Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

Tracking the Forgotten Virtue: Thrift

by James A. Bacon

More interesting data from WalletHub: In a ranking of 150 metropolitan regions by 16 metrics indicating the degree to which local populations adhere to responsible household budgeting practices, Virginians fare better than their peers in any other Southern state — and that’s not just a reflection of the outsized influence of Northern Virginia, which is wealthier, better educated and culturally distinct from the rest of the state.

Charlottesville ranked 11th nationally, followed by Washington at 23th, Roanoke at 25th, Richmond at 45th and Hampton Roads at 56th.

WalletHub’s metrics encompass average credit scores, non-mortgage indebtedness, foreclosure rates, percentage of population paying only the minimum on credit cards, percentage of the population spending more than they make, delinquency rates on loans, and related measures.

Education and income are important measures of economic well being but I would argue that household thrift is just as important. Social scientific surveys of happiness and well being consistently show that, beyond a certain point, additional income brings only increment gains in happiness. The pleasure gained from the acquisition of a flashier car, a bigger house or a newer big-screen TV is fleeting. The anxiety that stems from economic insecurity and the risk of losing one’s possessions is enduring. Households that live within their means and set aside some savings, I would hypothesize, tend to experience greater life satisfaction (or conversely, less anxiety) than households that spend money carelessly on frivolous or passing pleasures — even if they accumulate fewer material possessions.

This perspective is almost entirely lacking in the public policy debate in the United States today. Economic well being is measured almost exclusively by the rate of economic and income growth and, secondarily, the distribution of income. As a consequence, government policy is geared overwhelmingly toward goosing consumer expenditures. Anything that stimulates consumer spending, even if it means saving less and borrowing more, is regarded as beneficial to “the economy.” Thus, we witness today the revival of policies last seen during the real estate mania of the 2000s designed to lower mortgage borrowing standards and encourage more lending to the poor. The fact that these very same policies induced poor people into buying houses they couldn’t afford to pay for, much less keep up, and unleashed a wave of foreclosures that obliterated what little wealth most of these people possessed seems not to deter policy makers in the least. The idea that people of modest means can live perfectly happy lives without racking up debt seems alien to the American political psyche.

An ability to resist the siren call of excessive indebtedness, I would argue, is a major contributor to happiness and life satisfaction. The most responsible budgeters in the nation, by WalletHub’s standards, are clustered in the upper Midwest — in metropolitan regions centered in and around Minnesota and Iowa. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that cultural factors are at work, perhaps related to the Germanic and Scandinavian heritage of the populations. The other large cluster — not quite as thrifty, but more financially responsible than the country as a whole — is the Mid-Atlantic/Northeastern region, of which Virginia is a part. The South and parts of the Southwest are a budgetary disaster zone whose citizens, who are more likely to be poor, have shredded their household budgets. Thrift and frugality were never part of the Southern cultural tradition — either among the Anglo-Saxons or the African-Americans who settled there.

It would be interesting to know how Virginians came to embrace the household budgeting practices of states to the north rather than the south. Are cultural attitudes different here? Has state public policy played a role? Does the school curriculum, which teaches economics and personal finance, make a material contribution?

One last point: While it makes intuitive sense to link personal budgetary responsibility to life satisfaction and happiness, there may, in fact, be little correlation. Compare the map above with the happiness map published previously on Bacon’s Rebellion. The South is one of the happiest regions in the country! Maybe happiness is spending other people’s money.

Brat’s Strange Immigrant-Bashing

BratBy Peter Galuszka

It must have been an interesting scene. Congressional candidate David Brat had been invited to a meeting of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce along with his Democratic rival Jack Trammell to outline his views on immigration and undocumented aliens.

Brat, an obscure economics professor who nailed powerhouse Eric Cantor in a Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District in June, danced around the topic, according to a news account.

It took several attempts to get him off his spiel on just how wonderful free market capitalism is to actually address the issue at hand. Before him were a couple dozen business executives, many of them Hispanic.

They, naturally, were interested in Brat’s views because of his over-the-top Latino-baiting during the primary campaign. One of Brat’s ads trumpeted: “There are 20 million Americans who can’t find a full time job. But Eric Cantor wants to give corporations another 20 million foreign workers to hire instead.”

