What do children need most? The conclusions of two recent studies might appear to be the sort your grandmother could have told you—but that's why they are important. They represent another significant retreat from decades of expert evasions about the importance of family for the well-being of children. The conclusion of the recently released National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of 12,118 adolescents in grades seven through 12, is that teenagers need strong families and schools that engage their interest. Teens who see their parents at key times during the day, who share activities with them, and who feel involved in the life of their schools are less likely to engage in early sex, abuse alcohol and drugs, smoke, commit suicide, or be violent.
These unexceptionable results, appearing in the current Journal of the American Medical Association, offer a useful corrective to the too-common assumption that parents might as well give up once their kids become teenagers and take up with that notoriously all-powerful peer group. But if the conclusions of the government-funded Add Health (as the study is known) are clearheaded, its language reminds us of how we lost touch with common sense in the first place. Its pseudo-medical jargon—a classic example of the experts' tendency to transform moral issues into technical problems beyond the reach of ordinary people—is likely to be satisfying mostly to bureaucrats who view drug use, violence, suicide attempts, and early sex as "negative health outcomes."
Even with all its arcane number crunching, the second study, the recently released What Money Can't Buy (Harvard University Press), dispels the fog of expert cant more thoroughly. The author, University of Chicago professor Susan E. Mayer, addresses the fundamental question at the heart of the debate about child poverty: are the high rates of school dropout, low employability, and teen parenthood among the poor the result of simply growing up without enough money or of other, less tangible factors? After reviewing a myriad of studies and recalculating much longitudinal data, Mayer attempts to tease out what she calls "the `true' effect of income"—that is, "what would happen if we increased income and changed nothing else?"
Her conclusion? By itself, more money would not make much difference to poor kids. Once the basics like health, food, and shelter are taken care of—as they are for most poor kids in America today—it is the character of a child's parents that predicts his future. Even if we doubled the income of the poorest fifth of Americans, she finds, teen childbearing would fall only from 20 to 18 percent, the rate of high school dropout would drop from 17.3 to 16.1 percent, single motherhood would remain the same, and male idleness would actually increase. Mayer concludes that what has been seen as low income is really a proxy for the values and habits that make it difficult for someone to maintain a stable, decent-paying job. "Characteristics valued by employers, such as social adjustment, skills, enthusiasm, dependability, and hard work" lead to economic success. These "same characteristics," she concludes, "are valuable to children."
What Money Can't Buy is particularly convincing because Mayer, a self-described liberal on these issues and herself a onetime financially struggling single mother, at first resisted her findings and took for granted the notions that her study disproves: that the stress of poverty and its resulting low self-esteem make it impossible for the poor to be good parents, that the poor make bad parental role models because they have no choice but to adopt the dysfunctional behavior of the street; that if they only had more money, they'd assure their children a brighter future.
These two studies do a great service by reminding us of simple basic truths. How to apply them, however, remains a mystery.