Category Archives: Children and families

Disadvantaged, Disabled and Homeless

In the last post I pledged to explore, and hopefully to explain, the social epidemic of broken kids. For all our rising incomes and for all our advances in health care, the number of children suffering from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as well as the number diagnosed with autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other cognitive and emotional disorders appears to be on the rise. The problem cannot be attributed to one single cause. It is multi-factorial and complex.

I’m certainly no expert, just a journalist trying to understand what’s happening. One place to start is to look at numbers generated by the Virginia Department of Education and made accessible through its searchable Build-a-Table database of Standards of Learning test takers. VDOE tracks the number of kids designated disadvantaged (eligible for free school lunch programs), disabled (falling within one of 10 sub-classifications), and homeless. All are associated with higher failure rates in SOL tests, and all are associated with behavioral problems that disrupt classes for other children.


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A Rising Generation of Broken Kids

Claiborne Mason, president of the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls, talks to students at the John G. Wood School.

In the 15 years Brendan Folmar has worked at the John G. Wood School, a private day school for emotionally handicapped children, he has witnessed a disturbing change in the kind of children admitted to the school.

When he first joined the Wood School staff, many of students were comparable to students today who are mainstreamed in Virginia public schools. Today the condition of students at Wood, says Folmar, the school principal, is more acute and more challenging to treat than ever. Continue reading

Measuring Outcomes for Private Schools that Teach Kids with Disabilities

Location of schools belonging to the Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities. See member list here.

There are more than 90,000 kids classified with disabilities in Virginia’s public school system. They typically require more resources than other students — smaller class sizes, educational assistants, and the like — and local school districts are struggling to pay for them. Not all of the funds spent by the Commonwealth of Virginia on behalf of kids with disabilities goes to public schools, however. Millions of dollars support the roughly 80 private day schools that specialize in educating children with specific disabilities from autism to dyslexia.

Not surprisingly, when state resources are finite, not everyone agrees on who should get what. Some say that many children with disabilities could be schooled effectively but at less expense in public school settings than in highly resource-intensive private schools. Private school advocates counter that their higher staff ratios and specialized training, though more expensive, provide better outcomes. But nobody knows for sure because the private schools don’t collect data in a way that would inform the debate. Continue reading

Autism and the Twitter Outrage Mob

My tenure as an editorial and op-ed writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch may have been brief but I learned a lot. My first unsigned editorial ignited the wrath of protective mama bears who have children with autism. I got my first up-close look at the awesome power of a Twitter Outrage Mob. It was quite a spectacle.

As I’ve had a chance to reflect upon what I wrote, I feel partially penitent. Living with a child with autism isn’t easy. Parents often rearrange their lives, moving to locales with better school resources, dropping out of the workforce to provide at-home care, living with the fear that their children might never become independent, functioning adults. Autism can become an all-consuming issue. Had I known, I would have expressed more sympathy. But I wouldn’t have changed the thrust of the editorial.

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Virginia’s New Incivility

Hate the man, hate his children.

A month ago Fox News television host Tucker Carlson was dining at the Farmington Country Club, just outside Charlottesville, with two of his children and family friends. In a tweet yesterday, he described the following incident:

Toward the end of the meal, my 19-year-old daughter went to the bathroom with a friend. On their way back through the bar, a middle aged man stopped my daughter and asked if she was sitting with Tucker Carlson. My daughter had never seen the man before. She answered: “That’s my dad,” and pointed to me. The man responded, “Are you Tucker’s whore?” He then called her a “fucking cunt.”

My daughter returned to the table in tears. She soon left the table and the club. My son, who is also a student, went into the bar to confront the man. I followed. My son asked the main if he’d called his sister a “whore” and a “cunt.” The man admitted that he had, and again became profane. My son thew a glass of red wine in the man’s face and told him to leave the bar, which he soon did.

Immediately after the incident, I described these events to the management of the Farmington Country Club. The club spent more than three weeks investigating the incident. Last week, they revoked the man’s membership and threw him out of the club.

I love my children. It took enormous self-control not to beat the man with a chair, which is what I wanted to do. I think any father can understand the overwhelming rage and shock that I felt seeing my teenage daughter attacked by a stranger. But I restrained myself. I did not assault this man, and neither did not son. That is a lie. Nor did I know the man was gay or Latino, not that it would have mattered. What happened on October 13 has nothing to do with identify politics. It was a grotesque violation of decency. I’ve never see anything like it in my life.