Finally, Brat claimed, “I have never said I’m against legal immigration.” He later said, “nations that function under the rule of law do well.” Brat also said he wants to “secure” the U.S. border with Mexico. Trammell said he supports the DREAM Act that could provide a path to U.S. citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented aliens in this country.

Brat’s immigrant-baiting and his “rule of law” smacks of a lot of ugliness in American history. “Know–Nothings” of white Anglo Saxons beat and harassed Catholic immigrants, primarily from Ireland. Chinese were harassed on the West Coast and Japanese-Americans were locked up in concentration camps during World War II. Jewish newcomers were met with restrictive covenants and college quotas.

In Richmond during the 1920s, efforts by Catholic Italian-Americans to build a monument to Christopher Columbus were fought by the Ku Klux Klan, which insisted that any such statue not dirty-up Monument Avenue and its parade of Confederate generals. Columbus had to go elsewhere in the city.

There’s a new twist and judging from Brat’s behavior on Tuesday. He seems uneasy by getting so out front on immigrant-bashing. He’s not the only Republican to take such strident stands. Look at New Hampshire, where Scott P. Brown, a Republican, faces Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, in a closely-watched race for the U.S. Senate.

Groups backing Brown, such as John Bolton, the surly former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, have run anti-Shaheen ads showing throngs of people clambering over a border just before showing Islamic militants beheading James Foley, a journalist and New Hampshire native, according to the New York Times. The ad was pulled after the Foley family complained, the Times says.

A major coincidence is that the Times‘ description of New Hampshire almost matches that of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. Neither seems a hot bed of immigrant strife and threats.

The Granite State has one of the smallest populations of illegal immigrants in the country, the Times says. Of the state’s 1.3 million residents, only 5 percent are foreign-born and 3 percent are Hispanic.

The Virginia district has a population of 757,917 of whom 12.7 percent are foreign born and 4.9 percent are Hispanic. Most of the residents, 74.3 percent are white.

The district runs from the largely white and well-off western Richmond suburbs in Henrico and Chesterfield Counties and scoots northwest across mostly rural farmland to east of Charlottesville and up to Madison. With only 7.6 percent of the people living below the poverty level, it isn’t exactly a barrio of Los Angeles.

It is hard to imagine hordes of brown-skinned people swarming from up Mexico or Central America displacing the managerial executives, small business people and farmers in the Seventh. People that Brat seems to be worried about are employed in other nearby areas, such as the poultry plants of the Shenandoah Valley. But those workers are there because of local labor shortages. One wonders where Brat gets his ideas that illegal immigrants are going to steal true-blue American jobs in his district.

Last June during the primary, there was plenty of news about thousands of young Hispanic children coming across the southern border from Central America. At the time, there were estimates that up to 90,000 such children might come illegally into the U.S. this year. Many are fleeing gang violence in their homelands.

This is apparently what Brat is running against – a bunch of poor, 12-year-old Nicaraguans out to steal jobs and provide cover for Islamic terrorists. Their plight is a serious issue, but it is a humanitarian one. Brat chose to make it an odd classroom lesson in economics. He says the U.S. should not put up “green lights” and “incentivizing children from other countries to come here illegally and at their own peril.”

The news from the border seems to have calmed down since June. Brat may have found that now it is likely he’s going to Washington, playing the Hispanic-baiting card may not work as well on the national scene as it apparently did in his mostly-white district. It could be why he was hemming and hawing so much before the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Perhaps other Republican politicians are having the same epiphany. As the New York Times writes: “Republicans have long relied on illegal immigration to rally the conservative base, even if the threat seemed more theoretical than tangible in most of the country. But in several of this year’s midterm Senate campaigns — including Arkansas and Kansas, as well as New Hampshire — Republicans’ stance on immigration is posing difficult questions about what the party wants to be in the longer term.”

There’s another strange contradiction with Brat. He’s a former divinity student interested in probing how unfettered free market capitalism can magically make the right choices for the betterment of mankind.

He draws a lot of his thinking from Ayn Rand, the famous thinker, refugee from the Bolsheviks and backer of her own brand of anti-government capitalism.

It may interest Brat that by today’s standards, Rand would have been an illegal immigrant.

