Tuesday, June 05, 2007

And the Baton Is Passed

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the fact that, when understood, statistics can only bear out the facts, that is, that they really can't "prove" what is not true, they can only appear to do so. Another difficulty with statistics and, therefore, studies, in general, is how they are interpreted and then presented to others, particularly for use in policy-setting. A case in point is the "Black Males Left Behind" study conducted by Dr. Ronald Mincy, formerly of the Ford Foundation and now a professor of social policy at Columbia University. Dr. Mincy was called to testify on his findings before a Joint Economic Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., this spring and, while I haven't seen a copy of the study report, the way Dr. Mincy was quoted in the media, it sounds as if he's missed some crucial considerations and made some rather typical and even stereotypical assumptions.

Now, on the surface, this would appear to be a silly statement. I mean, who am I to call into question the conclusions of a Ph.D. at Columbia who has clearly put enough work into his project and his career that he has wound up in front of the U.S. Congress, right? But my concerns are fairly simple and straight-forward.

I first started doing this kind of analysis fifteen years ago when I was neck-deep in a dissertation I didn't ultimately finish. The dissertation had to do with the way sociological writings about race can purport to be saying something fresh and even radical, but that the words and sentence structures chosen can actually deliver the same old message anyway. For example, if I write, "There are 365 churches in Cholula, Mexico," the statement reads without particular moral or historical impact. It reads as if the people of Cholula must surely be very religious people, especially if you understand that Cholula is not that big of a city. If, on the other hand, I write, "Spanish conquerors forced the indigenous people of the city to build a Catholic church on the site of each of 365 pyramids present when the Spaniards arrived," the reader is more likely to arrive at an entirely different understanding of the matter.

Dr. Mincy, at least according to the article I read, is making a number of problematic mistakes in interpreting the available data that will lead policy-setters awry, if allowed, in reference to a situation about which he is right to be massively passionate.

Census data is telling us that half of all young African-American men are unemployed and that roughly 30% of them will do time in prison. Further, these same statistics tell us that, of the 40% of African-American men who drop out of high school, 72% are jobless and they are twice as likely to go to prison as their high school graduate counterparts. These statements, as horrible as they sound, border on "ho-hum" for anybody who lives in a low income neighborhood. Driving down the street where I live, it seems as if there are more young Black men standing around every day and with an ever-increasing law enforcement presence accordingly. This is not new news.

So why is Dr. Mincy in Washington? Because of how he's interpreting the data, that's why. In other words, he is saying what the administration, leaders, academics, and social policy pundits want to hear. He's blaming the situation on single parent families, which are primarily headed by women.

"Living with a single mother increases the likelihood of dropping out of school," he is quoted as saying. "The effects of single parenting on dropping out of school are larger, the longer a child is in a single-parent home, and larger for boys than girls."

Let's see if I can write this loudly enough for Dr. Mincy to hear it all the way inside his ivy-covered office at Columbia: "It's not the single-parenting...er...Doc-tor! It's the lack of income!!!" I'd like to see Dr. Mincy raise a child (or several) on the minimum wage -- or less -- in the year 2007 in the U.S.A. All the corroborating statistical data is available for this perspective, as well. Women make about 75 cents on the dollar as compared to men. In fact, if an African-American man can get a job, Census data tells us that he's going to make more, on average, against what White men make, than women do -- even European-American women. Additionally, the single-parent woman who receives anything, averages very little more in child support than $300 per month (not per child, but at all). About a quarter receive nothing. And the unemployment ocean in which Black men are drowning is certainly not helping this much.

Let's make this as clear as possible. If women -- all women, and most particularly all women of color -- were paid a living wage for the work they do and supported with the practical necessities of life (such as affordable housing, transportation, and day care); if all fathers were held fully responsible for their participation in the economic lives of their children -- and helped to accomplish that (regardless of whether or not they are presently "tapping that"); and if all children, and most particularly children of color, were supported with universal physical and mental health care, a fully-funded educational process, and a rich and enriching selection of activities outside of school, then Black men would not be flocking into jail, starting in their early teens. This is NOT -- hear me, now -- a function of their mothers being SINGLE. (He-llo!) If it was, we could just line folks up in two's, marry 'em off, and solve the problem.

