Job 1: Educating for self-sufficient citizenship

Education young people to be self-sufficient citizens is Job 1 for public education, writes Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

“College and career” readiness isn’t enough,he writes. We need citizenship readiness. (Citizenship First suggests that every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. Naturalization Exam. See how you do here.)

The most basic requirement of citizenship is self-sufficiency, Petrilli argues.

If we haven’t prepared our young people to be financially self-sufficient once they finish their educations, we have failed our most fundamental duty. And the “we” is meant to be inclusive: our education system, our social service agencies, our families, our churches, all of us.

There are two ways to help children, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. We can try to “make bad parents less relevant” or “make bad parents less bad.”  He puts preschool and education reform in the first category; home visits and parent training — which smack of “Big Mother” — are in the second.

These programs “help at the margins but they aren’t breaking the cycle of poverty,” writes Petrilli.

Let me float a third option: A renewed effort to encourage young, uneducated, unemployed women to delay childbearing until they are ready–emotionally, financially–to start a family. Let’s promote a simple rule: Don’t have babies until you can afford them. If everybody in America followed this rule, most long-term child poverty would disappear, and parenting would improve dramatically.

. . . Social scientists have long known about the “success sequence”: Finish your education, get a job, get married, start a family. Stick to that sequence and you avoid poverty, and so do your kids.

Petrilli asks Deborah Meier, the other half of the Bridging Differences dialogue, if schools can encourage students to follow the “success sequence.” Offer effective pregnancy prevention programs?

Should we consider paying low-income individuals to put off childrearing? Mayor Bloomberg is already experimenting with cash incentives to encourage all manner of positive behaviors. Maybe offer “25 by 25”: All young men and women who graduate from high school get a post-secondary credential, get a job, and avoid a pregnancy and a prison record get $25,000 in cash at the age of twenty-five. Is that worth trying?

Or is the best way for schools to tackle this issue simply to provide a top-grade education to their charges? To instill in them the “hope in the unseen” that they, too, can aspire to college, to a good career, to an early adulthood full of intellectual and social and emotional challenges and experiences, not to include parenthood (yet)?

I wish schools would teach this statistic: Ninety percent of children born to an unmarried teen-ager who hasn’t finished high school will grow up in poverty. If the mother waits to have her first child till she finishes high school, turns 20 and marries, the risk her children will be poor is 9 percent. They could add the stats on the percentage of unmarried fathers are supporting or visiting their children after the first few years.

There needs to be more focus on showing young men from low-income single-parent families how to qualify for a decent job with or without a college degree. One path to success– a bachelor’s degree or bust — isn’t enough.

Update: When parents have conversations with their children, it makes a huge difference, writes Annie Murphy Paul. Robert Pondiscio responds:  “On my bucket list of ed projects: a PSA campaign to inform low-income parents on the benefits of reading to kids and engaging them in conversation. Cognitive development classes in inner-city hospitals can teach inner city parents the habits that more affluent parents do reflexively. And if the Gates Foundation wants to help, let’s get low-cost books — say 25 cents apiece — into inner city bodegas.”

About Joanne


  1. Ann in L.A. says:

    What a political minefield!

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Absolutely, Ann. Take guts to go in there.
    Thomas Jefferson thought the independent small farmer was the best bet for citizenry because he owed nobody anything, was self-sufficient and the government, in Jefferson’s time, was not in a position to buy his vote with Obamaphones.
    As it happens, young single women can afford to have babies. None of them starve or live under bridges. And those contemplating the proposition can look at their friends and see it’s not so bad, relative to other possibilities. Not so hot for the kid, but at that age, thinking doesn’t necessarily go that far.

    • We currently have the lowest rates of teen pregnancy that we have had in the entire history of this country. If you work as an aide in a nursing home or as a Walmart checker, you will be poor even if you work up to 70 hours a week. There are more married parents with incomes below the poverty line than there
      are never-married ones, and more food-insecure adults live in households with children headed by
      married couples than in ones headed by just a man or woman

      The fact is that real wages have been falling steadily since 1972 even as the wealthy bankers and CEO’s that actually caused the economic collapse have given themselves huge bonuses. In the United States at this time, CEO’s average compensation is 475 times that of the the median wage of their employees. In a healthy economy like Canada, Germany, or the United states in the 1950’s, a CEO will typically make 20 times the median wage of their employees.

