Bad Parents, Poor Kids

A version of this appeared over the weekend at Townhall.

Am I the only one who thinks it is immoral to bring children into the world if you don’t have the means to support them? I must be one of the few. I rarely see anyone else make the point.

Before anyone objects, let me concede up front that a lot of things in life are unpredictable. Women become pregnant despite their best efforts to avoid it. Women can lose their husbands from accidents, war and even homicide. Without tenured employment, few of us are safe from the economic reversal that would attend the loss of a job.

Still, consider that:

  •  Almost four in every ten children are born on Medicaid.
  •  One in every four children is living in a food stamp household.
  •  Entire classrooms — no entire schools, wait, even in entire areas of whole cities — all the children are on the school lunch program.

You just can’t write it all off to bad luck. What we are witnessing are patterns of behavior. All too often it’s intentional behavior.

That was the last time I saw my momma
when I left that rickety shack
 The welfare people came and took the baby.
Momma died and I ain’t been back.


Furthermore, I suspect that behavior of parents is part of the explanation for America’s low life expectancy for the population under age 50. More on that below.

From teachers we hear a constant drumbeat of anecdotal evidence. Some parents don’t care what their children learn in school. They don’t encourage learning. They may even belittle it. Also, more and more scarce education dollars are going for what should be parenting rather than schooling functions. The school lunch program exists because tens of thousands of parents apparently can’t afford lunch for their children. Now, schools across the country are subsidizing breakfast as well — for the same reason.

Charles Murray has warned that the really important inequality that has been emerging — a dangerous inequality — is not inequality of income. It is the separation of two cultures. Upper-income, highly educated households (including politically liberal households) tend to respect traditional values. They may say they are cultural relativists. But they don’t practice cultural relativism. These tend to be intact households — ones with mothers and fathers — where parents invest a lot of time, money and energy in their children. Among lower-income, less-educated households there is starkly different behavior.

Harvard researcher Robert Putman finds that there is a “growing class gap in enrichment expenditures [day care, tutors, games, etc., but not private school] on children.” At the bottom of the hierarchy, the expenditure has increased about $400 per child over the past 40 years, but at the middle income it’s gone up $5,000.

The time people invest in their children — reading to them, etc., but not including diaper changing time, etc. — shows a growth gap between those with more education and those with less. In the 1970s, mothers with only a high school education were investing slightly more time with their kids. Now the number of minutes for both is going up. But the growth has been much faster among college educated moms. When you add in the dads, the gap grows even larger — with the advantaged children receiving up to an hour a day of more quality time with their parents.

Moreover, the gap in parent time with children is even greater the younger the child. That is, higher-income, more highly educated parents devote the most extra time with their children during the early years when parental involvement is thought to make the greatest difference.

It would be a mistake to think that this is primarily a racial or ethnic divide. Murray’s study focuses only on white families, ignoring blacks and Hispanic whites. Putman and his colleagues recently gave a PowerPoint presentation at the Aspen Institute. One graph shows that the gap in math and reading scores between black and white children has actually gone down over the past 40 years. But the gap between high- and low-income children (of whatever race) has been progressively widening.

Another stunning graph shows a trend in out-of-wedlock births among non-Hispanic whites. For college graduates, the number is less than 10% and there has been little change in the past 15 years. However, among those with no more education than a high school degree, the number has been soaring and is now above 50%!

Could this be the reason a recent study finds America generally ranks dead last in life expectancy up to about age 50? According to a New York Times article on the study:

Car accidents, gun violence and drug overdoses were major contributors to years of life lost by Americans before age 50.

The rate of firearm homicides was 20 times higher in the United States than in the other countries, according to the report…Americans lose more years of life before age 50 to alcohol and drug abuse than people in any of the other countries.

I don’t have an immediate answer to this problem. Here is one proposal to take the children away from rotten parents. I’m not in principle opposed to that, I’m just afraid there are way too many children for this to be a practical idea.

There are two very bad ideas in Putnam’s Aspen Institute presentation that need to be nipped in the bud, however. One is the idea that the behavioral problems of the underclass are caused by poverty. Wrong. Their behavior is what is making them poor and keeping them poor; not the other way around. One hundred years ago almost everyone in the whole country was poor by our standards. That didn’t keep our ancestors from building the greatest country on earth.

