focuses his or her attention on the disruptive student, he spends less time teaching students who are behaving themselves. The effects are cumulative and long lasting, hurting academic performance, high school graduation rates, college attendance rates and future income.

The disciplinary issue has been politicized in recent years by American Civil Liberties Association and U.S. Justice Department insistence that school disciplinary action in Henrico County and other jurisdictions disproportionately affect minority students, especially blacks. Such a focus ignores the fact that the victims of disruptive behavior are also disproportionately minorities and blacks attending the same schools and classes.

The breakdown in school discipline has other effects not captured in this study. I chatted this weekend with a young woman who taught students at a Richmond-area middle school where there were a large number of disruptive students. She described to me how she went home after school and cried every day. Finally, she transferred to a new middle school in Henrico County where the students were well behaved. She is very happy with her job now. (Race and ethnicity never entered the discussion. Her problem was the behavior, not the racial identity, of the disruptive kids.) The well-known problem of teachers fleeing schools with disciplinary problems makes it more difficult for those institutions to recruit and retain good teachers, which arguably has a secondary negative impact on the motivated students.

I’m not saying that we should shunt all the disruptive kids off to reform school. But I am suggesting that we should be cognizant of the long-lasting impact of their behavior on other students. We cannot let their rights to a decent education be trumped by our concern for the troubled kids.

“Coming Apart” — Virginia Edition


Odds are, one out of three of these babies is born out of wedlock.

by James A. Bacon

Three years ago sociologist Charles Murray wrote a book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” in which he described the social disintegration of lower-income and working-class whites in the United States. He documented the decline of marriage, the rise of out-of-wedlock births, the spread of substance abuse, and deterioration of work ethic, respect for the law and religious observance. The range of social pathologies once stereotyped as African-American is increasingly prevalent among whites. Anyone interested in the problem of social and income inequality in America needs to read the book.

Against that backdrop, I now present some numbers from a fascinating data set published by the Virginia Department of Health and passed along by reader Jim Weigand. This table breaks down the rate of “non-marital” births by whites, blacks and “others” by locality and planning district across Virginia.

The overall numbers should be terrifying to anyone worried that the rise of fatherless families contributes to dysfunctional social behaviors such as poor school performance, substance abuse, sub-par employment prospects, descent into criminality, child neglect and abuse, and, of course, more out-of-wedlock births in a downward social spiral. Across the state, one out of three (34%) children is born out of wedlock. That works out to 25.2% for whites, 64.7% for blacks, and 29.2% for others. (“Others” is a meaningless category which conflates Asians with their lower rate of out-of-wedlock-birth and Hispanics with their higher rate.)

In a majority of rural counties, the incidence of white non-marital births runs well over 30%. In Alleghany County the rate is 50%. One might expect as much in communities where a large percentage of the population lives in trailer parks. But in reasonably affluent communities like Henrico and Chesterfield counties, out-of-wedlock birth rates for whites run an astonishingly high 22.9% and 25.0% respectively. Even in super-affluent counties such as Fairfax and Loudoun, the white, non-marital birth rates are 12.2% and 11.3% respectively.

(Not every out-of-wedlock child is “fatherless,” of course. Many are born to unmarried but cohabitating couples in which the father continues to play a role, at least for as long as the couples stay together. Apparently, cohabiting in Europe can lead to stable social arrangements, but in the United States cohabitation tends to be a less stable relationship than marriage, and fathers tend to be less involved in the raising of the child.)

The situation for African-Americans is a social calamity but I can’t talk about that without someone insinuating that I’m a racist. So, for now, let’s focus on what’s happening in white America. That’s bad enough.

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