Politics

The Truth in Mayor Pete’s Paternalism

It doesn’t matter if a policy is “paternalism.” It matters whether it works.

Pete Buttigieg has a target on his back. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana is now among the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination. He’s eclipsing Elizabeth Warren in some national polls, and leads the field by over five points in RealClearPolitics’ polling average of first-to-vote Iowa. But with frontrunner status comes opposition and attacks.

Now Buttigieg is under fire for comments he made in a 2011 TV interview about why some children in disadvantaged portions of society do not excel in school:

Kids need to see evidence that education is going to work for them. There are a lot of kids — especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work. … There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”

The reaction from the political left — already quite skeptical of Buttigieg on policy — was caustic. Many interpreted Mayor Pete’s comments as blaming poor minority communities, particularly African Americans, for their own circumstances.

Anti-racist author Tim Wise accused Buttigieg of engaging in “culture of poverty bullshit.” The “system is the deficit,” Wise wrote, “not black families”:

Other prominent left-wing writers and activists accused Buttigieg of racism:

The torrent of Twitter-criticism was touched off by a viral article in The Root titled “Pete Buttigieg is a lying MF.” Author Michael Harriot interpreted Buttigieg’s remarks as helping justify American racial inequality. “This is why institutional inequality persists,” he wrote. “Not because of white hoods and racial slurs. It is because this insidious double-talk erases the problem by camouflaging it. Because it is painted as a problem of black lethargy and not white apathy.”

Buttigieg himself later called Harriot in an attempt to explain himself. Harriot transcribed a portion of the 20-minute interview where Buttigieg attempted to contextualize and defend his remarks:

“But do you disagree with the point I was making?” Mayor Buttigieg asked, listing a few programs designed to alleviate this specific problem. “Sometimes children don’t get to see the possibilities. Do you think the lack of positive examples of educational success can lead to mistrust and a lack of confidence in the system?”

“No…well, yes,” I answered. “But the lack of confidence doesn’t have anything to do with role models or support from parents, it’s because the shit is true!”

Harriot clearly appreciated the mayor’s attempt to hear him out, but was also unmoved by his arguments. To Harriot and other critics, Buttigieg is blaming the victims. According to their interpretation, Buttigieg argued in 2011 that what’s keeping members of American racial minority groups poor is not the systemic denial of opportunities or underfunded schools, but rather that the elders in some (specifically black) communities simply don’t value education.

The flareup over Buttigieg’s remarks speaks to a deeper tendency in how the political left regards government paternalism — that is, programs designed to change the behavior of a targeted group to improve their circumstances or shield them from harm. The American left may favor government programs in general. But not only do elements distrust government paternalism, many view paternalism as inherently offensive or immoral.

To some extent, I share this skepticism. I remember the ‘90s, when personal responsibility was all the rage. Then-President Bill Clinton declared the “era of Big Government” was over, and reduced spending on programs for the poor with the “1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” commonly known as “welfare reform.”

This law strictly limited the length of time a poor family could receive cash welfare payments. Welfare reform proponents decried inter-generational dependence on welfare, arguing that limiting these payments would induce the poor to seek work, making them ultimately better off.

Didn’t sound so bad in theory. But in practice, welfare reform set back America’s poor in a number of ways. One study found that the number of Americans in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $2 a day, doubled between 1996 and 2015. Another study found that welfare reform actually led to an increase in antisocial behaviors — such as increased smoking, drug use, fighting, and school truancy among the children of welfare recipients.

In my eyes, welfare reform was a failure. Whatever notional gains it brought in personal responsibility do not outweigh the losses from increased human suffering. But this calculation is not based on the principle that government policy aimed at making people more responsible is inherently wrong. Rather, the problem is that the policy’s actual outcomes were disastrous.

Sometimes, paternalism works.

Cash With Strings

Around the globe, national governments, nonprofits, and international aid agencies use Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) as a paternalistic policy to help some of the world’s poorest. The program is conditional, which means recipients have to agree to certain behaviors, such as making sure their children attend school and get regular vaccinations.

The most famous CCT program is Brazil’s Bolsa Familia (BF), a family allowance program that is credited with halving extreme poverty. BF delivers cash payments to about a quarter of Brazil’s population, providing them with much-needed cash infusions that help them afford the basic necessities of life.

The impact of combining two schools of political thought — economic redistribution championed by the left and personal behavioral change championed by the right — has been dramatic. In the years since BF has been in place, Brazil has seen a huge reduction in extreme poverty. On top of that, the incidence of child labor, school truancy, and suicide rates among the Brazilian poor dropped.

CCTs have been deployed in various contexts across the globe. The United Nations World Food Program and other international entities have used cash transfers to successfully entice socially conservative families in developing countries to send their girls to school.

It would be easy to dismiss these programs as paternalistic. Who are rich technocrats or international aid organizations to tell poor Brazilian parents to vaccinate their kids or conservative Muslims in Afghanistan to send their children to school?

But should our sensibilities about the inherent offensiveness of paternalism outweigh reductions in disease and death? Should our notions about what kinds of political policies are implicitly condescending get in the way of outcomes like reduced poverty and higher educational attainment?

Paternalism Can be Good

Part of the hesitation to acknowledge that incentivized behavioral change can help disadvantaged groups improve their lives is that it can be cast as blaming them for their own circumstances. But no one’s behavior exists in a vacuum. Not poor and disadvantaged people’s, not rich advantaged people’s. Human behavior is rooted in some combination of our personal biology and the environment — nature and nurture.