The second bad idea appears on the last slide of the Aspen PowerPoint presentation. It says, “These are all our kids.” But, of course, they aren’t all our kids. They are in the custody of some adults rather than other adults. And the adults who have custody are all too often bad parents.

Here is a third bad idea. After lamenting that:

Something is profoundly wrong when we can point to 2-year-olds in this country and make a plausible bet about their long-term outcomes — not based on their brains and capabilities, but on their ZIP codes.

Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times goes on to observe that:

Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” the United States has spent some $16 trillion or more on means-tested programs. Yet the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration.

His solution: more federal spending! A real war on poverty would attack the culture that produces poverty. Kristof wants to surrender before the first shot has been fired.

Lloyd Bentsen IV helped with this post.

Comments (27)

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  1. Neil Caffrey says:

    It is a disturbing reality that these kids seem to repeatedly fall through the cracks. This type of parenting is cyclical and can only be stopped through an education.

  2. Carey P. Page, M.D. says:

    Stopping programs that subsidize irresponsible behavior rather than throwing more money at it is a logical first step. Of course, the limiting problem is the failure of those vested in the programs to recognize their flaws and failures.

  3. The Native Indian says:

    I agree, if these kids continue to live in the house holds of bad parents, they too will carry on making the same mistakes that characterize the struggles of the poor. Keeping them in the same household only repeats the cycle of poverty.

  4. Stefan Jovanovich says:

    The “poor” do get money and programs galore; but that does not make them rich, just expensive. “Poverty” is second only to “Education” as a make-work program for the respectable middle class. Without those awful poor, what would be the rationale for mandatory public education, Obamacare, emergency services and all the other solutions that never seem to work yet employ tens of millions of otherwise unneeded public servants? If we owe a debt of charity as a society, then give the poor half the money we now spend on helping and let them be free to buy their own education, healthcare and amusements. Some/many/most would “waste” the money; but others might do what people who are not poor have always done – use it to give their children a better life. What they would all have is the freedom and necessity of taking care of themselves; what they now have is a system that rewards indolence and fraud. That is not accidental; when we non-poor are confronted with the marginal tax rates that the poor face when they try to leave public assistance and fend for themselves (>60%), we do exactly what the poor do – we go shopping for another jurisdiction where we will get more and pay less.

  5. Robert A. Hall says:

    You are hardly the only one, John, but we are out-numbered by a progressive political class that sees increasing government dependency as the bedrock of their power, and an increasing dependent class who must vote for them to assure their living, as bad as it is. I highly recommend Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” I have a step-daughter, now married to an undocumented immigrant and with a new baby, who at 37 has never worked a full-time job, but has frequently stolen from us and knows the system very well, and has received every type of assistance available. She voted for Obama because he was “going to help little people like her,” but I don’t notice her hand out to him. She has been into drugs several times. We sent her to college three times and she never got even an AA degree. Twelve years ago, she had a baby from working the streets to support the drugs. We have been working to salvage the granddaughter, and have bled our retirement to provide some semblance of opportunity for her, from clothing to dance classes, because we love her dearly. The step-daughter gets a pass on past behavior because we need to help the granddaughter. Thankfully, she seems to have inherited a good intellect and solid values from my wife, and is doing well despite her situation. Since I have pulmonary fibrosis, last year I wrote a short book, “Advice for my Granddaughter: For When I’m Gone,” to try to help her and other girls get a solid start in life.
    All royalties go to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. (She read it and found three typos!) I will link to this from my Old Jarhead blog. (

    Robert A. Hall
    USMC 1964-68
    USMCR, 1977-83
    Massachusetts Senate, 1973-83
    Author: The Coming Collapse of the American Republic
    All royalties go to help wounded veterans
    For a free PDF of this 80-page book, write tartanmarine(at)

  6. Ken says:

    Excellent post.

  7. Devon Herrick says:

    I was having a similar conversation with a friend yesterday. My parents were the type to take an active role in what us kids were doing; what we were achieving and that we were developing into self-sufficient adults. Growing up, my siblings and I were not allowed to “run wild” and raise ourselves. Yet, at the same time my parents cared little about how well I performed in organized sports. My mother took me to my Little League games. My parents bought the clothing I needed for soccer or intermural basketball.

    I was given a bicycle and rode it miles and miles.
    However, academic achievement was required!!! I was not discouraged from extracurricular activities. Athletic participation was allowed and encouraged only if I was keeping up with my schoolwork.