The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools

by James A. Bacon

Why aren’t we making more progress improving the academic performance of Virginia’s school children? Many reasons have been advanced. Some say that school divisions don’t get enough money or that the money is unfairly distributed between schools. Others say that the public school system is over-regulated, bound by bureaucracy and resistant to innovation. Yet others blame society at large (sliding work ethic, the distraction of electronics) or point to the different emphasis on education among different racial/ethnic groups.

But there is another explanation that gets very little attention. Could the root of the problem be demographic? Could Virginia schools be struggling to raise academic achievement scores because school children increasingly are drawn from the ranks of the poor?

The correlation between poverty and socioeconomic status is well known. The challenges of poverty and economic insecurity — homelessness, frequent moves between school districts, family dysfunction, domestic violence, inadequate nutrition — distract poor children from focusing on school work. There is a cultural overlay as well: Because poor children tend to come from less educated parents, they grow up in households where reading is not emphasized and academic achievement is not stressed.

It is an indisputable demographic fact that poor women bear more children than middle-class and professional-class women. According to “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, the breakdown by income category looks like this:

fertility_by_income

The poorest women, typically unmarried women, have the most children. Not only do they tend to have more children, they tend to have them at younger ages than higher-income women who typically wait until they complete their educations and get married before bearing children. Thus, to cite an extreme example, a poor family in which successive generations of women give birth at age 18 produce two generations of offspring in the same length of time as a more affluent family in which a woman has her first child at 36.

When poor women give birth to more children and they do so at an earlier age, the result is that the student body of school systems is significantly poorer than the population at large. Here is a list of the 10 Virginia school divisions with the largest gaps between general poverty rate and poverty among children under 18 (a proxy for the poverty rate of children in the school system):

largest_poverty_gaps

Source: 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data

The same pattern prevails in every school division in Virginia with the exception of five small localities with large university populations in which the number of “poor” is skewed by the presence of college students. (To see the poverty gap for all Virginia school divisions, click here.)

Even with a fair amount of upward economic mobility — poor people lifting themselves out of the ranks of the poor — the tendency of the poorest women to bear more children at a younger age continues to fill up school houses with their poor progeny, with all the economic and cultural disadvantages they suffer. I subscribe to the idea that many school divisions could be doing a better job with the resources they have — the horror stories I could tell you about the City of Richmond school system! But the problem is bigger than bad schools, bad teachers or inadequate funding.

The question that should concern us all: Will the trend of schools filling up with poor children get better or worse over time?

Bonus question: What does this mean for the ongoing debate on the war on poverty? Does the persistence of widespread poverty in the U.S. represent a failure on the part of U.S. institutions to foster upward economic mobility? Or does it reflect the fact that poor people replenish their ranks faster than people can raise out of poverty?

Virginia Students Achieve SAT Gains

SAT_scores

Table credit: Virginia Department of Education

Some good news about College Board SAT scores in Virginia to balance out the dismal news about Standard of Learning (SOL) pass rates: Public school students eked out gains in average SAT scores in 2014, continuing to outperform their counterparts nationally. Average public school reading scores improved by three points on the 200- to 800-point scale, while math scores gained a point and writing lost a point.

Virginia public school juniors and seniors ranked fourth nationally for the percentage (19.2%) earning a qualifying score (at least 3 out of 5) in one or more exams.

While Asians and whites continue to earn higher SAT scores on average, Virginia’s solid performance comes after years of steady expansion in the number of black, Hispanic and low-income students taking the exam. According to the College Board, 69% of Virginia public school graduates took the SAT in 2014.

SAT_participation

Image credit: College Board 10th Annual Report to the Nation

Also, black and Hispanic students out-performed their peers nationally. Indeed, Virginia Hispanics out-performed Hispanics nationally by a wide margin, possibly reflecting the large concentration of Hispanic students in Northern Virginia, a region of that sets higher educational expectations and has one of the best educated populations of the entire country.

Forty-five percent of Virginia’s 2014 public school SAT takers achieved the College Board’s benchmark for college readiness, according to a Virginia Department of Education press release. The benchmark score of 1550 ( reading, mathematics and writing sections combined) indicates a 65% likelihood of achieving a B-minus grade-point average or higher during the first year of college. Nationwide, 42.6% of SAT takers met the readiness standard.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s population is bifurcating along educational lines. On the one hand, an increasing percentage of high school students are achieving college-ready standards. On the other, a large and intractable percentage are failing to meet basic standards of proficiency. To a large extent, K-12 educational achievement is economic destiny. As the economy increasingly rewards cognitive skills over manual skills, that divide will become more and more pronounced. Scary prospect.

