Several key Trump administration proposals, taken together, would help cure an absurdity so ingrained and ideology-caked in American society that almost no one discusses it anymore: while millions of unskilled immigrants sneak illegally into America to do jobs that Americans won’t do, Americans won’t do them because the government pays them as much for idleness as an honest day’s labor pays. The administration would gain a strong rhetorical advantage if it packaged these ideas together in one inspirational proposition: let President Trump say that, no, the federal government didn’t create the urban underclass, but it inadvertently nurtured and institutionalized it through a half-century’s worth of well-meaning measures that had the unforeseen result of constricting lives, shrinking opportunity, and worsening social pathologies from the family up to the community, from generation to generation. Now, though—and not only because of our improving economy and low unemployment rate—is a perfect time for Washington to stop making the mess worse and start reversing it. Give the package a stirring name, too: Project Freedom, say, or Civil Rights II. Its point, the administration should stress, is to help all citizens take full advantage of the equality of opportunity that is the fundamental American premise—to encourage every citizen to make the most of his life.
The vagaries of human nature guarantee that we’ll always have ne’er-do-wells. But in the 1960s, American elite culture multiplied them, by stripping the stigma from a wide swath of misbehavior, partly because elites hankered for their own fling with sex, drugs, and dropping out, and partly because they came to think that centuries of racial victimization made society, not the individual, responsible for dysfunctional black behavior. Society, the new orthodoxy claimed, was to blame for the supposed lack of opportunity that discouraged black Americans from working and learning, for the rage and resentment that fueled disproportionate black criminality, and for the despair that heroin and crack served to dull.
Moreover, once out-of-wedlock sex lost its shame in the elite worldview, so did out-of-wedlock childbearing, widespread enough among black Americans a century ago to trouble W. E. B. Du Bois deeply, but astronomically higher after the cultural changes of the 1960s. As public opinion normalized single-parent families, the elites’ belief that America owed some cash reparation for 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow found an outlet in the hefty enrichment of a Depression-era program meant to aid widows and orphans, for which unwed mothers were also eligible. No longer stigmatized, and financially enabled by fattened welfare benefits, illegitimate births in inner-city neighborhoods soon soared above 80 percent.
Almost no one stopped to consider how successful at raising children such families would be. The problem wasn’t just that the mothers, generally very young and lacking much education, sent their kids to school with vastly smaller vocabularies, stocks of knowledge, and social and cognitive abilities than kids from intact working- and middle-class families. It wasn’t just that, with rudimentary parenting skills, some of these mothers relied too often on yelling and slapping, as anyone who has spent much time in inner-city neighborhoods has seen regularly—resulting, Dr. Freud might theorize, in the misogyny so widespread in underclass men that it is a rap-music keynote. It wasn’t even that these women lacked husbands, in the sense of having a man in the house. They lacked the soul of a family—the long-term commitment to each other and to the flourishing of your children that makes families the building blocks of society, raising children able to be citizens. It is a particular outlook, a worldview, a sense of duty, striving, and shared life, even more than a marriage certificate or ceremony, that makes a family.
Not only that. Also for half a century, few thought to ask what would be the almost inevitable consequence of labeling such single-parent children as members of a victimized group with little opportunity and therefore diminished personal responsibility, a group for which anything goes. The result—unsurprising, in retrospect—proved to be a subculture of dysfunction, with a worldview and ethic that spawned generations of out-of-wedlock childbearing, nonwork, indifference to learning, social resentment, disorder, and criminality, so that the black murder rate is now eight times that of U.S. whites and Hispanics combined, and New York blacks, 23 percent of the city’s population, commit two-thirds of its violent crimes. Not infrequently, some mother or child, gifted morally or intellectually, has seen larger possibilities and escaped such a fate; but these are the exceptions, not the rule.
President Trump promised to reform welfare, and in August, he did so, reversing President Obama’s unlawful 2012 waiver of Congress’s 1996 work requirements for welfare recipients. These mandates, combined with the law’s five-year limit on welfare enrollment, had spectacularly succeeded in increasing independence, halving the welfare caseload within five years, by encouraging women to leave the program for jobs and prompting others to look for work instead of applying for welfare benefits in the first place. While the rolls shrank, the number of employed single mothers soared, and their wages shot up, too. Meanwhile, contrary to the gloomy warnings of even such wise observers as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who, by then, evidently had drunk the lack-of-opportunity Kool-Aid), child poverty notably declined, and black child poverty hit a historical low.