Dr. Mincy does throw in the "secondary" issues of bad schools, institutionalized oppression in the form of racism, and the disappearance of millions of jobs as a result of a manufacturing economy that has been steadily shriveling since the 1970's, but ultimately he points to the "experience of welfare reform" as the light at the end of the tunnel. And there we have it: the reason he's the one who's testifying.

When Clinton shoved through his promised decimation of the welfare system in the U.S. on his way out the door, everybody in the field of social service knew the new policies were going to be disastrous in their repercussions. The so-called "principle" sounded good. Women -- who had become "dependent on the system," it was said -- would be "helped" and "encouraged" to get off welfare by having their assistance pulled. It was the equivalent of throwing a five-year-old in a pond and telling her to swim or die. Forget racism (which discriminates against her and has taught her to see herself as incapable and unworthy, in any case). Forget the lack of jobs and the fact that more -- at every level -- are exported daily. Forget the fact that we can afford billions of dollars a month to kill babies all over the world, but we can't afford to feed and educate them in our own communities. And forget that she cannot do anything about any of these things. Just throw her in the water and ignore the cries of the babies hanging on -- for dear life -- around her neck.

So, Dr. Ronald Mincy appears to be the new Dr. William Julius Wilson (the African-American academic who received a major Ford Foundation research grant and became in the early nineties the President of the American Sociological Association for holding that the destruction of the inner city was the fault of middle class African-Americans who moved out). Shame on you, Mincy. Enjoy the rarified atmosphere up there in Washington, but don't ever forget that, when the dust settled on the plantation, regardless of where he was living, even the House-Man was Black.


lynx said...

well said! typical washington bullshit - forget history, class, economics, race, ethnicity, and everything else; lets come up with a new way to scapegoat single mothers! yuck.

gonna have to add a link to this blog from mine.


Professor Zero said...

Yes - exactly what my mother said - marry money or you'll be poor and it will be your fault. Sexist Mincy.

Changeseeker said...

Lynx: Thanks. And where are you? (I'd like to visit.)

PZ: Sexist, indeed. And without ever raising, of course, the question of why so many women are choosing to be alone in their abject poverty rather than opt for the relationships they are typically offered by male would-be partners.

*shakes head sadly*

Professor Zero said...

Well you know - Mincy will say marry your baby daddy and live with him, and then if he's abusive or something, or if he costs more money than he brings in, or if he's not that bad but is just a pain, immature or a poor role model, making it harder to take care of the kids, Mincy will say why did you marry him it is not my fault. I just *hate* the poor logic of people like Mincy.

Anyway this post is the basis of another great article you know. And that unfinished dissertation could be one too. You're very good, concise, hard-driving etc. especially when you *really* get into your areas of expertise and start explaining them.

(I say this partly because I'm the same, yet when I actually write academically, I often grind away and suffer, forgetting the confidence which would actually be appropriate and which is what brings forth the prose that just sorts of sails along with wind behind it.)

Peacechick Mary said...

Black children are ALWAYS discriminated against - period. At least I see that in the south. Stereotypically: If a male black does not end up in prison - it's the good work of his mama. If he does, it's the bad job the mama did. The truth is, discrimination always tilts the playing field heavily in favor of the white male who may or may not have a great mother. Anyone who observes life knows that and we don't need any studies to prove it - it's obvious as daylight. Of course the people who read that study were fat cat white males in suits who are about as close to the people as their gated communities will allow. They see nothing and know nothing and that makes them ignorant. Whew, I got on a run with this one.

Changeseeker said...

PZ: It's apparent to me that you're in my life at this precise juncture to nudge me. This is good. Thanks.

Mary: :^D When your comment popped up in my emails, I thought, "Whoa! Mary's comments don't usually come off quite so strongly." I gotta love it. Yes, ma'am!!

And your referring to the way it's always Mama's fault reminds me that White men's successes and failures are seldom attributed to their mothers in quite the same reductionistic way. Interesting. Do you suppose that's because White males are seen as their own shot-callers with the individual merit and capability to accomplish whatever it is they choose -- for good or ill (while Black men, of course, are perceived to have neither)?

Anonymous said...

Hello Changeseeker, while I do love your website, I have a different take on this particular column. I should first disclose that because of my line of work as a staff trainer for youth employment agencies, I have met Dr. Mincy on several occasions and have sat in on his longer presentations (1-2 Hours) three different times. I don't know of the article that you read, but as you initially suspected, my best guess is that the article did not do adequate justice to Dr. Mincy's broader viewpoints (perhaps even intentionally).