– JAB

Good Ruling on Congressional Redistricting

The 3rd Congressional District

The 3rd Congressional District

 By Peter Galuszka

A panel of federal judges in Richmond has scrambled the carefully laid plans of legislators, most of them Republicans, to pack African-American voters into one congressional district to give the GOP an advantage in some of the  state’s 10 other districts.

The panel of U.S. District Court judges decreed that the General Assembly’s 2012 decision to draw new boundaries in the 3rd Congressional District stretching from Richmond east to several Tidewater cities was in error.

The state has until next April to redraw the 3rd District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat who is the state’s only African American congressman.

That will undoubtedly impact other districts represented by white Republicans including U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes of the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Scott Ringell of the 2nd District and Robert J. Whitman of the 1st District.

This is indeed an interesting start to what could end up being a messy line of dominoes falling. And it shows just how wrongheaded politicians are when they tinker with voters by race by packing people of color in one district so races in other ones will be decidedly less competitive.

It also raises other questions about ways the GOP is doing its best to minimize the influence of young and non-white voters through the use of voter identification cards and other means.

To get an idea of how nuts the 3rd District is, look at a map. Moving west to east, it goes through eastern Richmond and Henrico County, swoops down the James River peninsula, and hop-scotches parts of the 1st District to include heavily African-American parts of Newport News and Hampton. Then, the District crosses Hampton Roads to include heavily black parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth and then heads west again to take also-black parts of counties on the south shore of the James River.

Scott is Virginia's only African-American Congressman

Scott is Virginia’s only African-American Congressman

This scheme packs African-Americans into one unit while mostly-white parts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake and Williamsburg are covered in the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts, all represented by white Republicans. Mostly-black Petersburg, a city of 32,000, was taken out of the 4th District and put in Scott’s 3rd District, giving white Republican Forbes of the 4th District an advantage.

Democrats such as State Sen. Mamie Locke have long complained about schemes that hop-scotch geography to give white candidates an advantage. They want tighter, more contiguous districts.

One can tell just how serious this is when Del. William Howell, the Republican House Speaker, had nothing to say about the court’s decision. He will have to somehow help navigate drawing up new district plans.

He’s really under the gun. He can’t just set up a road block as he did with Medicaid expansion and tell Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe where to stick it. If Howell shuns a bipartisan effort, then McAuliffe would likely veto whatever he and his colleagues come up with. Then it would go back to the judges to decide.

It is in Virginia’s interest to make sure all of its districts and not just ones for Congress are shaped to allow for more competitive races. Very few elections for state positions are contested. This, in turn, ruins bipartisan consensus and makes the primaries, usually for Republicans, more consequential than the races themselves. The results are either legislative gridlock or laws that have little to do with the wishes of many voters.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is what Mother Jones magazine has identified as a large-scale, national effort, mostly by Republicans, to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote. They tend to vote Democratic and helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and in 2012.

Since 2012, 22 states have passed new voting restriction laws that shorten voting hours or require a government-issued identification card or proof of citizenship. North Carolina has perhaps the worst of such measures. There are shorter hours and no more same-day registration to vote. It even gives the nod to “poll watchers” who can stand around outside polling places and hassle voters about their eligibility to vote. I guess that means if you look black or Hispanic or youthful, you get rousted by vigilantes. The odd part is that states, including Virginia, went for more restriction when there wasn’t much evidence of voter fraud.

To be sure, Virginia’s redistricting efforts were begun by federal initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act which gave Bobby Scott an opportunity to win as an African-American in the early 1990s. The Voting Rights Act was meant to ensure that minorities were represented but that concept has been cynically morphed into a Frankenstein that keeps minorities “packed” in a district or districts so whites maintain their hold on most of the other districts in a state.

The court’s decision is most welcome. Let’s hope it grows into a movement to return democratic competition and ends undemocratic restrictions like demanding extra and unnecessary pieces of identification for qualified voters.