      Waiting until you’re married to get pregnant is a great thing, but it will not end poverty. Here in religious, family friendly Utah, over 65% of poor families are married couples.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    I would’ve failed the “25 by 25” because while I had a bachelor’s degree from a top college and a decent-paying job at 25, I did become pregnant with my oldest child shortly before my birthday. I had been married for over 3 years at that point and my DH had a steady job as an Army officer.

    I know there’s been this big push in recent years to claim that the early-to-mid-20’s are part of adolescence, but I personally think that’s bunk.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      You did, however, follow the sequence here: “Social scientists have long known about the ‘success sequence’: Finish your education, get a job, get married, start a family.”


      I suspect that the *age* of having the first child isn’t super important if the sequence above is followed.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        Well, I actually got married in between graduating college & landing my first full-time position, but I suspect the key part was the 3 year gap between then and getting pregnant.

        • Actually, I know people who got married during college and who had their first child about 2 days after graduation, and they turned out fine. I think the secret was actually two stable people from stable families who cared about education.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Finals week must have been tough.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            Richard– actually, the Profs let the mom take her finals early. 🙂 They were very accommodating, though sort of uncomfortable since this was not a school where visibly pregnant women often appeared in undergraduate classes. Again, though, they did things in a sensible order… went to college, got married halfway through (because why wait an extra 2 years? Especially when being married saved their families money?), then got pregnant, then had a baby—

            But I think the main thing was NOT actually the order– it was the culture they were coming from. They came from 2 parent, educated, normal homes. Marrying early was a rational decision. At 20, they were ready to be adults.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            I expect the professors weren’t the only uncomfortable ones. Did she have to sit in one of those little seat things with a writing arm? Never mind.
            Problem is, as you point out, culture.
            Recall the numbskulls of the Seattle school board tried to suggest that future time orientation was a feature of white middle class thinking, and by implication, unworthy for other cultures.
            Either they were right, or they were hoping to convince non-white, non-middle class folks to carpe the old diem. They were so stupid they didn’t figure people would think it was stupid. But somebody on the board must have been literate–snuck in when nobody was looking, I imagine–and figured the thing should be scrubbed.
            Small picture of a larger issue, which is culture and the culture wars.

  4. Let’s think this through. If everybody in the US finished their education and got married before having children, does this really mean that nobody would work in nursing homes, harvest crops, or work for Walmart? I am perplexed by those who think that people who work in nursing homes and hospitals should receive poverty wages. Are you truly unaware that without the work of these people sick and elderly people would die? To suggest that the people who work to care for the sick and elderly should be kept in poverty, is to be a part of what has been called “the culture of death”.

    A long time ago, I allied myself with the right because I mistakenly thought conservatives were genuinely pro-life. I have come to realize that they were only interested in punishing women and their doctors. The real motivation of the right wing is to serve the interests of the wealthy.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Sigh … I’ll bite.


      The median household income in the US was ~$50K in 2011 according to Wikipedia. Two parents working for $10/hour at a nursing home would make about $40K between them (2 people x 2,000 hours/year x $10/hour).


      Are you seriously proposing that 80% of the median family income is poverty wages?


      And why are you focusing on *just* these people? Should folks in rural Arkansas that don’t work in nursing homes receive poverty wages?

      • Richard Aubrey says:


        “poverty” is like one of those pointy little hammers the doc uses on your knee. Say it and everybody’s supposed to think Right Thoughts. Worrying about facts and stuff is not Right Thoughts.

      • If you want to know what life on minimum wages looks like check out Forbes (hardly a left leaning publication) . Notice that the budget requires the worker to hold down two jobs, spend absolutely nothing on gasoline, heating, or child care, and spend no more than $20 a month for medical care/medical insurance.