Reading your article, I actually believe that there is probably more agreement than disagreement with you and Dr. Mincy. In his fatherhood trainings Dr. Mincy mentions single motherhood as one of SEVERAL factors. He would wholeheartedly agree with you about your point about many women's near-poverty wages being a significant factor. He would also agree with you on all of your "if" statements" (i.e., participation of non resident fathers) and regularly discusses all of these in his presentations. The only point of disconnect is probably that he agrees with ever single factor that you pointed out AND the influence of one parent vs. two.

Also, when referencing "welfare reform", he is usually referring to the specific area of including government investment in job training associated with enacting new laws. For example, much of the "deadbeat dad laws" on child support that were enacted with good intentions were not accompanied with the necessary investments and incentives in job training services (as compared to welfare reform). Without these job assistance services "the deadbeat dad laws" often had the exact OPPOSITE effect.

Finally, I would say that while his findings on single parent families often get the most attention, he spends far greater time and effort on institutional shortcomings such as drastic cuts in job/youth training services, flawed child support legislation, and an array of systemic support services. I have included Dr. Mincy's Washington testimony here: http://jec.senate.gov/Documents/Hearings/03.08.07%20African-American%20Male%20Unemployment/Testimony%20-%20Mincy.pdf While I would not expect full agreement, I believe that you will see a more rounded version then was portrayed in the article.

Changeseeker said...

I greatly appreciate your fuller perspective on Mincy's work, Charles. I know from your blog that you are rigorous in your thinking processes. And of course, I don't want to paint the man as a total monster. Few of us are total anythings. And you're right, I suspect, that the article I read was probably skewed.

My concern, however, is that the perspectives of many of the legislators, et al, that hear Mincy are skewed, as well. That is, if you follow the overall gist of my blog (and yours, of course), institutionalized oppression in the name of "racism" is borne out in every setting according to what fits the "party line." The typical reporter or legislator or whomever listening to Mincy -- even if he is asserting all of the points I made in my response -- will tend only to hear the parts that demonize single-parenthood. I still maintain that given all the necessary funding and network of support, children of single parents would NOT self-destruct at nearly the rate currently evidenced, if at all. Children in two-parent houses ALSO skip school, use drugs, go to jail and so forth. Mincy could have this emblazoned across his forehead and it would -- somehow -- be missed.

I do know the importance of fully (note the use of the word "fully") funded employment programs. But a program that maybe "graduates" forty-five men per year (or even two hundred) is SUCH a drop in the bucket. Is it a good idea? Absolutely! Does it solve the problems of being a Black man in the U.S.? Hardly.

I guarantee you (and I know you already know this to be true anyway), however rational Mincy's ideas, if he was pushing the truth of the situation as hard as many of us in the blogosphere do, he wouldn't be testifying before Congressional committees. Do I hope they decide to put more money into more employment programs for young African-Americans? Yes, of course. I just don't think that, in the end, this is going to clear the prisons. And in the meantime, single mothers have enough burdens without adding to them.

Charles said...

Changeseeker, while I can state quite confidently that Dr. Mincy has no intention of demonizing single parents, your main points about legislators and reporters hearing only what they want to hear are well taken.

Changeseeker said...

Charles: And while, in a different setting, Mincy makes himself more clear, I would argue (here's where it gets tricky) that, in spite of whatever he actually believes or says elsewhere, he knows how the game goes down.

If somebody like me testified, I wouldn't make the main stream media or even be really listened to at all because I don't say what they want to hear. This is what created the "phenomenon" of William Julius Wilson, whose "The Truly Disadvantaged" got SO much rageful criticism from other academics, he felt obliged to re-frame some of his major ideas. But still, the book did -- and I'm sure, continues to do -- major damage in terms of drafting real solutions to the actual problems in the inner cities. And he -- ahem! -- benefitted greatly as an individual through it all (of course).

The dilemma: if you "sell-out" on any level, however subtle, you win certain personal concessions, but those who so desperately need your advocacy lose (at least in some important and basic ways -- that's one of the ways the power is maintained). If, on the other hand, you rigorously refuse to "sell-out," you won't be granted credibility, so those who so desperately need your advocacy STILL lose. Smooooooth.