Once upon a time, Virginians prided themselves on their civility. But many today deride the virtues of courtesy and self-restraint as tools of social oppression created by privileged elites. It’s nice to know that at least the Farmington Country Club is willing to enforce basic norms of behavior. Had the incident occurred anywhere else, I doubt the man would have been chastised in any way.

Virginia as a Low “Sexism” State


Women of Virginia, great news! Your home state is the least sexist in the South and, though hardly a leader in workplace feminism, comparable in social attitudes to such havens of enlightenment as Maryland, California and Oregon.

That’s according to a new research paper, “The Effects of Sexism on American Women: The Role of Norms vs. Discrimination,” which examines how sexist attitudes in women’s home town (“formative sexism”) and their current residence (“residential sexism”) affect their workforce participation and earnings. The Washington Post uses the data today to publish the map atop this post in an article entitled, “The most sexist places in America.”

The study is both fascinating and infuriating. It contains some intriguing data about variations in social attitudes toward the role of women in society and displays an extraordinary bias to which the authors seem oblivious. Without a hint of irony they label “sexist,” a pejorative term that has no place in social science, beliefs others might call “traditional attitudes.” I am not competent to critique the authors’ statistical reasoning, but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that deep and pervasive bias infects the study’s conclusions.

Write the authors:

In principle, sexism might take many forms but we focus on negative or stereotypical beliefs concerning the appropriateness of women engaging in market work rather than home production. Our analysis defines prevailing sexism in a market as the extent to which its residents believe: (i) that women’s capacities are inferior to men’s; (ii) that the family unit is hurt when women focus on activities outside the home; or (iii) that men and women should occupy specific, distinct roles in society.

The authors argue that the “sexist” beliefs of people around her “might affect a woman’s tastes, expectations, and beliefs, and thereby her choices and outcomes.” That’s another way of saying that a woman’s values and priorities are influenced by the culture in which she was raised and in which she is living. When stripped of the pejorative labeling, that’s not a terribly controversial proposition.

For the record I hew to the view that women should be free to pursue whichever path they choose, whether it is in the workplace, at home, or a balance of the two, in a manner that is consistent with their own values. I also think it is perfectly reasonable for women to take into account the views of friends and family members. I consider it extraordinarily demeaning to label as “sexist” a belief that there is value to a woman focusing on raising children, especially young children, at home.

That said, the questions in the national General Social Survey reveal interesting regional variations among both men and women. Consider the following scattergraph:


This contrasts the “sexism” — or traditional attitudes towards women’s roles — of men and women by state. Virginia falls below average in traditional attitudes for both men and women, although it is not far from the center. Also of note, the attitudes of men and women tend to be more similar than many other states.

(I would predict that if it were possible to break down Northern Virginia versus the Rest of Virginia, the great sociological divide in the state, NoVa would look more like Connecticut and RoVa would look more like Georgia.)

As for the study’s conclusion, can anyone doubt that the authors found what they expected to find? They wrap up their article this way: “Prejudice-based discrimination, undergirded by prevailing sexist beliefs, may be an important driver of womens outcomes in the U.S.”

Another way of expressing the data might be: “Women raised with traditional values and living in communities where traditional values predominate are more likely to spend more time raising children and keeping house, to spend less time in the workforce, to advance more slowly up the career ladder, and, accordingly, to get paid less than men on average.” If that constitutes “prejudice-based discrimination undergirded by prevailing sexist beliefs,” then so be it.

The Social Cost of Domestic Violence

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) accounts for more than one in seven violent crimes in the United States. Between 16% and 23% of American women experience IPV while pregnant. Social science researchers have suggested that domestic abuse affects not only the mother-to-be but her unborn children, but the social cost of the problem has been difficult to measure.

A new study by three women, two economists and a health policy researcher, have found a way to compare the outcomes of women subjected to assault while pregnant versus those suffering violence up to 10 months after the estimated due date. They estimate the social cost per assault during pregnancy of nearly $42,000, implying a total annual cost to society of more than $4.25 billion.