        I’m fairly confident that many people in rural Arkansas work harvesting crops or doing minimum wage employment. I focused on people working in nursing homes because it highlights the culture of death since people would die without this help.

        The minimum wage is not $10 an hour. If the minimum wage were raised to $10 and hour, half of the working poor would be lifted out of poverty.

        As a Christian, I support people waiting until they are married to have sex. But it is no guarantee that you will avoid poverty. Remember that in Utah over 65% of families in poverty are married couples while a significant number of the remaining people in poverty are divorced, widowed, or single without children. It should be clear from those numbers that having children out of wedlock is not the primary cause of poverty, although it is never a good idea.

        And for those of you who are harping on the good old days, please remember that teen pregnancy rates were higher in the past.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Ray, you seem like a sincere guy. That means you believe the stuff you’re peddling, which is a shame, but I’ll respond in that fashion.
          First, “lifted out of poverty” means only passing an arbitrary income line. What that has to do with actual poverty has to be demonstrated, but won’t be since that might be inconvenient.
          Second, we define poverty solely in terms of cash income and exclude non-cash benefits (WIC, heating subsidies, etc.). If we counted that, one third of the poor would be “lifted out of poverty” without making a dime’s worth of difference in their situation.
          Very few minimum wage workers are supporting families. They are mostly teenagers and young adults with other support, or part-time workers. And few of them are going to be working a forty-hour week due to Obamacare.
          The primary benefit of a min-wage job is the next job, if you’re a young person starting out. Raising the min-wage will reduce the opportunities for such employment. Economics don’t work by decree. Employers will be less able to afford workers at $10. Years ago, the sun rose in the west and the NYT acknowledged that raising the min-wage would reduce the employment opportunities for young black men. Not sure what they said about young black women.
          Having a kid after geting married does not “guarantee” not being in poverty. Nothing does. Nobody said it did. Since you’re a sincere and honest guy, you will reread what was said and note nobody said anything about guarantee. That particular sequence does, however, reduce the likelihood by a great deal.
          Fact is, we don’t know nearly as much about poverty as some think we do.
          For example, I ran into two situations where I found food stamps could be exchanged for cash at seventy cents on the dollar. These situations were twenty years and a thousand miles apart. In the later case, the feds busted a grocer in north GA who’d laundered $6.4 mill in food stamps for a 30% fee. This makes excess food stamps the most stable currency on the planet, except possibly for the Swiss who seem to manage things. It means the supply of excess food stamps is huge, consistent, and predictable.
          If people were actually hungry, they would’t be swapping a buck’s worth of food for seventy cents of something else. So those doing the swapping–they could actually buy food for other people or for the local soup kitchen–aren’t hungry and don’t even have “food insecurity”. And, unless they’re really greedy, they don’t even know anyone who is/does.
          I don’t know, and I expect nobody does, how much food stamp money goes to cash, but it means we don’t know. And, since food stamps are a bureaucracy, it means the people in charge don’t want to know since their jobs are at risk if, suddenly, fewer people were on food stamps.
          And I was mid-to-low middle class, so a high school teacher said we all were in our ‘burb, born in 1945, and I recall how we lived. Bout the same size house as a section Eight house except we had to pay for it, no a/c. One car. Vacations meant visiting relatives. Parents college grads. So the studies claiming the average poor person lives today like the average middle class person did in the Fifties seem reasonable.
          Everything is relative as Alex Hailey said, which everybody knows. Discussing it by insisting on Right Thought when the word “poverty” is mentioned isn’t going to get anywhere useful.
          Problem is, practically everybody knows someone with what seem to be permanent financial difficulties. Sometimes you have to wonder. My wife and I have been fortunate, but we’re not rolling in it. We have a friend who’s not been so fortunate. We have provided money, sent some to her kids when they were in college. She’s always behind. About a year ago, she spent quite a bunch on painting supplies; palette, brushes, paints, canvas. She is talented, but we had expected she would put that money against her credit card bills. She has made some dumb choices. Given her circumstances, she would still be in difficulties if she’d made better ones, but she would be in better shape. Thing is, everybody knows people who contribute to their own problems and see poverty through that lens. How many…?