What most (though not all) folks with the opportunity wind up doing in the face of this is taking their best shot and hoping to get at least SOME of the truth across to at least SOME of those in positions of power. The rest of us blog, I guess. ;^)

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]It's the lack of income!!!

If women -- all women, and most particularly all women of color -- were paid a living wage for the work they do and supported with the practical necessities of life (such as affordable housing, .......[/quote]

Interesting. (I bet you don't call yourself a socialist - do you?)


Do you believe that there is any INHERENT VALUE in a unit of work that one person has to offer that some CONSUMER OF WORK must agree to pay for a deal to be consummated?

It seems to me that you are attempting to have SOCIETY express value and appreciation for the value of this person's work and her needs in life that she and those in her life were not willing or able to do.

Is there any room in your mind in which this entire episode might be flipped around? This would be having this POTENTIAL mother/father, prior to having a child making note of the standard of living that they seek, the expense of food and healthcare, the importance of quality schooling. In being conscious about this they will then choose to order their lives prior to producing this dependent in a less than optimal situation.

If you reject this then please answer this question - My wife and I are both college educated with good jobs. We have 2 children. In our discussion of having an addition child all of the considerations that you have listed have come up and thus we have decided against it - mostly because of the time commitment that is involved despite the fact that we could otherwise afford it. Changeseeker - why is it that you and others have little EXPECTATION from the "poor" to do the same that my wife and I would be expected to consider?

Does the desperation that you speak of in the lives of the poor allow them to not be held responsible for their actions or are you just used to holding "responsible people responsible"?

Charles said...

constructive feedback, I know the question wasn't targeted for me, but it is an irrelevant question. I expect ALL people to be responsible, good parents, not commit crimes, stay faithful to their spouse, eat healthy, take their morning vitamins, and put their napkin on their lap before eating. But we have police because some commit crimes, have firefighters because some play with matches, and have lifeguards because some swim in deep waters. Just because you personally chose to swim in shallow water doesn't mean that we should eliminate the life guard. If I see a kid drowning at the local pool, I generally don't partake in intellectual discussions about how some parents don't adequately teach water skills. I DIVE IN! Your expectation of any individual parent should have absolutely no bearing on whether we as a society enact fair and sensible legislation, provide equal wages across the sexes, and provide strong educational, employment, and other support systems in EVERY community. I would call this holding "responsible societies responsible".

Charles said...

change, this may or may not apply at all here, but let me forgo the Mincy discussion to make my best case for your larger discussion on the value of targeted pragmatism vs. idealism "sticking to its guns". And my exhibit A-Z is Ralph Nader. I personally had more ideals in common with Nader than Al Gore in 2000. however, I voted for Gore. Ralph's essential argument for irresponsibly staying in the race was "the lesser of two evils is still evil". Now if Gore wins, there is no Iraq war and those massive tax cuts for very rich folks would have been redirected. Our world would be COMPLETELY different today on just those two items alone. Nader was the perfect storm of idealism-gone-bad. I struggle with when and when not to be pragmatic all the time. (I suppose we all do.) I think it is a matter of picking your spots.

Changeseeker said...

"constructive" feedback: Do you really believe that corporate executives -- regardless of their performance -- are worth three to four hundred times what the average worker is worth? I'm glad you and your wife got the necessary opportunities that allowed you to achieve what you have achieved. But I assure you that there are millions of workers in the world -- including in the U.S. -- who are competent, hard-working people and didn't get those opportunities. Since you're so educated, I would hold you responsible for knowing that. Why don't you?


"holding responsible societies responsible"


As for Gore vs. Nader, there is every indication that Gore won, but Bush is running the country into the ground from the White House. The U.S. public has allowed him and his gang of thugs to send us to war, kill millions of people (including thousands of U.S. citizens), and do horrific damage to our economy and our infra-structure in the process. In such scenarios, it doesn't appear to me that it matters one iota WHO we vote for. So what I've starting asking is: what we gonna do about that?

Charles said...

change, good point about the CEOs, nobody ever talks about how theses salaries multiplied 500 times over since the 80s as worker wages stayed the same.

Totally agreed about Bush. I think my main point was that if Ralph Nader dropped out, Florida is not even close. It would have been Gore easy. In that sense, I was saying that Nader, and by extension "uncompromising idealism" for merely its own sake, is also capable of having blood on its hands.