“We find that prenatal exposure to assault is associated with an increased likelihood of induced labor, which is likely a response of the healthcare system to injuries sustained by pregnant victims of abuse,” write the authors of “Violence While in Utero: The Impact of Assaults During Pregnancy on Birth Outcomes,” a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

There’s something in this study for everyone. For law-and-order types, the study shifts the prevalent preoccupation with the injustices of mass incarceration to the victims to crime. In addition to the obvious victims, the women subjected to assault, there are invisible victims: the lower birth-rate babies. Oh, and let’s not forget the general public, which winds up paying the medical bills to treat those  babies.

For social justice warriors, the authors remind us that “violence in utero is an important potential channel for intergenerational transmission of poverty.” Indirect costs come from increased childhood disability, decreased in adult income, increased medical costs associated with adult disability, and reductions in life expectancy. “Our results imply that interventions that can reduce violence against pregnant women can have meaningful consequences not just for the women (and their children), but also for the next generation and society as a whole.”

The authors don’t address the oft-noted observation that the American medical system has higher infant mortality rates than other developed countries. But their research sheds light on that phenomenon. The implication is that the higher incidence of infant mortality represents a failure of the U.S. health care system. But perhaps it really represents a higher rate of domestic violence than in other countries.

Virginia’s Child-Immigrant Non-Scandal

The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center

In the fall of 2017, three migrant children detained by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center filed a class action lawsuit alleging abuse by guards. This June, amidst national media coverage of the separation of children from parents on the U.S. border, news media discovered the lawsuit and reported on the allegations.

As I summarized the charges in a blog post: “Allegedly, teenagers were restrained, handcuffed, and made to sit with bags over their heads. Some were stripped of their clothes. Some were locked in solitary confinement, some beaten, left with bruises and broken bones and kept shivering in concrete cells.” I added: “The claims, if true, are shocking and must be addressed immediately.”

Well, the Northam administration promptly looked into the issue and has published its report. The findings? As I should have surmised from the hysterical, almost apocalyptic nature of the immigrant-children coverage by the national media, the state Department of Juvenile Justice “found that there was no evidence of abuse or neglect.”

DJJ staff interviewed all of the federal residents of SVJC. The team was unable to substantiate the conditions described in the lawsuit concerning the operations of SVJC or the mistreatment of residents. After obtaining permission from ORR, the team returned on June 25 and reviewed case files, medical files, room confinement forms, and other documentation to assess compliance with regulations relating to the quality of care.

The immigrant children held at SVJC aren’t toddlers separated from their parents. They are unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 with no parent or legal guardian in the U.S. Many have suffered trauma; some belong to gangs such as the infamous MS-13. Many display behavioral issues presenting disciplinary challenges.

One technique used by SVJC is “room confinement” to “ensure the safety and security of residents, staff, and the facility.” The DJJ found no incidents where residents were confined longer than 24 hours. With the exception of one 23-hour incident, confinements typically lasted four hours.

SVJC staff also used, though rarely, a “restraint chair” for out-of-control residents “who cannot be safely restrained by less intrusive methods. While in the chair, a mesh spit guard can be placed on the resident’s head to prevent spitting or biting.”

In sum, the center faced difficult conditions. “Young people who have been frequently exposed to high levels of trauma, who are separated from their families, and who confront numerous language and cultural barriers” comprise a “uniquely challenging group,” the DJJ report says. The center should provide staff with professional development “in the areas of positive youth development, cognitive behavioral interventions and trauma informed care” and should increase “understanding and sensitivity toward the unique cultural backgrounds of the youth in the federal program.” DJJ also recommended more training in the use of physical and mechanical restraints, and in the effective use of de-escalation techniques.

Bacon’s bottom line: In other words, while the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center could benefit from some tweaks, investigators found no real problem there. What this story highlights — although you’ll never see a mainstream media outlet framing the issue this way — is an endemic feature of illegal immigration. Many children are unaccompanied by parents or relatives. Many suffered trauma — not at the hands of Americans but of their fellow countrymen (or perhaps Mexicans, which many had to pass through to get to the U.S.). And many pose special behavioral problems requiring their confinement and costing U.S. taxpayers.

