Even amid the battles over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, and the sparring over reforming the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system, an old debate is flourishing again: How to stem unwed pregnancy and the chronic poverty among out-of-wedlock households that are caused and exacerbated by it. But for all the talk about how to deal with the matter among conservatives and progressives — as well as the policy proposals for dealing with it — neither side have looked at the one critical solution that could stem out-of-wedlock pregnancies and ultimately, is the long-term key to reducing poverty: Systemic reform of American public education.
What has sparked this latest discussion is the proposed anti-poverty effort unveiled last month by Congressman Paul Ryan as part of his likely run for the Republican presidential nomination. The proposal has gained attention for its plan to increase the number of poor adults qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit program — the most-successful non-educational approach to stemming poverty — and merge all anti-poverty programs into a block grant that is annually distributed to states.
But Ryan’s plan has stoked discussion because it also calls for those on anti-poverty programs to sign life contracts that tie their receipt of welfare subsidies to meeting a series of life goals geared towards getting out of poverty. In some ways, the requirement is similar to both the successful welfare reform efforts of the 1990s as well as the approaches taken by organizations such as the Salvation Army during the 19th century. But the Ryan approach would end up being more invasive and bureaucratic because caseworkers would be charged with keeping families on whatever state and federal governments define as the straight and narrow. Given that the bureaucratic-heavy Great Society programs of the 1960s achieved little success, as well as research showing that in most cases, those receiving welfare cash without strings will spend it properly, that part of Ryan’s plan may not make sense at all.
As you can imagine, Ryan’s proposal have once again focused attention on the divide between progressive and conservative anti-poverty advocates over whether poverty is a result of structural problems resulting from free market systems or bad decisions resulting from a lack of personal responsibility. Which, in turn, has focused attention on the role of unwed motherhood in miring kids and families in poverty.
From the perspective of progressives such as Matt Bruenig of Demos, poverty is a structural problem, one that results from the fact that young families mired in poverty aren’t either paid more by jobs or get more in welfare benefits in order to deal with the burdens of raising children. Particularly for poor women, argues Bruenig, “the mere act of adding a child to a family”, further mires them (and their kids) in poverty. From where progressives sit, simply providing families with cash benefits would do plenty to alleviate the burdens of poverty.
On the other hand, conservatives such as Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy argue that poor women could stave off their plight by delaying childbirth while they are in their early 20s, a time in which they are less likely positioned to earn middle class incomes. By waiting longer before having their first child (and perhaps, getting married before then), poor women and their kids are less likely to be impoverished. Writes VerBruggen: “women might encounter a better marriage market or at least be able to collect more stable child support.”
Both points are compelling. Poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. Yet both arguments and the respective solutions are flawed, as is Ryan’s plan overall. Why? Because the solutions ignore addressing the nation’s education crisis, the underlying cause of both unwed motherhood and long-term poverty.
Let’s start with this fact: Fifteen percent of young women age 16-to-24 in 25 of the nation’s big cities are neither working, finishing high school, or studying at an institution or program of higher education, according to Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristin Lewis of the Social Science Research Center in a report released in. This includes 20 percent of young Latino females, 19 percent of young black women, and 11 percent of young white women. These young women are dropping out of school at a time in which knowledge attainment is critical to economic and social success.
Annual compound growth in real weekly wages for high school dropouts has declined between 1963 and 2008, even as high school grads with some higher ed training, and college graduates have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent. This is because dropouts (and even many high school grads) lack the strong reading, math, and science skills needed to gain entry into high-skilled and knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs that are (and will continue to be) the biggest sources of economic growth.
The news isn’t much better for women (and men) who only graduated with a high school diploma and have no training at the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs that make up higher education. The unemployment rate for young adults age 16-to-24 with just a high school diploma and not enrolled in any form of schooling was 17.4 percent in July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, double the overall unemployment rate for the nation. The average high school dropout earned 35 percent less in median weekly wages in 2012 than a high school graduate who attended college, a gap that has been growing for some time.
The very changes in the economy that have rendered dropouts unemployable is increasingly hurting young high school grads without college experience as well; the fact that they often have little in the way of on-the-job experience (something that grads age 25 and older have attained) is also damaging their employment prospects. The fact that employers, especially those in knowledge-based sectors, have long ago figured out that many high school grads have not been provided with the college-preparatory education that is the baseline needed for tackling high-skilled jobs is also a problem.
As a result, both dropouts and high school grads without some form of higher education training are mired in poverty. Twenty-seven percent of households in the lowest 20 percent of income earners were high school dropouts and another 36 percent were high school grads without some form of higher education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; they made up just nine percent of the highest-earning fifth of the nation’s households, and just a quarter of those in the fourth-highest earning fifth of all households.
