The speech our President should make.
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But that’s not the worst of it. Tonight I am talking about parents who care most deeply about report cards and how hard their children are studying, parents who want their children to go to college. If you were such a parent, you could not even interpret what you saw on the report card — a student in the inner city could do everything the teacher asked, get straight A’s, and never be given a chance to realize how little he was learning. Thus in the last decade we have gotten used to seeing newspaper stories every spring about the valedictorian from an inner-city high school whose preparation was so inadequate that he or she could not meet the entrance requirements of a good university. Sadly, these are not isolated cases.
On the mathematics component of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (the “SAT,” the core of the College Boards), the average white score in 1980 was 482. Only 11 percent of black students scored that high. On the verbal component of the SAT, the white mean was 442. Only 13 percent of blacks scored that high.
Ask yourself: How much would the government have to pay you to make you agree to send your child to a public school in a ghetto of one of our large cities? How much money would make it a fair bargain?
“Perhaps,” I hear some of my opponents saying, “we went overboard with some of the changes we made in law enforcement and education. But at least we helped these people economically. Look at food stamps, at Medicaid, at Supplemental Security Income and housing subsidies.”
Yes, let’s do look. There is some additional money coming in. Mind you, the additional money is small. Many of the people living in poverty do not get welfare benefits — not because they are not qualified, in most cases, but because they just don’t bother. Perhaps pride is involved. And even if they do avail themselves of such programs, being employed means that the amounts are small. But never mind; some of the families of whom I speak are getting some extra resources, and, other things being equal, I would be happy about that. But other things are not equal.
Because the thing you worry about most, that all good parents worry about most, is how the kids will turn out. We worry a lot even if our children are just unhappy in their work or their personal lives. If they turn out very badly — in jail, or on drugs, or unable to hold on to a job — most of us carry a deep sense of unhappiness and of failure with us for the rest of our lives, no matter how successful we may be professionally or financially. Now, imagine how much more decisive that unhappiness would be if the only tangible measure of success in your life was investment in your children — as is the case of many low-income parents.
In the last twenty years, these parents have watched as their children have gone down the drain. I speak in part of the losses of the younger generation to drugs and to crime. But two less dramatic types of tragedy have been yet more common.
ONE OF THESE HAS consisted of the young male, poor and with a minimal education, who spends the critical years of his late teens and early twenties drifting in and out of the labor market. Sometimes he does so because there is no work to be had. But far too often, in a phenomenon that scholars are finally accepting to be real despite the reluctance of many to talk about it, youths at this critical stage of their lives begin to choose to drift in and out of the labor market, for reasons that make sense to an adolescent but lock him into poverty for the rest of his life.
From 1965-1980, labor force participation among young black males dropped radically and unexpectedly. Among 18-19 year-olds, for example, participation dropped from 67 percent to 56 percent. During the same period, participation of 18-19 year-old white males rose from 66 percent to 74 percent. The nature of unemployment among young black males changed drastically as well, shifting from periodic involuntary unemployment because of lack of demand for labor to a pattern characterized by short-term, voluntary unemployment.
The second tragedy involves the daughters of these families. Poor families — and once again, poor black families in the inner city have suffered most — have watched steadily increasing numbers of their daughters throw away their chances for a good education, for a career, for escape from poverty, by having children as single parents, often as teenagers.
By 1980, 55 percent of all live births to blacks were illegitimate, compared to 11 percent for whites. By 1980, black American teenagers had a fertility rate of 24 per 100, more than twice as high as the second-highest rate (10 per 100) in any of 32 developed nations.
Now put yourself in the position of the parents I have been talking about. Your son says to you that starting at the bottom and doggedly working up bit by bit is a chump’s game. The problem is that he is technically right — at least, over the short term, which is the term that adolescents tend to use. Holding on doggedly to a low-paying job is not smart; it yields no more money than alternative packages of periodic work, benefits, and perhaps the occasional hustle in the underground economy. It yields much less leisure.
Your daughter is sexually active, not using contraceptives, and, once she gets pregnant, finds that the logical choice — note carefully, the logical choice — is to have that child as a single parent. Given the way that the welfare system works and the child-support laws do not work, it would be foolish of her to encourage the man to marry her. In the short term.
In the long term, you are watching your children throw away their futures. But have a hard time fighting it. You try to drum it into their heads that it is in their long-range interest to behave differently, but you have to contend with the peer pressures of their friends. The wisdom of the streets once they leave the front door promulgates the short-term logic.
Even if it weren’t for the crime, even if it weren’t for the bad schools, how much would it take to convince you to let your children be socialized in an inner-city neighborhood? How much money, how many food stamps, would it take until you were compensated? How much would be fair? For most of you, no amount would be enough.