The national media is largely uninterested in such issues, of course, so I anticipate zero follow-up. If U.S. immigration policy cannot be blamed, there’s nothing worth writing about.

Here’s what I would like to know. Who were the children who made the allegations and had a suit filed in their name? More importantly, who were the attorneys filing the suit on their behalf? How did those attorneys gain access to the children? Are they just random lawyers off the streets of Staunton, or are they part of a nonprofit organization? If they were part of a nonprofit, what is that organization’s aims and who is funding it? Could there have been political motivations behind the lawsuits? None of that information, as I recall, was reported by the media. What a surprise.

Update: The state report has come under heavy criticism by the people who filed the original lawsuit, including  the Washington, D.C., law firm Wiley Rein and the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, as well as the Henrico-based disAbility Law Center of Virginia. The Virginia Mercury has the story here. Unlike state investigators, the disAbility Law Center says it had unaccompanied access to the residents.

You Can End this Folly, Governor Northam!

Children at the Virginia Tech Graduate School Child Play Group

At the Annandale Cooperative Preschool, parents volunteer three to six hours a month to serve as teachers and class assistants. One big benefit is the pleasure of watching their toddlers mature. Another is more affordable tuition.

Now comes a proposal from the Virginia Department of Social Services that would require school staff, including the parent volunteers, to take up to 30 hours of training. The purpose of the requirement is to align preschool standards with federal requirements for providers receiving money under the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014. Here’s the kicker: Cooperative preschools don’t receive block-grant funds.

Reports the Washington Post:

Parents and school directors say the training commitment would be disproportionate to the amount of time parents spend helping in classrooms, which administrators said equals about three to six hours a month.

Working families would be hard-pressed to find time to complete the training, said Marie Sloane, director of education at the Annandale school.

Without enough parents, the school would have to hire four assistant teachers for part-time slots that Sloane said are already difficult to fill — nearly doubling her six-teacher staff and probably increasing tuition. Cooperative preschools, she said, generally cost less than comparable schools because of parental participation. Monthly tuition at the Annandale Cooperative Preschool ranges from $233 to $416.

Bacon’s bottom line: What madness is this? There is a shortage of daycare workers and daycare facilities in Virginia, and even when the service is available, paying for it is financially burdensome for many families. Cooperatives that tap the volunteer labor of parents are a fantastic way to make daycare more affordable.

Regulators want to regulate. Bureaucrats want to expand their power. To borrow a phrase from GEICO, that’s what they do. Once in a while, when public safety and health is at stake, regulations are justified. But this is not one of those instances. There are 35 to 40 cooperative preschools in Virginia, a type of collaborative that has existed for at least 70 years. Parents undergo background checks and must meet health requirements, including tuberculosis testing. Social Services has proffered no evidence whatsoever that the children in these cooperatives are at any additional risk. What possible benefit can come from this?

Does Ralph Northam want to be known as the governor who presided over the demise of cooperative daycare in Virginia? Does he approve of the relentless advance of the administrative state into every sphere of our lives? I can’t imagine that he does. He needs to shut down this initiative right now.

Revisiting Virginia’s Public Accommodation Laws

Virginia is for lovers haters. A sad scene unfolded in Lexington, Va., last Friday evening. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Trump’s press secretary, tried to enjoy a meal with her family at the Red Hen restaurant. The owner, a New York transplant named Stephanie Wilkinson, asked the Sanders party to leave the restaurant after starting their appetizers. Wilkinson claims that she spoke with the staff at her restaurant and they jointly decided to ask the Sanders party to leave. This was done because of Ms. Sanders employment by the Trump Administration.

However, Ms. Wilkinson’s account of the event is at odds with what really happened. In an interview with the Washington Post Wilkinson said, “I am not a huge fan of confrontation,” in an effort to justify her confrontation with the Sanders party. However, subsequent to her Mahatma Gandhi impersonation it has come out that Wilkinson’s confrontation of the Sanders party didn’t stop at the Red Hen restaurant. During a talk radio interview Sanders’ father, former Governor Huckabee, related the rest of the story. After being tossed out of the Red Hen Sarah Sanders and her husband left their group. As the remainder of the group went to another restaurant Wilkinson followed them somehow arranging for people to continue the harassment at the new restaurant. It seems that Ms. Wilkinson is not only a huge fan of confrontation but a huge fan of the liberal art of lying through her teeth as well. I have looked and found no refutation of Sen Huckabee’s account of the story by Ms. Wilkinson. Following a group of people from restaurant to restaurant is certainly confrontational but is it stalking? Stalking is a crime in Virginia. The applicable code can be found here.