But President Trump, who loves to say the unsayable, might take welfare reform a step beyond workfare. Times have changed since 1996, and not just from an economic point of view. With the stigma on illegitimacy gone, probably forever—so much so that political correctness forbids even the word—if a woman wants to have a baby out of wedlock, and has the money or the talent to raise the child decently, Western culture no longer minds, hard as it is to raise a kid on one’s own. Conservatives have lost that battle of the culture wars, along with many others, and Trump is hardly the man to refight this one. But what does remain morally distasteful to most Americans, even if they vaguely support the idea of reparations for blacks, is to demand money from your neighbors to support a baby you knew you couldn’t afford to raise—holding him or her as a kind of hostage. “Pay me, or the baby starves!”
The answer should be no. Such a demand is flat-out wrong. Your neighbors have their own problems paying their own bills, and in the twenty-first century this is not the only option. With birth control cheap and universally available, getting pregnant is a choice, for which you are responsible. In an age when legal abortion (and Vladimir Putin’s ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian kids) has made adoptable babies scarce, and when the legalization of gay marriage and gay adoption has increased demand, babies face a large universe of potential adoptive parents able to raise and love them. A pregnant single woman who does not want an abortion but can’t afford to house, feed, and nurture a child, should give her baby up for adoption. In any event, she should not have the unjust alternative of dragooning her taxpaying neighbors into paying her a salary for having an out-of-wedlock child.
While the welfare rolls shrank, the number of employed single mothers soared, and their wages shot up, too.
Two objections will immediately meet this proposal. The first, practical, one: there won’t be enough adoptive parents willing to take these babies. We know that policy changes can mold cultural change—for instance, proactive New York policing deterred young toughs from carrying guns—and this dramatic change in welfare law is likely to produce a dramatic change in behavior, too, especially with the restoration of workfare as a first step. But no one can predict how quickly the policy shift, and the all-important rhetoric about personal and parental responsibility surrounding it, will dissuade young women from bearing children whom they can’t support. It may be that the orphanage population will temporarily swell, a gloomy prospect, since not all orphanages are good. But in that case, it also may be that some enlightened and well-funded charitable orphanages will morph into group homes for both the babies and their mothers, where the babies can get the moral and cognitive nurture they need, while the young women learn the life skills to be good parents and productive citizens, so they can ultimately take their children to their own self-supporting homes. Molding viable, if imperfect, families seems the best possible intermediate step.
The difficulty with “breaking the cycle of poverty,” as the cliché has it, has always been that a future good will come at the expense of present pain—that to funnel future generations into the mainstream, current welfare beneficiaries will have to suffer. But never has the potential cost of such a massive uplift been lower. Workfare has already taken the first step, and the ease of preventing pregnancy and finding adoptive parents and employment has never been greater. Why not seize the chance to make the future better for generations to come?
The second objection will be a charge of racism—a cry always raised against proposed welfare tightenings. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the Congressional Black Caucus will label it an all-but-genocidal attack on the black family. It’s true that 27.5 percent of black families were receiving cash welfare in 2012, census numbers show—a subset of the two-thirds of American black families that are single-parent households, and of the 81.5 percent of black families receiving some kind of government assistance, if only food stamps and/or Medicaid. But is this what the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton want for their fellow black Americans? Surely they know as well as anyone the numbers correlating single-parent families with poverty and social pathology. Surely they should want an end to government programs that reinforce a culture hindering black Americans from joining the mainstream, from rising out of poverty and seizing every opportunity that American society and the U.S. economy now offer gladly and open-handedly to all. Surely they want, as moral leaders, to encourage the formation of families that prepare children for the success that American society holds out to them, the chance to realize all the human potential that lies within them.
