Selective amnesia is an essential trait in anyone promoting government antipoverty initiatives. Last week, as he announced the Young Men’s Initiative, a government effort to improve the life outcomes of black and Hispanic males, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to assert the radically new nature of the program. The “pioneering new initiative” (which will cost taxpayers $67.5 million, with another $60 million thrown in by George Soros and Bloomberg himself) represented “an entirely new approach” to poverty reduction, said Bloomberg. The “across-the-board policy reforms” of the “action plan” would “fundamentally change the way our agencies interact with black and Latino young men,” leading to “systemic change.”
In fact, the Young Men’s Initiative consists largely of warmed-over policies dating from the War on Poverty, such as job training, relocating government services to “the community,” paid mentors (often with “street” backgrounds), and multi-agency “collaboratives.” Over the decades, liberal foundations have repeatedly rebranded these measures as new ideas that would finally provide the long-sought panacea for dysfunctional urban behavior. There is no reason to believe that this latest iteration of War on Poverty programs will be any more successful than the previous versions.
The premise of the Young Men’s Initiative, like that of its predecessors, is that government has the capacity to produce upstanding, bourgeois citizens—if it just gets all its agencies to act in a coordinated fashion. “This is the first time that New York or any major American city has engaged every relevant local agency in a collective effort to improve outcomes for black and Latino young men,” Bloomberg said hyperbolically. He did not disclose how city hall decided which agencies were “relevant” to raising children right and which were not. The initiative will set up job-training and job-placement centers in housing projects, on the theory that residents can’t be bothered to seek work outside their homes. Nothing new there, either: the New York City Housing Authority has located job centers in projects for years. And for black and Hispanic boys failing in school, the initiative will offer paid internships in city agencies at $7.25 an hour if they get free tutoring in math and reading; apparently these boys can’t be bothered to study without payment.
Reported the New York Times in a front-page article extolling the new initiative: “Aides to the mayor said the new measures emphasized the practical needs of the city’s most impoverished black and Latino men, many of whom are unable or unwilling to enroll in time-consuming education and training programs unless they are compensated, according to the officials.” Bloomberg’s doomed Conditional Cash Transfer program also paid citizens to take action in their own self-interest, producing almost no change in behavior. And the practice of paying some people for behavior that for others is simply a norm isn’t merely ineffective; it raises ethical questions as well.
The Young Men’s Initiative will also measure whether schools are closing the achievement gap—something that the federal No Child Left Behind Act already does, though to no effect, because it does not insist on traditional pedagogy and unbending codes of conduct in inner-city schools. The YMI is equally silent on restoring explicit norms and teacher-centered learning to the classroom, offering instead, according to Bloomberg, vague “academic supports [and] increased access to college classes and mentors” to failing students—though if they can’t read and write, it’s unclear why access to college classes will help them. And the YMI predictably looks to government as the employer of first resort: it will require city agencies to remove any screening for convicts in their first tier of job applications.
The Times noted that though “the populations of young white, black and Latino men in New York are roughly the same size, 84 percent of those in the city’s detention facilities and nearly all of those admitted to children’s and family services facilities are black and Latino youth.” Since Mayor Bloomberg claims to be a fan of managing by information, here are some more data for him to focus on: in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood in 2009, 84 percent of births were to unmarried women, according to city health statistics, followed by Brownsville, Brooklyn, at 81.2 percent; Hunts Points, the Bronx, at 80.4 percent; and Morrisania, the Bronx, at 79.1 percent. East Tremont (the Bronx), Bushwick (Brooklyn), and East New York (Brooklyn) all had out-of-wedlock birth rates well above 70 percent. Compare those with the rates in largely white neighborhoods, such as Battery Park (6.8 percent), the Upper East Side (7.9 percent), and Murray Hill (8.6 percent).
The breakdown of the family lies behind all other urban dysfunction. Until marriage is restored as the norm for child-rearing in the inner city, black and Hispanic crime rates and education failure will continue to be disproportionate. No government program can possibly compensate for the absence of fathers in the home and the absence of the cultural expectation that men will be responsible for their children. The YMI does sidle up to this truth, but only in a watered-down, highly compromised fashion. In his speech, Bloomberg almost parodically presented family breakdown as a “health” issue rather than a moral one. Barack Obama was braver in a campaign speech on Father’s Day 2008 when he said: “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that . . . too many fathers [are] missing from too many lives and too many homes.”
Bloomberg implied that lack of access to medical facilities lies behind the astronomical out-of-wedlock birthrates in the inner city: “We’ll help more young men avoid fatherhood until they are ready—by making our hospitals, health clinics, and reproductive health services more welcoming to young men.” It is unclear why a more welcoming hospital is necessary to convince a young man to abstain from sex until he and the young lady are both prepared to raise a child, or, barring such self-restraint, why he can’t buy a condom in a drugstore and use it.
The mayor is eager to talk about marriage for gays and lesbians, but he cannot bring himself to use the word when it comes to black and Hispanic heterosexual couples. His initiative proposes to ensure that both parents are “fully engaged . . . even if they don’t live together.” But men who have fathered several children by several different women—the dominant pattern of inner-city “multipartner fertility” today—are unlikely to be able to engage “fully” with all their children, even if such out-of-home engagement were an adequate substitute for a married father in the home. Marriage obviously does not guarantee fidelity or parental permanence, but it is the only institution we have devised that encourages both parents to live up to their obligations to children. If the mayor had really wanted to do something radical, he would have made marriage and values the focus of his new program—by requiring every city agency to come up with a plan for promoting marriage, while using his mayoral bully pulpit and the city’s access to advertising venues to proclaim the responsibility of both parents to create stable homes for their children.