          • Approximately half of all minimum wage workers are 25 or older. Of all low wage workers, 42% are 35 or older. You have never explained why those who work in nursing homes or harvest crops should live in poverty. Are you truly unaware of the fact that people would die without these essential services? This is what I mean by a culture of death.

            I have never understood the rationale of those who support extremely high levels of inequality. We in the United States have a clear choice. Just look at our neighbors. Canada has low inequality and a higher level of household wealth than the US. Mexico is a great example of extreme inequality. Is that really what you want for the US? Why would anyone want our economy to follow the path of extreme inequality?

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Ray. I’m going to trot out an acronym I made up.
          EKBA. Short for “Everybody knows better already.” Pretty clever, no?
          My father is in assisted living. I know the staff. They’re not living in poverty.
          So that one’s dead and gone.
          Got any others?
          Keep in mind, EKBA.

  5. cranberry says:

    The schools try to achieve this. I don’t think any student enrolled in a school reaches the age of 18 without encountering some sort of sexual education and health class. Our children began receiving fairly explicit instruction in 5th or 6th grade.

    Failure to complete high school is often caused by other problems, which complicate life in general–family dysfunction, mental illness, bad temper, social problems such as bullying.

    A lack of self-control correlates with a low likelihood of completing high school, and a high likelihood of young, unmarried, unemployed pregnancy. Is it possible for schools to teach self-control?

  6. National averages for wages are relatively useless for real-life situations. Wages that might be at or near poverty levels in high-cost areas are likely to be perfectly adequate in areas where housing costs are low and people hunt, fish, keep gardens and chickens etc.

    Cranberry: When I was in school, schools did demand self-control – at the end of a ruler or yardstick, if necessary – and I’m talking public schools. A variety of other measures were also used, including shaming (sitting facing a corner, tacked to the blackboard by the forbidden gum on your nose etc) and extra work (such as writing “I will not swear/throw spitballs etc” 100 times) Of course, in those days, most kids came from stable, two-parent homes where they already had been decently socialized and where school disciplinary policies were supported. It was common for getting in trouble at school to result in another dose of consequences at home.

    • cranberry says:

      I don’t trust nostalgia. There have always been children born out of wedlock; families frequently sent their pregnant daughters “away,” to deliver children they then gave up for adoption or to orphanages. The children existed; their existence was tidied up.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Two issues. One is the number or percentage of out of wedlock kids. More? Less? The same?
        More importantly, the discussion was not about the births, but about being raised by a poor, single mother almost necessarily in a neighborhood with a number of similar households and with various other disadvantages–crime, lousy schools, etc.

        • cranberry says:

          Richard, I think everyone agrees that being raised by a poor, single mother does not bode well for a child. The question was, whether the schools can change the mindset of and decisions made by teenagers. I don’t think they can, as family background is so powerful.

          The rule, “don’t have babies until you can afford them,” makes perfect sense to middle-class people. If you grow up in a low-income community, your definition of being able to “afford them” is very different from a middle-class teen’s definition. A teenager raised by a single mother may well define single motherhood as normal. Petrilli’s formulation would call for many low-income teens to forswear childbearing altogether.

          • Deirdre Mundy says:

            True– and if your default view of adulthood is medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers, head start….. then they very act of having a child makes you able to afford that child.

            On the other thing, I think a lot of educated push this meme to far in the opposite direction–“We can’t afford kids–they’d have to share bedrooms.” Or “If we have this child, we can’t afford to eat out every night….” The fact is that kids do not actually need as much as a lot of people think they do.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        One could argue, I suppose, that it is better to live a life where one’s existence has been tidied up.

        But perhaps not.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          I think that envelope wrapped snuggly around one might feel, from time to time, kind of smothering.