But the consequences of dropping out or only attaining a high school diploma without some higher ed training extend beyond being unemployable. Particularly for young women, when they unable to attain anything other than the most menial of work, puts them into a vicious cycle. They are more-likely to become out-of-wedlock mothers in part because they see no point in either using birth control or delaying gratification, especially since they are already out of school and in the adult world, the natural stage that comes before starting families.
Thirty-five percent of young women neither working or in school becoming pregnant versus just 10 percent of peers who are engaged in college and career, according to SSRC. Once female dropouts and high school grads without college training have children, they are unlikely to continue on the path to high school and higher education even though achieving those goals will lead them to gain middle class employment. As a result, they remain impoverished for the long term.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that American public education continues to subject far too many young men and women — especially those in big cities that are home to the worst-performing districts, as well as poor people in rural areas and increasingly in suburbia — to educational neglect and malpractice. Forty-seven percent of fourth-graders eligible for free- and-reduced lunch, along with 34 percent of eighth-graders from impoverished backgrounds, read Below Basic on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test of student achievement.
These woeful results are the consequence of shoddy reading, math, and science instruction, often by teachers poorly trained by the nation’s ed schools and protected by near-lifetime employment laws that allow laggard teachers to stay in classrooms. There’s also the fact that our children, especially those from poor and minority households, are being provided shoddy curricula, exacerbated by a century of rationing education — especially the comprehensive high school model, gifted-and-talented programs, and special ed ghettos used to condemn young men considered unteachable by those unwilling to instruct them.
The consequences of low-quality education have been reaped by the young women of today — and will eventually be borne by their own kids. This is a problem because poverty doesn’t naturally determine academic destiny. Some 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools, according to a 2007 study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. But they are unlikely to progress any further so long as they are condemned to failing schools that don’t nurture their talents or even address the literacy issues plaguing struggling peers.
This isn’t to say that providing cash benefits isn’t a good idea. It certainly is. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — which provides money (in the form of tax refunds) in exchange for working — is a good idea. But as with most anti-poverty programs of the last century, pure cash payments will only ameliorate the effects of poverty for the short term — even when they spend money properly. To paraphrase the old proverb, teaching a young woman to fish (through high-quality education) will do her more good in the long run than just handing her food.
Given that education — specifically the premiums given to collegians for attaining higher education — accounts for between 60 percent and 70 percent in the variations in wages, according to Harvard University professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, it is critical to address the long-term educational issues that has resulted in so many young women (along with young men) into economic and social despair. [This would also help address income inequality.] Reforming education will also help their children get onto the path out of poverty.
As for delaying childbirth? Women should do this, and civic society (especially in black and Latino communities) should encourage this; in fact, community groups already do. But there’s no way any government anti-poverty program can make this a condition of receiving benefits without either greatly expanding welfare state bureaucracies beyond a level tolerable to the public or violating the U.S. Constitution.
More importantly, the best way to encourage young women to delay pregnancy (and help them, along with young men, attain jobs that can pay them middle class wages needed to sustain families) is to get them back into school. Young women, along with young men, will delay short-term gratification when they can attain long-term goals. Just as importantly, they will then keep their kids on the path to graduating from high school and higher education, keeping them from remaining poor.
This is where systemic reform of American public education comes in. This can start in the short term by expanding the array of charter schools and other school operations that can help dropouts and those who merely graduated with a diploma get back on the path to educational success. Academy of Hope, a charter school in D.C., and the See Forever group of charters, are among the operators engaged in such work. In fact, anti-poverty programs can reward women and men receiving benefits for attending remedial education programs that address their illiteracy and innumeracy, as well as complete higher education.
Creating a tax credit program modeled on EITC that would reward poor women for skipping out on low-wage employment and going back to school would also make sense. Expanding early childhood education programs (and even offering them at night) so that kids can learn while poor women go to school is also critical. [By the way: As Ellen Galinsky, the author of Mind in the Making, would note, both adult education programs and early childhood education offerings should include focusing on the seven executive functions that are key to both kids and adults making smart decisions.]
Then there’s addressing elementary and secondary education for the long haul. Within urban and even many suburban communities, this means moving away from traditional districts that have long ago proven incapable of providing kids with high-quality education, and expanding a wide array of school options — including charters as well as private schools operated by churches and community groups. This also includes overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers and school leaders; as well as implementing Common Core along with developing of high-quality curricula aligned with them.
The most-important solutions for stemming unwed motherhood and poverty for the long haul start with addressing the ills of American public education. Better-educated women are less likely to end up having children before their educationally and economically ready to do so.