 

Health Insurance as Driver of Income Inequality

Road to serfdom

If you want to address increasing income inequality in the United States, a good place to start would be to bring runaway health insurance costs under control. Health care costs — not globalization, automation or corporate greed — are the biggest driver in income inequality today, argue Mark J. Warshawsky and Andrew G. Biggs in the Wall Street Journal today. Warshawsky is a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Here’s what the usual media analysis doesn’t tell you about the growing income gap. If you compare total compensation — wages/salaries plus benefits — low-income workers actually fared better than high-income workers between 1999 and 2006. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Warshawsky and Biggs note:

For low-income workers, total pay and benefits rose by 41% from 1999 through 2006. But those workers’ wages increased only by 28%, barely outpacing inflation.  The reason: Employer costs for those workers health costs nearly doubled. …

Total compensation for [those earning $250,000 or more a year] rose by 36% from 1999 through 2006. That’s actually less than for low-income workers. But the one-percenters’ health costs rose from just 4% of compensation in 1999 to only 4.3% in 2006.

The authors do not explain why they cite data only through 2006 when data is available through June 2014. Whatever the reason, it appears that the cost of benefits continues to outpace wages/salaries. According to the BLS, for the quarter ending June 2014, “wages and salaries (which make up about 70 percent of compensation costs) increased 0.6%, and benefits (which make up the remaining 30 percent of compensation) increased 1.0 percent.

In other words, much if not most of the perceived increase in income inequality in recent years is an artifact of the tax code. Employer-paid health insurance is not taxable, thus not reported as income, while wages/salaries are taxable and reported as income. Eliminate the tax break for employer insurance and the growth in the wage gap disappears.

If we are sincere about wanting to reduce income inequality, the first place we should be looking is at inflation in health care costs. Here’s a real irony that Warshawsky and Biggs do not explore: Insofar as Obamacare shifts the cost of health care to employer-sponsored health insurance plans — I have a friend, a small business owner, whose health insurance is scheduled to go up 35% next year — it doesn’t just destroy job creation, it shifts compensation from taxable income to non-taxable health insurance, thus aggravating the reported income gap.

Meanwhile, the low interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve Board rewards the Top 1% by pushing up the price of stocks and bonds and punishes small savers by depressing interest rates. It is no accident that income inequality is worse under Obama than Bush. Perhaps Obama acolytes can cite the Warshawsky-Biggs research as evidence that the administration’s policies haven’t been as unfair to the poor as they seem to be.

– JAB

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

Do-Gooders Doing Bad

by James A. Bacon

In a recent post, “Spotlighting the Wrong Victims,” I questioned the premise that “disparities” in arrests and suspensions of Henrico County students for school offenses represented some form of racial injustice. John Butcher, author of CrankysBlog, sheds further light on the issue. Read this post as a footnote to the original.

First, John notes, Henrico County has been reporting fewer disciplinary incidents each year for its high schools, as reflected by the number of individual offenders as a percentage of the school population:

Henrico_offenders

What’s noteworthy here is that the most dramatic declines occurred at Henrico’s predominantly black high schools. On the surface, the trend looks highly positive. Fewer students are experiencing disciplinary issues. Perhaps Henrico County’s new politically correct approach to handling problems, put into place at the instigation of the ACLU and U.S. Justice Department, is working!

Alternatively, perhaps school administrators aren’t recording incidents they once would have. Perhaps they’re hiding the problem and, by hiding it, failing to deal with it — a very bad thing. We can’t tell from this data. But we need to know.

Next, John took the offense data from each school and graphed it in relationship to (1) the percentage of black students and (2) the percentage of economically disadvantaged children.

offense_frequency

The correlation between the percentage of children experiencing a disciplinary offense and the percentage of blacks in a high school was very high — an r² of 0.907. But the correlation with the percentage of economically disadvantaged students was even higher — an r² of .9619, which is extraordinarily high. As John observes, “Correlation is NOT causation but at least this is consistent with the notion [that] the root of the disorder is economic status, not race.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Do-gooders who attribute the high rates of arrest and suspensions among black Henrico County students to prejudice, discrimination or institutional bias are fanning the flames of racial resentment with little basis in fact. I’m not stating that discrimination doesn’t exist but I am saying that the do-gooders have not presented meaningful evidence that it does.