    When I was pre-school age, my mother read to me daily. In early grade school she made me rework my grade school workbooks at home with her checking the answers. She made me read to her. She signed us kids up for book clubs; took us to the public library. We had a home library with Worldbook Encyclopedias and other reference collations. In junior high school she transferred me to a private school 300 miles away, despite the fact I was doing well in public school.

    Growing up we only had one TV, a black and white with no cable, no satellite, and no external antenna (required in our rural community to receive more than one channel). The TV didn’t even work part of the time.

  8. Raymond Wooldridge says:

    John, this is really good thinking! I’m not sure how birth control, abortion and religion all fit into this scheme, but I do know that “moral fiber” is the ultimate answer. I just don’t know how to get there.

    PS: Please tell Lloyd IV how much I appreciated the blog.

  9. Andrew O says:

    “There are two very bad ideas in Putnam’s Aspen Institute presentation that need to be nipped in the bud, however. One is the idea that the behavioral problems of the underclass are caused by poverty. Wrong. Their behavior is what is making them poor and keeping them poor; not the other way around.”

    While I agree that certain “poor” people display lack of responsibility — both within and familial –how can we generalize such a broad concept and categorize a subset of society as “irresponsible” as a whole? I don’t agree with this statement nor with Mr. Putnam’s observations. Generalizing and classifying people and their behaviors as a whole and deducting policy as a result is what perpetuates social conflict and divide, IMO. There is no way to tell what really causes the limited data samples talked about in this blog — many lower income parents work several part-time jobs and can’t spend as much time reading to their children, for example. There may be some truth to the argument presented in this blog but there is also truth to the contrary — therefore creating bias and generalization.

  10. Henry says:

    Good observations — however, little answers in the short-term. While we all know that curbing dependency and increasing education and incentive to all segments of society can free our broken welfare state, solutions are hard to come about in today’s society. You cannot simply cut all dependency programs from one day to another and you have to change a nation’s culture over generations. The idea is to produce an overall more responsible and competitive society with little to no decency to established governmental institutions — those should be present to help only for unforeseen, uncontrollable, and strenuous emergency-like circumstances and natural disasters.

  11. Richard Bensinger says:

    Standard mantra here – blame the victim. These are the same folks who are denied sex education and access to birth control and abortion (c’mon let’s get real here). Sounds like your solution is the Norquist one — starve the beast (the poor).

  12. Natalie says:

    Wealthy does not equal good parenting, nor does poverty equal bad parenting. Bad logic.

  13. Natalie says:

    It’s also a dangerous game to play when you place monetary wealth as top priority in successful parenting.

    “That is, higher-income, more highly educated parents devote the most extra time with their children during the early years when parental involvement is thought to make the greatest difference.” Where is the evidence to support this opinion? It is clearly not substantiated within the article.

  14. Chris says:

    As long as the government continues to pay people to have children they cannot afford, do you expect anything to change? For many parents, kids don’t cost money, they make money.

    And yes, all the subsidies from LBJ to today have made no statistical difference. What is it Einstein said? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result in the definition of insanity.

    I read a similar article in Reason recently about a bifurcation of white America, how there is a gap growing between the educated and the uneducated. I can’t find it now or I’d link to it.

    I’m all for free birth control, I’m not for free abortions for poor black people because I’m not a eugenicist murdering sociopath. But free birth control? Sure. Not paid for by priests, there is nothing in the constitution that says one third party can be forced to buy something for another third party, let alone if they have a religious objection. But I’m fine with taxpayer funded birth control. And then, stop the subsidies. Refundable tax credits have got to go.

    The other thing you really really need is public school reform. That, unlike birth control pills, might actually be a civil rights issue. Public schools in poor districts are generally horrible. I feel for the democratic party, they’re being torn apart by their desire to help and their ties to the teacher unions. This is how you get the same guy behind An Inconvenient Truth making Waiting for Superman. It does show character though, the politicians willing to take on the unions show good character, those who aren’t, who profess to care but in reality care only about money and power for themselves and their cronies, well, they reveal themselves as bad actors of no quality undeserving of support or respect.

  15. EJ says:

    “Their behavior is what is making them poor and keeping them poor; not the other way around.”

    Any evidence for your statement? For a blog theoretically about policy, I’d expect more than just spouting ideology. A quick google search finds plenty of evidence suggesting the opposite (that poverty negatively affects decision-making). The connection between povery and elevated levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) is well-documented, as is the connection between stress and poor decision-making.