Let’s add knucklehead to the list. The original party at the Red Hen consisted of Ms Sanders, her husband and some of her in-laws. Her in-laws are described as liberals who do not support the Trump Administration. Therefore, the people Wilkinson followed and harassed were a bunch of anti-Trump liberals. So, at the second restaurant, a group of Trump-opposing liberals were harassing a group of Trump-opposing liberals. It seems we can safely add knucklehead to the list of adjectives describing Ms. Wilkinson.

The other Red Hen. In the City of Washington, D.C., there is another Red Hen restaurant with no affiliation to the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va. People, presumably conservatives, who wanted to counter-protest the actions of Wilkinson managed to become knuckleheads themselves. The D.C.-based Red Hen restaurant has been “tarred and feathered” by people trying to protest Ms Sanders’ treatment at a wholly different restaurant located 200 miles away.  Interestingly, Ms. Sanders would not have been turned away from the Red Hen in Washington, D.C., since that city forbids discrimination in a public accommodation based on political affiliation. You can find the code here. The city of Seattle and the U.S. Virgin Islands have similar bans on discrimination based on political affiliation.

Has anybody seen my governor? If Ralph Northam maintained any lower of a profile his face would start appearing on milk cartons trying to locate our lost governor. The Red Hen incident happened in Virginia. Where is Virginia’s governor with his take on this? A web search of “Ralph Northam” and “Red Hen” produces no relevant results. Is this incident at the Red Hen restaurant how Virginia wants to be seen? Does public harassment help our “Virginia is for Lovers” image? I think not. Should Virginia broaden its public accommodation law to be more like D.C., Seattle and the USVI? I think so. While I’d hope that proper Virginians wouldn’t bring shame to the Commonwealth by refusing service to somebody based on their political affiliation, I have to recognize that carpetbagging asshats like Stephanie Wilkinson will do just that. Time to squelch this now.

— Don Rippert

No Excuse for Immigrant Child Abuse

From the outside, the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton doesn’t look like a hellhole. What goes on inside?

Governor Ralph Northam has ordered state authorities to investigate allegations that guards at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center beat and otherwise abused children held at the immigration detention facility. The claims, if true, are shocking and must be addressed immediately.

Allegedly, teenagers were restrained, handcuffed, and made to sit with bags over their heads. Some were stripped of their clothes. Some were locked in solitary confinement, some beaten, left with bruises and broken bones and kept shivering in concrete cells. Frankly, I find the accusations, included in a federal civil rights lawsuit, hard to believe. But Northam is surely right to look into the charges. If they are accurate, such treatment cannot be tolerated, and someone needs to be held accountable.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. immigration authorities accused the children of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13. But a top manager at the Shenandoah center said in recent congressional testimony that they did not appear to be gang members, and that they were suffering from trauma suffered in their home countries — problems the facility is ill-equipped to deal with.

That observation suggests that if the charges are true, critical context may be missing from the lawsuit and sworn statements. Perhaps these teens are prone to outbursts of anger and violence. Perhaps the detainment center lacks appropriate facilities for handling such behavior. Perhaps staff was at wit’s end on how to maintain order. Whatever the case and whatever the mitigating circumstances, we need to find out what’s happening and fix it.

Permit me a philosophical observation: The United States is a sovereign state and a nation of laws. We decide through the political system who is allowed to enter the country and who cannot, and then we enforce the laws. We may or may not like the laws, but we don’t get to pick and choose which ones we enforce. (Got that, sanctuary cities?) The principle of enforcing the law applies both to immigrants who enter the country illegally and to the law enforcement authorities themselves. There is no excuse for beating and abusing detained immigrants.

I would feel much more comfortable with hard-line immigration-control policies if the people who espoused them didn’t also demonize the would-be immigrants. I don’t blame Central Americans for wanting to escape the horrors of their home countries or even to make a better living by entering the U.S. any way they can. If I were in their shoes, I might well do the same thing. Their predicament warrants sympathy and compassion. But that doesn’t give them the right to enter the country illegally. The world is full of miserable, abused and suffering people. We can’t take them all. If we catch people entering the country illegally, we treat them humanely… and then send them back. If we don’t like the laws on the books, we change them.