Larger-scale human successes and failures are not just about individual choices; they’re about systems that inculcate certain kinds of behavior. At least one component of those systems is the role models children have around them. Nobody chooses the family or neighborhood they’re born into. A child has no say over whether their parents are janitors or Harvard professors. And, on average, children born to janitors need more outside support to succeed than children born to professors.

We should keep that in mind when thinking about Buttigieg’s 2011 video. Although he did not specify any particular racial group, most interpreted his comments as about African Americans. Harriot and some others interpreted the comments as implicitly insulting.

Let’s look at Buttigieg’s ideas without dismissing them out of hand for being paternalistic, since paternalism isn’t a problem per se. First, does having a parent or other role model who succeeded in formal academics increase the chance that children will follow a similar path? And if so, do African-American children have fewer of these role models?

Consider this 2018 study of first-generation college students from the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. It found that a third of first-generation college students dropped out of college after three years, while only 14 percent of students whose parents had earned a degree did the same.

A 2014 survey conducted by the College Board and National Journal and written up by Ronald Brownstein found that college students “raised by parents with college degrees were vastly more likely than those raised by parents without degrees to say that their family encouraged them to attend college.” Even the type of college these students attended was affected by their parents’ background. “Fully 80 percent of those raised by two graduates said their parents encouraged them to attend a four-year school; just 29 percent of those raised in no-degree families said they were urged to pursue a four-year degree,” Brownstein notes.

All of this suggests Buttigieg is right. Having someone in your life who has seen the educational system work for them — such as a parent — can have a powerful impact on your own choices. The children of parents with college degrees are more likely to be encouraged to go to college and more likely to complete their degrees when they get there.

Role Models for Underprivileged Black Kids

On African-American children in particular, research looking at teachers — who, aside from parents, are often children’s most powerful role models — suggests that they can play a major role. A 2017 study by Johns Hopkins University found that “low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college.”

The university noted that this could be called the “role model effect.” Study co-author Nicholas Papageorge explained that “many of these kids can’t imagine being an educated person, and perhaps that’s because they’ve never seen one who looks like them. Then, they get to spend a whole year with one. This one black teacher can change a student’s entire future outlook.” In many school districts, there is a demographic disconnect between faculty and students. For example, one 2016 estimate found that 14 percent of Boston’s public school students were white, compared to 60 percent of teachers.

If we know black teachers are valuable role models for black students, and we know many black students do not have any, does it not follow that Buttigieg was right to suggest that many of these students have don’t have the role models they need to succeed?

Although we often compare groups along one variable, this has a gendered component as well: black men on average are performing much worse than black women in education. Rates of fatherlessness have been increasing across racial divides, but they’re highest among African Americans. For the children of the well-to-do, an absent father can be partially substituted by professional mentoring or violin lessons. For many poor children, though, this is not an option. A father can serve not only as a role model but an anchor in an otherwise turbulent world, especially for young men who need guidance on how to navigate the perils of manhood.

A 2016 article on Harriot’s own website cites a 2009 study that looked at the impact of fatherlessness on black boys. Summarizing the study, the author notes that “father-absence was the strongest indicator of delinquency, even more so than low socioeconomic status or peer pressure. There is also evidence that fatherless children have lower self-esteem, a greater risk for mental illness and suicide, and increased risk of depression.” And yes, there is reason to believe that boys in fatherless households are less likely to attend college.

Addressing the Problem

The solution to the lack of role models for kids in disadvantaged groups is not simply sermonizing about how these groups should value education more. That would not only be condescending, it would be ignorant. People live their lives as individuals, not as groups.

Just because, on average, parents who attended college are more likely to encourage their children to aspire to higher education doesn’t mean that every parent who didn’t achieve a degree themselves doesn’t value education. There are black, low-income parents who didn’t attend college who break their backs to save up money for their kids’ college funds. And there are white, high-income parents with Ivy League degrees who neglect their children’s educational futures.

If we want to practice a truly compassionate form of paternalism, it could take the form of the CCT programs in Brazil or Afghanistan, which not only ask people to change their behaviors, but offer them a means by which to do so: real resources in the form of government cash transfers.

That is a better model than Clinton’s welfare reform, which simply cut off government support and hoped that poor Americans would become “more responsible” and attain the skills they needed to succeed in the job market. And before scolding fathers for not being there for their children, we should take a hard look at our nation’s policies — like the War on Drugs — that have devastated many families, depriving children of the role models they need to succeed.

Mayor Pete himself has to rise to this challenge, developing policy initiatives that would actually change the behavior of disadvantaged groups and improve their lives. So far, he has proposed nothing as broad-reaching as the CCT programs I’ve cited.

But one big barrier to change-making policy initiatives is the American left’s gag reflex over any explanation or proposed solution that smacks of paternalism. Some paternalistic policy is bad, and can exacerbate racial inequality. But that’s down to bad policies, not a bad type of policy.

Helping someone change their behavior — by giving them a cash incentive to make sure their child attends school or by hiring a teacher to be a positive role model — can have long-lasting positive impact. Turning up our noses at ideas like that undermines our fight for a better society.


The Truth in Mayor Pete’s Paternalism was originally published in Arc Digital on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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