As an alternative explanation, I hypothesize that the critical variables affecting the likelihood that a student will be arrested or suspended from Henrico County schools are sociological. Students classified as “economically disadvantaged” are far more likely than other students to come from dysfunctional families where the biological father is absent, where there are substance abuse issues, where there are domestic violence issues, where adolescents are more subject to the peer pressure of “the street,” and, in sum, where adolescents, especially boys, do not learn the rules of behavior required for a school setting.

Poor discipline in school is not a race issue. It’s a class issue. By making it a race issue, I would argue, the do-gooders are distracting school administrators from dealing with the real problems.

Here’s a prediction. Henrico’s politically correct response to the “racial disparity” controversy will undermine administrators’ efforts to maintain school discipline. Actual discipline will suffer, even if not reflected in the reported statistics. Deteriorating discipline will negatively impact classroom teaching conditions, mainly in schools where the discipline problems are concentrated. Standard of Learning (SOL) scores will suffer. Disadvantaged black students who abide by the rules will suffer the most.

Spotlighting the Wrong Victims

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Black students comprise 39% of the public school student population in Henrico County but account for 80% of all the kids arrested for offenses committed in schools. That disparity, combined with the fact that black students are disproportionately suspended from Henrico schools, is something that some people find disturbing, according to the Sunday Times-Dispatch. Although the article does not explicitly describe the difference as an injustice, the headline entitled, “School data show racial disparity in Henrico,” certainly implies that it is. In the progressive/liberal worldview “disparities” between the races are ipso facto evidence of discrimination.

“If they don’t know they have a problem, they have their eyes closed,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, which has made an issue of the differing rate of school suspensions in Henrico. “The numbers don’t lie, and the suspension rates are disproportionate as it relates to African-Americans, and I think we see that the arrest rates are as well,” said Tyrone Nelson, a black supervisor from the Varina district.

There are two very big problems with the article. First, it provides no evidence whatsoever that black students are disciplined more harshly than whites for comparable offenses. That evidence may exist somewhere but the article doesn’t provide it. Second, the article follows the standard victimization narrative of troubled black  youths suffering from a system that is stacked against them. But it totally ignores the invisible victims of disorder in the schools — classmates, disproportionately black, whose educational experience is disrupted by the misbehavior. If we want to understand the “disparities” in educational achievement between the races, differences in school discipline is a factor worth exploring.

The incidence of disorderly behavior in schools is tightly correlated with the socio-economic characteristics of the student body. Families from “disadvantaged” backgrounds are more likely to suffer social disorders arising from economic insecurity, substance abuse, domestic violence and the lack of a biological father in the house. Youths raised in such an environment — especially adolescent males — are far more prone to disruptive and violent behavior at home, on the street and in school.

According to our trusty tool, the Virginia Department of Education  SOL Assessment Build-a-Table, 65% of all economically disadvantaged students in Henrico County are black. Insofar as kids who get in enough trouble at school to get suspended or arrested are economically disadvantaged, more than half the so-called racial disparity disappears. A more refined look at the data — I would point to the presence of biological fathers in the household as a better indicator of a family’s ability to impose social norms on rebellious adolescent males — could show that the disparity disappears entirely. Conceivably, a closer look will show no such thing. We won’t know until we do the research. What is reckless, irresponsible and inflammatory is to assume, as a default proposition, that any differences in suspension and arrest rates reflects discrimination by schools and law enforcement.

Under investigation from the hyper-politicized U.S. Justice Department for the “disparity” in school suspensions, Henrico County authorities have been making an effort to cut that disparity. As the Times-Dispatch notes:

In the 2012-2013 school year, the number of suspensions in Henrico County schools dropped to 7,604 from 9,165 the year before, a 17 percent reduction. But the share of suspensions going to black students remained stubbornly high, rising almost half a point to nearly 77 percent.

Unless we’re willing to attribute some kind of subtle racism or prejudice to Henrico County principals and teachers — many of whom are black themselves, especially in the schools where discipline problems are the greatest — the logical conclusion is that the rules and procedures for administering discipline isn’t the problem. The kids are the problem.

There is, in fact, an injustice in this story. The injustice just happens to be the precise opposite of what is commonly asserted. The real problem is that disruptive behavior in the classroom has a negative impact on teacher morale and makes it harder for well-behaving students to learn.