Fighting Child Abuse with Predictive Analytics

Dr. Dyann Daley

by Stephen D. Haner

As a pediatric anesthesiologist in Texas, Dr. Dyann Daley saw far too many victims of child abuse in the OR. One horrible case in particular spurred her to move beyond treatment to thoughts of prevention, with a data-driven approach that should fascinate all Baconistas.

Preventing child abuse is not as simple as preventing the flu or even malnourishment. There are plenty of thoughts on the why of child abuse, including the observation that it can be patterned behavior. The insight Dr. Daley and others behind Predict-Align-Prevent brought to the discussion was to focus on the where. Looking specifically at her home of Fort Worth, the group used spatial risk modeling to track a number of adverse outcomes believed to correlate with mistreatment of kids.

The results are shown in two maps – one predictive and the other showing how the next year’s case statistics matched the predictions. That the two maps lined up so well may not be surprising. But Dr. Daley was surprised that poverty was not the strongest correlation with child abuse. Domestic violence, aggravated and sexual assault and children running away from home – those are the other problems with the strongest correlations.

Dr. Daley was at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on Tuesday presenting her work to a child abuse and prevention conference, jointly sponsored by Families Forward Virginia and the state Department of Social Services. Predictive analytics is only worth doing if it then drives decisions on what preventive measures to take, where to focus the efforts and how to measure what is working.

What has been done in Fort Worth is now being done in the City of Richmond, with a similar mapping effort underway down to the half-block level. That goal will be the same, to use the map to encourage the relevant players (social services, police, medical providers and the schools) to cooperate on effective prevention. The data will also locate community assets – schools, parks, services, churches, licensed day care – to see if they have any positive impact and how.

The work is not universally applauded, and people in the audience Tuesday expressed concerns that sections of the city will see additional stigma or stereotyping based on the maps. The researchers reported that getting some of the data they want is not quickly shared, and it is being done inside DSS because at least the child welfare data is already in-house. They also stressed that the data does not deal with causation, only correlation.

Disclaimer: I’m on the board of directors for Families Forward Virginia. It was formed last year through a merger of Prevent Child Abuse Virginia (PCAV) and the Comprehensive Health Investment Project (CHIP) of Virginia, and serves as the state office for three evidence-based home visitation programs all across the Commonwealth. CHIP was a paying client from 2013 through 2017, but now I’m working for free. I guess Jim will chalk me up as another social justice warrior.

I’ll keep my eyes open for more information on the Virginia effort with predictive analytics and pass it on.

When the State Feeds Children, Children Go Hungry

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Dorothy McAuliffe

I can’t say anything bad about Virginia’s first lady, Dorothy McAuliffe. Her cause is admirable: ending childhood hunger. Her compassion seems entirely genuine. And it appears that she had been very effective, if effectiveness can be measured by the resources she has mobilized to advance her goals.

Writing in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today, McAuliffe ticked off a series of accomplishments. Seven hundred Virginia schools now offer Breakfast after the Bell programs than did three years ago. State school breakfast funding has increased by $2.7 million during her husband’s administration. Schools served 10 million more breakfasts and two million more after-school meals and snacks than in 2004, while 37 more school divisions serve summer meals. Meanwhile, Virginia has built the capacity of the nonprofit sector such as food banks to help feed the poor.

But McAuliffe’s op-ed neglects to address a critical question: Has this activity contributed to childhood hunger getting better or worse? What exactly constitutes “hunger” anyway?

Here is what I fear: All these school and nonprofit programs are creating a moral hazard in which poor parents, secure in the knowledge that government and charities will pick up the slack, are spending less money on nutritional food for their children. While McAuliffe’s good intentions are unassailable, her op-ed offers no evidence whatsoever that children are any better off as a result.

As can be seen in the chart above, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamp program, increases payments based on family size. Maximum payments for the most destitute households — around $140 to $150 per child per month — are spartan. But they should be sufficient if the money is spent carefully. Part of the problem in America today is that food stamps are not spent wisely.