  16. H. James Prince says:

    Actually, your perspective is the problem.

    Poor people are not victims.

  17. H. James Prince says:

    (Previous comment in reply to R. Bensinger)

  18. Greg says:

    I agree with James.

  19. Diana E. Furchtgott-Roth says:


    You don’t understand. If I’m at 200 percent of the poverty line and I see that the government gives me food stamps and I see that the school will give my child free breakfast and lunch, then I CAN afford to have a baby. I’m rational. I’m not a bad parent. What’s irrational is that the government continues these programs. We have bad government, not bad parents.

  20. Gabriel Odom says:

    When I was growing up, my family was impoverished. We were on WIC, food stamps, we lived in Section 8 housing, and we received donations from our local food bank. Despite all these hardships, my mother and father spent as much time with me and my siblings as they could. We cooked, cleaned, read, and even did laundry together.
    Twenty years later, I have a master’s degree and a great teaching position at a local college. My siblings have all grown up to be responsible citizens, and none of us had children out of wedlock.

    My parents taught me responsibility by their actions.

  21. Natalie says:

    Agreed, Gabriel!!!

  22. Sebastian Alexander says:

    Yes, accidents always happen, but the difference is the lack of shame in our society. It was not that long ago (my parents married in 1961) that if a young man and young woman wanted to marry they did it deliberately, and demonstrated to their parents that they could earn a living and start a family.

    Women who got pregnant without being married to a breadwinner were not “single mothers” but “fallen women” and if they fell into welfare it was a mark of shame. Nobody blamed the rich for not paying enough taxes to subsidize free contraceptives for them.

    Today we have reality TV shows celebrating “Teen Moms”.

  23. John Baden says:


    Hire her! (and suggest she come to one of our Bozeman, Montana programs.)


    Diana E. Furchtgott-Roth says:
    January 28, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    You don’t understand. If I’m at 200 percent of the poverty line and I see that the government gives me food stamps and I see that the school will give my child free breakfast and lunch, then I CAN afford to have a baby. I’m rational. I’m not a bad parent. What’s irrational is that the government continues these programs. We have bad government, not bad parents.

  24. Floccina says:

    It ain’t poverty if anything it is the wealth effect.

    Here is an interesting story that shows that povery does not cause crime or out of wedlock child bearing.

    The poorest place in the United States is not a dusty Texas border town, a hollow in Appalachia, a remote Indian reservation or a blighted urban neighborhood. It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually nonexistent.

    And, yet, officially, at least, none of the nation’s 3,700 villages, towns or cities with more than 10,000 people has a higher proportion of its population living in poverty than Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a community of mostly garden apartments and town houses 50 miles northwest of New York City in suburban Orange County.

  25. Rick Lane says:

    Dear John,

    Great subject, and at the very root of our problem in this country!

    There’s only one real solution. Prohibit any couple from having children until they have taken a certified course-taught at public expense- on the expense and responsibilities of having (?) children. This should be taught in high school, but certainly before anyone could marry.

    Sounds impossible? Yes, alas it is. We don’t interfere with people’s personal lives. We just sit back and pay the damn bills for those who didn’t think twice about the responsibility.

  26. Morris R. Bryant says:

    Being on the front line of obstetric care in a major public hospital, my observations lead me to complete agreement with Dr. Goodman. The current welfare state is doing essentially nothing to help people become capable of appropriate self care and behavior. And I truly don’t think it can.

    I have been blessed in my life to know the great football coach, Gene Stallings. There are several things I learned from him, including this: (paraphrasing) he once told me “…I don’t care if you are talking about your children, football players, medical students, or your dog. If you don’t spend time with them, they aren’t going to learn what you want them to.” I would defy anyone to prove this common sense statement false.

    Likewise, I commonly see young patients with no one watching over them, no one caring, no one teaching them. This group of people has never been habilitated as regards life. And in my world they are usually pregnant. No father nearby. And the cycle continues.

    There is no substitute for children having true “significant others” aka “parents” in their lives. Until the current cultural norms are redrawn, significant progress will not come. We now have near 50 years of evidence that highlights, not just no progress, but failure.

    Welfare and education ARE NOT the answer. Only prepared, cared for children can best take advantage of the opportunities and lessons education might afford.

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