Source:  Virginia Department of Education

Click for more legible image

How prevalent is disruptive behavior in Henrico classrooms? According to the “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Report, 2012-2013,” we know that discipline issues are a big problem. Henrico County logged more than 7,200 disciplinary offenses during the 2012-2013 school year. Highlights are shown at left.

These are just the offenses that were recorded for the record. It goes without saying that many fights, scuffles, bullying and lesser offenses take place out of the sight of teachers and administrators, and much of the disruptive behavior in classroom is simply ignored because teachers learn that reporting it or complaining about it is a waste of time.

Who suffers from this behavior? The three high schools that account for the overwhelming majority of the arrests are overwhelmingly black. That means the students suffering from the disruption, bullying, scuffling and assaults also tend to be black. The well-behaved, law-abiding black kids who go to school and want to study find it more difficult to learn because the teachers are spending classroom time dealing with problem students instead of teaching.

There is important secondary fallout from the discipline problem: Teachers find it demoralizing. Teacher burn-out accounts for much of the high turn-over in schools serving low-income student students; teachers with experience and seniority seek employment in schools where they don’t have to contend with discipline issues. The result: teachers in schools serving low-income populations tend to have less seniority, maturity and experience teaching challenging student populations.

Making an issue of “disparities” in arrests and suspensions based on the paltry evidence presented by the Times-Dispatch is a gross injustice to Henrico school and law-enforcement officials who are trying to preserve a decent learning environment. Such articles distract from the far bigger problem of school discipline. If the T-D, the ACLU and other do-gooders want to help struggling black kids mired in under-performing schools, perhaps they should start by asking what effect the breakdown in discipline has on the kids who want to learn.

Changing the Culture of Reading

carolyn_boone

Carolyn Boone reading with patient. Photo credit:

by James A. Bacon

Dr. Carolyn Boone is a pediatrician who serves a largely African-American patient base in Northside Richmond. In addition to providing check-ups and vaccinations, she participates in the Virginia “Reach Out and Read” program, the goal of which is to teach the joy of reading to young children — and maybe to their parents as well.

Participating doctors dispense books to children and advise parents on the importance of reading out loud. Even if babies just put the book in their mouth, that’s OK, says Boone in a Reach Out and Read video. Pretty soon, they notice the faces in the book. And then they want to be read to.

“You see the children come in. They run to the bookcase, and they want a book. And they want you to read the book, and they’re pulling their mothers to read a book,” says Boone. “In my office, I don’t hear the screaming anymore. It’s quiet.” Instead of yelling at the child to sit down, “momma may be sitting down with them and reading a book.”

Lower-income Virginians tend not to place a high value upon reading (although there are always exceptions). In many cases the parents may be barely literate themselves, and they rarely have the money, even if so inclined, to buy books for their children. The middle-class ritual of reading to children at bed-time is a foreign concept. Little wonder, then, that so many poor children are ill-prepared when they enter kindergarten.

A study just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms what a mountain of previous studies have already concluded. Head Start pre-school enrichment programs can help poor children make dramatic cognitive gains, but the gains fade away in elementary school. Head Start can’t make up for an entire childhood raised in a cognitively poor environment. It can’t make up for parents who either don’t care, don’t know how, or don’t have the means to encourage their children to read.

There is nothing intrinsic to being poor that discourages reading. Raised in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln famously read by firelight. Anyone, no matter how destitute, can check out books from the public library or school library. Reach Out and Read tries to change the culture of poverty not just by handing out books to children who can’t read them yet but by enlisting parents, usually mothers, to participate. For a young child, half the pleasure of reading is snuggling into a parent’s lap or cozying up in bed with mom or dad at night. The bonding experience reinforces the positive associations with reading.

Reach Out and Read, which distributes more than 215,000 books annually to more than 121,000 children across Virginia, claims that participating children enter kindergarten with better vocabularies, stronger language skills and a six-month developmental advantage over their peers.

School teachers can help teach a love of reading but they can’t do it by themselves. Reading has to take place at home. Parents have to get involved. If we, as a society, want poor children to acquire the reading skills needed to participate in a 21-century knowledge economy, we can’t expect the schools to do it all. We have to reach the parents, too. We have to change the culture of reading, which means changing the culture of poverty.