Chris Powell is the managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester and writes a regular column for the paper. In the course of our conversation on poverty and social disintegration, Powell made reference to a column by Mona Charen that fairly summed up his general feelings.
Charen’s column details some complacency-shattering statistics: “The illegitimacy rate among all Americans has been rising for decades. In 2012, we reached a grim milestone: The majority of births to women under the age of 30 are now outside of marriage. Among blacks, 72 percent of births are to unmarried women. And while some unmarried mothers go on to marry the fathers of their babies, it’s rare in the African-American community, where only 31 percent of couples are married. (In 1960, it was 61 percent).”
Pesci: What you call “social disintegration” and others on the left call “poverty” is particularly insidious in cities. My own feeling, though you may disagree, is that even liberals tend to shy away from such terms as “social disintegration,” perhaps because preferred terms such as “poverty” suggest easier solutions to painful problems. And, of course, Republican politicians, especially here in Connecticut, have been frightened away from even casual references to social disintegration. One rarely hears it mentioned. The poverty problem is solved when money retrieved from socially unconscious malefactors of great wealth is transferred by means of a political distribution system to the poor. Social disintegration is a harder nut to crack. Here is Powell writing on a proposal to cap Connecticut’s gross receipts tax:
“Just two days before it complained about cheap gas and sprawl, the Courant reported the arrest of three Hartford Public High School students for raping a 15-year-old girl at the school during school hours. The much-lamented ‘achievement gap’ between city and suburban schools has nothing to do with schools and everything to do with such social disintegration.
“If Connecticut’s cities were ever habitable for those aspiring to the middle class and seeking safe and sound upbringings for their children, people would jump at the chance to live there and to save on gas. But as long as the cities are the centers of social disintegration, people will pay almost any gas price to live somewhere else.”
For you, social disintegration is a bridge issue that touches most if not all urban pathologies AND most if not all legislative proposals. Tell us what you mean by social disintegration.
Powell: I mean breakdown in the basic social norms of decent behavior –boys and young men behaving like predators and girls and young women behaving like prey because of lack of parenting; adults unable to support themselves because they have not obtained any education and not learned any marketable skills; a lack of participation in community life so whole jurisdictions become unmanageable except by police, who immediately come to be considered outsiders, or by gangsters. I think most of this comes about because government coddles and subsidizes childbearing outside marriage, in the mistaken belief that doing so is less expensive than taking custody of the neglected children. The mistake is a matter of faulty accounting. Insofar as fewer government employees have to be involved in direct, face-to- face care, it may seem cheaper to leave a newborn in the care of an unmarried, unemployed, unskilled woman who already has three children by three different fathers and who is getting no substantial support from any of them. But it’s not cheaper if you count the broad social costs imposed by those neglected kids as they grow up, fatherlessness correlating overwhelming with every anti-social behavior. Demographics in Connecticut are almost entirely a matter of middle-class people and people aspiring to the middle class trying to get away from the slob culture of fatherlessness.
Q: This downward death spiral apparent in the cities, but also seen more frequently in suburbs as the victims of criminality move away from anarchic environments, has been analyzed to death. Your analysis is probably sharper than most. Let’s assume it’s right: Urban pathologies are related to fatherlessness and the breakdown of core cultural values. I think the values have broken down everywhere, but the consequences are more severe in cities – and more pathetic because the pathologies are passed along from children to children uncorrected by the wider society. Studies show that the presence of a father in the home, for instance, is directly related to intelligence in male children. We cannot say that people have been indifferent to the normal yearnings of young people for peace, security, good schools and mediating institutions that are the hallmarks of a sound and nurturing culture. The war on poverty has been fought for a long while, and nothing is more obvious than that the enemy has won. Healthy societies produce cultural antibodies to ward off social pathologies. Where are they? How does it happen that when we act to make things right, everything becomes worse? After years of fatherlessness in cities – many potential fathers are in prison or dead or ought never to have been fathers in the first place – how do we restore the missing cultural antibodies and change this path of generational destruction? What is right and what is wrong about the usual state agency response to cultural genocide?
A: I blame public policy for what is happening. People are usually dumb but they are seldom so stupid that they can’t figure out their immediate financial position. Brandeis said government teaches the whole people by its example. Jack Kemp and others said that you get more of whatever you subsidize. Government today doesn’t tell people that having children outside marriage is the most anti-social thing imaginable short of murder; government says it’s OK and provides a host of subsidies for it — a basic welfare stipend, housing vouchers, food stamps and WIC support, better medical insurance than most working married couples can get, day care, and such. It’s not a luxurious life but in the chain of child neglect and abuse — fatherless, uneducated, unskilled, unemployable children having children — it can look pretty good. The War on Poverty ended up destroying the family, not poverty — which doesn’t discredit the objective of alleviating poverty. It just discredits the means chosen. (Unlike most supposed conservatives, I support what is derided as “Obamacare,” insofar as it is the conservative national medical insurance system proposed by the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to “Hillarycare” back in 1993. Medical insurance for all — and there are perfectly market-based mechanisms for achieving it — will alleviate a lot of poverty.) But I think the biggest part of an anti-poverty program is simple: Grandfather everybody who was made stupid by government welfare policy and tell everyone else that, starting nine months hence, everything changes — no more subsidies for people who, outside marriage, have children they can’t support. The orphanages and group homes would have to be ready but I suspect that the word would get around quickly and behavior would change. I think that for the most part parents and strong families are the missing antibodies you’re looking for.
Q: Poverty may contribute to social disintegration. The old bromides are true here. The best welfare program is a job; to which one might add, the best social service department is a family, and the best police department is a father. Over time, as fathers, families, and jobs have disappeared, state proxies – police now posted in schools, social service workers, and welfare bureaucracies — have replaced these civilizing and mediating institutions. As a result, we now find ourselves bumping up against a political problem. The social configuration has changed for the worst, yet everyone is invested in the new culture, however deficient. Another way of saying this is that politicians, always a timid bunch, dare not follow your prescriptions – cap subsidies and welfare payments and prepare nurturing safe havens for children exposed to violence – because it would not be politically expedient to do so. We are witnessing the opposite of a Babylonian captivity, people rushing from normative institutions into the jaws of artificial and insufficient replacement proxies, running from freedom into a new slavery, all with the blessing of those who should be leading the captives out of Babylon to a land flowing with milk and honey. My question now is: What is the instrument of change to be? How do we get to the Promised Land?
A: Yes, exactly — the government is now about half the economy, and given the lack of public-interest participation in civic life, the lack of participation by people employed in the private sector, even a government that constitutes a quarter of the economy is probably beyond control. In a column last year I asked and pretty much answered the question: “Is Connecticut past the tipping point?”:
What can turn it around? Probably only self-denial by the government class, which will never happen, or, over the very, very long term, the economic collapse that will result from more growth in government and the resulting departure of what’s left of the private sector. As many political columnists on the right have noted, the government class is now a publicly financed, self-sustaining political machine beyond competition. Under the Democratic Party the government overcompensates the public employees and they kick back part of their overcompensation to the party and provide the campaign soldiers to keep the racket going. When half the population is either on the government payroll or has a close family member on the payroll or is getting substantial transfer payments, it’s mathematically impossible for an independent public interest to assert itself politically. I keep at it only because my ability to make a living is not transferable, entirely a matter of my 50 or so years in journalism and public life in Connecticut, and, of course, for spite. I would hate for certain people to think that nobody was on to them. But it’s not much consolation.