The best documentation comes from a study published in November 2016 by the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program. That study plumbed a vast reservoir of data assembled by “a leading grocery retailer” and accounted for 80% or so of the money that households spent through their SNAP cards.

Most notoriously, that study found that 9.25% of all expenditures by SNAP households went to “sweetened beverages,” mostly soft drinks. The New York Times used the data in a 2017 article to point out that PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other food companies had lobbied heavily against efforts to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase soft drinks and junk food. But the scandal is bigger than soft drinks. Money spent on sweetened beverages, prepared desserts, salty snacks, sugars, candy, juices, jams and jellies accounted for more than 22% of total food stamp expenditures at the grocery store. The actual percentage was likely higher because these numbers did not reflect expenditures, at neighborhood convenience stores where food offerings are heavily tilted toward soft drinks, snacks and other junk food.

Even if we don’t take convenience-store expenditures into account, food stamp recipients spend a higher percentage of their resources on junk food than non-recipients — about 23% compared to 20%. They also spend considerably more on the most expensive food category — meat, poultry and seafood, leaving less for healthy staples.

No wonder kids in poor neighborhoods are 2.7 times more likely to be obese than children from affluent families. The problem is not a lack of calories. The problem is the wrong kind of calories. Which raises the question: what kind of hunger are we talking about? Are poor children hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat — or are they consuming empty calories that temporarily satiate them but leave them feeling hungry later?

“Ending hunger in Virginia requires an ‘all of the above’ set of solutions,” McAuliffe writes. I would agree. But I would suggest that we’re not following an all-of-the-above approach. Schools are providing free breakfasts, free lunches, and afternoon snacks. Nonprofits are sending kids home on weekends with backpacks with food. Nonprofits support food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency food programs. Charities raise funds to feed families on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The underlying assumption is that poor families lack the money to feed themselves, and that society must intervene to ensure that children are fed. But the ultimate responsibility rests with parents.

The headline of McAuliffe’s op-ed reads “End of childhood hunger is in sight.” She probably did not write that headline. Regardless, I will venture to say that it is dead wrong. Here is a counter-intuitive prediction: The more that well-intentioned government and charities do to end childhood hunger and absolve parents of primary responsibility for feeding their children, the more pervasive hunger will get.

One of Three Virginia Children Unready for Kindergarten

Source: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

Roughly one third of Virginia children lack the social, self-regulation, literacy or math skills needed for kindergarten, finds a study on early childhood development released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC).

(That estimate was derived from a representative sampling from 63 of Virginia’s 132 school systems, so a comprehensive statewide survey might yield a different percentage.)

Factors such as poverty, low birth weight, and maternal substance abuse place childrens’ early development at risk and strongly influence whether they will be ready for school. The scientific research is clear, says the JLARC report:

Very young children who grow up in — or are regularly exposed to — safe, language-rich, and healthy environments, with caregivers who support their curiosity and learning, are likely to enter school ready to learn. Conversely, children not exposed to such environments are less likely to be ready for school and are more likely to be held back, enrolled in special education classes, and perform poorly in later grades. Those same students are more likely than their peers to commit crimes, become teen parents, and rely on public assistance as they grow older. … Each of these outcomes can carry significant financial costs to government, including the state.

Virginia has 13 “core” early childhood development programs, including seven voluntary home visiting programs for expectant mothers, the Virginia Pre-School Initiative, the Child Care Subsidy Program, and two Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs. The state spent $144 million on early childhood development programs in FY 2016; total federal, state and local spending amounted to $359 million.

An opportunity exists to improve the effectiveness of the state’s spending commitment without spending more money, JLARC concluded. “Careful attention is needed to whether programs are well designed, implemented as designed , and perform effectively.” But there is insufficient data to evaluate which programs are delivering the most bang for the buck. 

Bacon’s bottom line: By all means, we should evaluate the efficacy of Virginia’s early childhood development programs and reallocate resources to programs that deliver the most value. But such fine-tuning of the existing system amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when one out of three Virginia children is unready for kindergarten. Virginia appears to be experiencing what can only be interpreted as a slow-motion societal collapse.