Or rather, I wish that they did. In fact, they are part of a giant, soul-crushing poverty-industry juggernaut: the politicized pastors who at least since Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel have preached social justice (as if we still don’t have it) rather than virtue and the perfecting of your individual soul; the child-welfare workers; the kinship foster parents; the government health and welfare bureaucrats; the Medicaid mills; the disability quacks; the Democratic political blowhards who brand every inequality an injustice and the pundits who cheer them on; the Open Society Foundations; the diversity deans and oppression-studies professors who don’t know that Jim Crow ended long ago and that women sit in the Senate and on the Supreme Court bench and, with the availability of late-term abortion, are now free to kill their babies on the very threshold of entrance into the world—the list is endless. For these poverty-panderers to conjure up mind-forg’d manacles where no real ones exist is evil. The purity of their intentions—when they are pure—doesn’t matter. It’s the results that count.
New York’s high schools boast a 72 percent graduation rate, but only 37 percent of those grads are college-ready.
Curbing illegal immigration, especially by enforcing an E-Verify check for employment, would stoke demand for the labor of unskilled workfare mothers, since, despite the stereotype, most illegal aliens don’t work in agriculture but in food service, cleaning, and construction—where, incidentally, taxpayers in blue states and “sanctuary” cities might like the able-bodied men they support with their General Assistance welfare dollars to find jobs, too. Before the absurd mandatory minimum wages that some blue cities have imposed on these jobs cause fast-food chains to automate more positions out of existence, here’s a chance to get workfare mothers into the labor force. Most wouldn’t need these jobs for long, and hotel maid jobs and the like won’t disappear soon. The experience of pre-2012 workfare has been that, once workfare women gain the self-confidence and work-habit experience of entry-level jobs, they move up. The expanding economy that Trump has helped set free will find work for them.
Here is where iconoclastic education secretary Betsy DeVos can help, by beefing up the public community colleges to teach needed job skills. An eight-week night course could teach you how to be, say, a home health-care aide. More ambitiously, just as Boston University or the University of Texas and others have combined a B.A. and an M.D. degree into one seven-year course, the Education Department might encourage public community colleges, heavily funded by Washington, to devise courses that combine a GED high school equivalency program with some technical training that qualifies students for higher-level semiskilled or skilled jobs. The schools, preferably offering a night-and-weekend track as well as a weekday one, should regularly ask local employers what skills they need, so that grads will be in demand. And these heavily subsidized schools should not admit foreign students, preparing them at taxpayer expense to take American jobs, as many now do.
Still, the power of policy to change culture is as nothing compared with the power of culture to mold society and government, and a cultural change as dramatic as the one that made the underclass seemingly permanent is key to uplifting it. The great question of our age is not Juvenal’s “Who shall guard the guardians?”—notwithstanding the Black Lives Matter humbugs. The real question is, “Who shall teach the teachers—and what?” Despite, say, New York City’s spending of $25,000 yearly per student in its public schools, according to 2016–17 Independent Budget Office numbers, the average kid doesn’t come away with the basic 3R skills essential to success in the modern economy. Only 40 percent of the kids in grades three through eight tested proficient in reading and writing, and 38 percent in math last year, a low standard lowered even further in the watered-down 2017 exams, a Manhattan Institute report shows. Though the city’s high schools boast a 72 percent graduation rate, only 37 percent of those grads are college-ready, as measured by Regents’ exam scores.
What little underclass kids have learned is often wrong and pernicious, to boot. It’s a tale of America as oppressor that feeds bleak resentment. But what else can you expect when the ed schools teach their often not-very-qualified teachers-in-training that they should teach kids “how to learn” rather than imparting any actual knowledge—other than that they are victims of an unjust system?
Looking back at Reconstruction’s failure, W. E. B. Du Bois ruefully remarked that for a brief, shining interval, it looked as if it could have succeeded, acculturating newly freed slaves into full American citizenship. In “the crusade of the sixties, that finest thing in American history”—he writes of the 1860s (not the 1960s)—“the crusade of the New England school-ma’am,” thousands of calico-clad Northern teachers, many bereaved of fathers or brothers in the Civil War, flocked south when the cannon smoke had barely cleared to establish schools and teach in their first year more than 100,000 Southerners, black and white. “This was the gift of New England to the freed Negro; not alms, but a friend; not cash, but character.” The women headed south, “not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the defilement of the places where slavery had wallowed them.” Their schools were “social settlements; homes where the best of the sons of the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch with the best traditions of New England.” The “curriculum was doubtless old-fashioned, but in educational power it was supreme, for it was the contact of living souls.”
