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December 27, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

In my last piece, I quoted sociologist Dr. Brad Wilcox thus:

For those who doubt that family structure denialism is a thing on the Left, one need only open the pages of The New York Times this week for yet another effort “to minimize or deny the importance of marriage and family structure.”

The NYT article he referred to was published on December 9.  Well, here it is December 18 and NPR’s “Morning Edition” offers more of the same (NPR, 12/18/19).

The gist of the piece is that a child’s chance at a good life is strongly influenced by the neighborhood in which he/she grows up.  Although NPR reporter Pam Fessler never mentions his name, her piece relies almost exclusively on economist Raj Chetty’s work on neighborhoods with high levels of opportunity and those with low.  Here’s my piece on his interesting but oddly flawed research (Men’s ENews, 7/31/19).

My point was that, whatever the effect on a child of his/her neighborhood, I couldn’t see how Chetty’s information could inform public policy.  After all, if a child lives in an area of low opportunity, what’s anyone going to do about it?  If his/her parents could move into a better neighborhood, wouldn’t they have done so?  Chetty’s is interesting information but of limited utility.

Surprisingly, the NPR piece answers that question and in the strangest possible way.  Put simply, since Muhammed can’t come to the mountain, NPR wants the mountain to come to him. 

NPR reporter Pam Fessler traveled to Albany, NY to look at a couple of neighborhoods, one poor and almost completely black and Hispanic, the other more affluent and mostly white.  In short, she’s illustrating Chetty’s work with actual everyday examples.  Sure enough, the poor neighborhood has little opportunity for kids and the better-off one is the opposite.

And it seems that the City of Albany has decided to try to make the poor neighborhood of Arbor Hill better.  The mayor, Cathy Sheehan has moved there and various programs are described that seek to improve living standards there.  So, instead of moving the poor into better areas, Albany has decided to bring better conditions to the poor.  Hmm.

The NPR piece is just seven minutes long, so there’s a lot it doesn’t address.  For example, if more affluent residents move into Arbor Hill, what will their presence do to property values, prices and taxes?  Surely, they’ll all rise.  And won’t that tend to move the poor out of those neighborhoods?  I can’t predict the future, but I do know a bit about the past and every time wealthier people move into poor neighborhoods, costs go up and the poor are forced out.  It’s called gentrification and it appears to be Albany policy.  That NPR should be quite so enthusiastic about a process that the poor have always hated says a lot.

But the NPR piece ignores something far more important – family structure.  It mentions it at all only in passing.  In Arbor Hill, it tells us, 86% of households have a single parent, whereas in the more affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, 20% do.  That those facts may have something to do with the level of opportunity in the respective neighborhoods goes entirely unmentioned by NPR.

But not by Brad Wilcox.

Indeed, one structural factor that looms large in discussions of racial inequality are “neighborhood effects”—referring to everything from racial segregation to concentrated poverty—that spill over into the lives of black children and their families. But here again, it turns out that family structure is a big part of the neighborhood story on outcomes ranging from economic mobility to incarceration

In fact, according to new research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, one of the strongest predictors of a big racial gap in adult income between black and white men traces back to the absence of black fathers in the neighborhood where they grew up.

By contrast, black boys who grew up in neighborhoods with lots of black fathers (and, the study finds, married adults) are much more likely to earn about as much money as white men when they grow up. This study suggests, then, that family structure matters not just for individual households but for whole neighborhoods. 

“That is a pathbreaking finding,” William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, told The Times. “They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.” In other words, more black fathers in the village translates into less racial economic inequality for black men.

In other words, the whole point of the NPR piece – that it’s neighborhoods that make the difference in outcomes for white and black kids – turns out to be mostly a proxy for fathers and fatherlessness.  If kids live with their own biological father, they do better than those who don’t.  And neighborhoods with plenty of fathers provide a still better environment.

But NPR, like the New York Times before it, isn’t interested.  It isn’t interested in what could go a long, long way toward equalizing blacks and whites in this country.  It isn’t interested in making life better for black kids, poor kids.  And it isn’t interested in black adults dealing with their and their kids’ problems themselves via the simple expedient of marriage and a commitment to raising children in two-parent families.  Like the Times, it’s only interested in promoting an ideology that calls for massive taxpayer-funded strategies that have little or no chance of solving the very problems they claim to care about.

For NPR, the status quo looks just fine.

Thanks to Ron for the heads-up.

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