Lagging childhood development is strongly correlated with poverty and other phenomena such as low birth weight and maternal substance abuse that are also strongly correlated with poverty. The percentage of Virginia’s population in poverty at present runs about 11%. Yet one-third (subject to revision if we could obtain statewide data) of children are unready for kindergarten. Why the three-to-one disparity? A big portion of the problem, I submit, is demographic: Mothers in poverty have more children than middle-class mothers do, and they have children at much younger ages.

At 64 years of age, I’m about to become a grandfather for the first time. My eldest daughter, whose baby is due in literally one or two days, is 32 years old. Like her 30-year-old sister, who wants to have children but is waiting until her family’s career and finances are in order, and like the vast majority of middle-class Americans, she waited until she completed her education, found a job, got married, saved money, and achieved financial stability. Poor people don’t hew to the same family planning logic. Although the number of teen pregnancies is declining, poor women tend to give birth at a much younger age than their middle-class peers do, and they tend not to be married. (This proclivity, by the way, applies to all races and ethnicities.)

Given the strong correlation between poverty and low literacy levels, substance abuse, single-parent households, child neglect and a host of other pathologies, it should come as a surprise to no one that the percentage of Virginia’s young children ill equipped for kindergarten is increasing. And it should surprise no one that the percentage of teenagers ill equipped to graduate from high school is increasing, and that the percentage of young adults ill equipped for college is increasing. The same problem is manifesting itself on every step of the educational ladder.

Yes, we need to treat the symptoms of this systemic problem by, among other things, helping prepare young children for kindergarten. But the same pathologies that hinder readiness for kindergarten also hinder progression to 1st grade and beyond. In the long run, the most important thing we can do is to persuade teenagers and young women that they can improve their lives by adopting bourgeois values — deferring gratification, staying sober and delaying child bearing until they have completed their education, formed a stable marriage, and found a stable job.

Marriage, Fertility and Male Earnings

North Dakota fracking: higher male incomes did not translate into higher rates of marriage.

One of the great debates in the social science of poverty asks what accounts for the decline in marriage and the increase in out-of-wedlock births. There is a broad consensus among scholars of diverse ideological persuasions that children born into stable marriages tend to fare better in life than those raised by single mothers. The question is why the institution of marriage has declined so precipitously among lower-income Americans even while it remains strong and vibrant among affluent Americans.

In a new paper, “Male Earnings, Marriageable Men, and Nonmartial Fertility: Evidence from the Fracking Boom,” Melisa S. Kearney and Riley Wilson frame the issue this way:

In 2014, over 40 percent of all births in the U.S. were to an unmarried mother, with an even higher rate of 62 percent among non-college educated mothers. A leading conjecture as to why so many less-educated women are choosing motherhood without marriage points to the weak economic prospects of their male partners. The idea is that changing labor market structures and economic conditions have adversely affected the economic prospects of less educated men, making them less “marriageable” from the perspective of the women with whom they sexually partner.

Kearney and Wilson have flipped that conjecture around and hypothesize that improving earnings prospects by non-college educated males would be associated with an increase in marriage and marital childbirth. They tested that hypothesis by examining family formation between 1997 and 2012 in Census micro-areas experiencing a natural gas fracking boom, where non-college educated males experienced a jump in earnings compared to their peers in the rest of the country.

The result: “This analysis does not indicate shift toward marriage in response to an increase in the potential wages of less-educated men associated with localized fracking booms. But both marital and non-marital births increase significantly.”

The authors compared the fracking boom of the 2000s to the Appalachian coal boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, in a different cultural era, increased earnings led to an increase in marriage rates, an increase in the marital birth rate, and a decline in the non-marital birth rate.”

In other words, the conjecture linking men’s income with their marriage prospects may have been valid 4o years ago, but it’s less valid today. Write Kearney and Wilson: “As non-martial births have become increasingly common, individuals are more likely to respond to increased income with increased fertility, whether or not they are married, and not necessarily an increased likelihood of marriage.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The interplay of economics and culture is incredibly complex. But the findings suggest that among a large portion of the American population, marriage is increasingly viewed as optional — regardless of the father’s economic circumstances. Further, out-of-wedlock birth is no longer stigmatized. This research calls into question the idea that blue-collar male earnings are the main stumbling block to family stability. We have passed a cultural Rubicon, and there may be no going back without a major change in values.