I can’t help thinking that today’s analogues to Du Bois’s “missionaries of ’68” are the Teach for America kids working in charter schools like New York’s Success Academies. True, these kids imbibed cockeyed ideas about social justice at Brown or Wesleyan, but their eagerness to help and ability to teach the three Rs are real, and the contact of living souls they provide is a silent, powerful demonstration of the genuine openness of American society. Kudos to DeVos for unflinchingly championing the charter schools that employ so many of these young crusaders, despite militant teachers’ union opposition.
If DeVos would offer the charters model civics programs for each grade level, teaching that the Founding Fathers, despite their inability to change an already-existing slave system that they knew was evil, really believed in the Declaration of Independence’s luminous assertion of mankind’s natural equality of rights and that the country ultimately fought a Civil War to vindicate that principle and had a civil rights movement to reemphasize it, she could make an already-good constellation of schools even better. Adding biographies like the old Landmark Books lives of such notables as George Washington, Daniel Boone, Marie Curie, or of contemporary Americans like Clarence Thomas would strengthen the curriculum, too, by showing what individual effort can produce. But if the taxpayers continue to shell out $20,000-plus a year to tell each kid that he lives in an unjust society where he can’t succeed and that only the government can provide for him, if prodded by enough political activism, that is a waste not just of money but of lives.
Ideally, the whole culture should vibrate with the opposite message. After so much heroic effort by so many over such a span of generations, the United States really has brought to fruition the Founders’ revolutionary dream of equality before the law and equal opportunity for all. What kind of misanthrope would claim that the heroism of the men who fought a Revolutionary War to vindicate the God-given rights to life and liberty of all men, or that the sacrifice of the Civil War troops who gave the last full measure of devotion for that ideal, or that the patient, determined dignity of the civil rights demonstrators, or the philanthropic projects of so many compassionate citizens, anxious to make this country realize its ideals—that all this came to naught and meant nothing? That in this fallen world of imperfect men, America is not a beacon of liberty and the chance for self-betterment to the rest of the world? Any Scrooge who teaches, writes, or sings the opposite should not go unchallenged. Our Founders gave us government of, by, and for the people, something unexampled in world history. The goal of our culture should be to mold self-reliant citizens capable of that self-government.
Finally, Trump’s infrastructure vision offers a whole new field of job opportunity to those able to seize it. The president, as an experienced builder, wants to remove regulatory hurdles to such projects, cutting the time and expense of accomplishing them. He should also consider opening as widely as possible the chance for a job building those public works, by making federal grants conditional on suspending state and local prevailing-wage regulations and union-membership requirements. And then he could condition Washington dollars on the states and municipalities establishing construction-trade apprenticeships, perhaps through the community colleges but certainly not through professional race-hustlers, to equip the unskilled unemployed, including those on General Assistance, with remunerative expertise. Apologists for male underclass nonwork have long argued that available unskilled jobs for men are demeaning or sissified. There is nothing unmanly about building a bridge.
Of course, Trump devised his infrastructure program for a different population: the working-class white men forced out of jobs by Barack Obama’s regulatory war on business and, in particular, his war on coal. But their communities offer a further urgent reason for abolishing cash welfare. The new cultural norms have infected them, too; and with the discipline of self-respecting work ripped away by high-handed disregard for such “deplorables” and their way of life, they, too, are falling into a pattern of single-parent families, nonwork, welfare dependency, and drug use—in their case, the synthetic opioids that are just as fatal as heroin and crack cocaine. In America, for its own particular historical reasons, race turned out to be a key ingredient in the formation of the underclass. But it is not a necessary ingredient, as the white British underclass shows—a pure production of cultural forces reinforced by bad government policy, as Theodore Dalrymple, who, as a doctor, tended that class’s often violence-inflicted ills for decades, has so brilliantly chronicled in these pages for a quarter-century.
The United States is blessed in having created, over many generations and with much travail, an equal-opportunity society. It doesn’t need an equal-opportunity underclass, and should act promptly to stop its spread and to shrink it. The time is not only ripe but positively cries out to end welfare now, before it fuels further damage to our most vulnerable fellow citizens.
Top photo: With the Civil War just over, thousands of New England schoolteachers voluntarily streamed south to teach newly freed slaves, with a soul-awakening fervor that today’s Teach for America kids echo. (GRANGER/GRANGER — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)