      • Two girls from my very small HS did have babies. One, two years ahead of me, dropped out after her junior year to marry her long-time boyfriend – a senior. They were living with one of the sets of parents, while he had a low-level job. Most of the rest of us decided not to put ourselves in that situation. The other, a classmate of mine, had a baby while I was in college and gave it up for adoption. I also am familiar with the Elizabeth Lund homes, where the “girls who went away” (there’s a book with that title) often stayed. I also knew many long-term couples whose marriage was earlier than planned, because of a pregnancy. I suspect that’s always been the case. However, my HS and college years were before the Pill and before legal abortion. The social stigma against unwed motherhood and the lack of financial support for same (welfare, food stamps, housing etc.) also acted as a deterrent, since costs fell on the family. Government support has enabled single parenthood financially and the social stigma has been removed (more in some communities)j.

        • Must not have acted as much of a deterrent since teen pregnancy rates are lower now than they were in the “good old days”.

          • You forget that, in those “good old days”, many kids married right out of HS and had their first baby at 18 or 19. In the area where I now live, it’s still a frequent occurrence, particularly for girls.. There’s a big difference between an unmarried HS dropout and a married 19 year old HS grad – who may well have a decent job. In my current community, it’s not uncommon for mom to work nights (7 to 7) at the hospital while dad’s at home with the kids. Three 12-hour shifts are considered full time and have benefits.

          • cranberry says:

            It’s difficult to compare pre- and post-1960 birth rates, due to the invention of the birth control pill.

            Teen birth rates were at an historic low in 2010, continuing a 20-year trend.

          • Ray, “the good old days” is your phrase, your mantra, and since it is yours, I ask you when that time was, pray tell? It seems you use that phrase whenever you want to disparage a time that you have no respect for–and it allows you to avoid confronting reality.

  7. Actually I have a great deal of respect for the 50’s and 60’s. The minimum wage in 1968 had a buying power equivalent to $10.77 an hour in today’s economy. The wealthy paid their fair share of taxes (around 70%). A CEO averaged about 20 times the median pay of the workers in his company as opposed to an average of 475 times median worker pay in our era. Also, these CEO’s were honest and effective. They did not wreck the economy and vote themselves bonuses. There were problems in other areas of life and more teen pregnancies, but financially it was a golden age.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      No, it was not financially a golden age. By almost any measure, most people then were poorer than most people now. Housing was smaller and hardly ever air conditioned. Food was less fresh and less diverse. Medicine could do less. Most families could not afford more than one car.

      The CEOs made relatively less but big flipping deal. Lots of them made mistakes, too. American cars were notoriously of poor quality. Toyota and Datsun were about to come in and almost drive the American CEOs into bankruptcy.

      The minimum wage was higher in real terms but also covered fewer jobs. And, of course, it didn’t apply if you didn’t have a job. Try telling African-Americans and women how the 50s and 60s were financially a golden age.

      I’m assuming you are just ignorant and not a mean-spirited person consumed by envy. There are lots of things wrong with the American economy but the fact that it isn’t the 50s or the 60s is not one of them.

  8. Mark Roulo says:


    You realize that while teenage pregnancy is down from 1990 (I can’t find any data before this in the Annual Summary of Vital Statistics document), the *unmarried* birth rate is near an all-time high, right?


    1990: 28%
    2010: 40.8%
    2011: 40.7%


    Which would you think is of greater concern: (a) Married teens having babies (as was the case for most of history), or (b) Unmarried 20-somethings having babies?

  9. Mark Roulo says:

    Ray: “Actually I have a great deal of respect for the 50?s and 60?s. The minimum wage in 1968 had a buying power equivalent to $10.77 an hour in today’s economy. The wealthy paid their fair share of taxes (around 70%).”


    I think there may be a confusion between tax rates and percent of taxes paid. I do not believe that in the 1950s the “wealthy” paid 70% of the taxes. But, it is difficult to know without a definition of “wealthy”. Can you supply some data (and maybe a citation)? As of today, the top 20% of taxpayers pay about 70% of federal taxes. I’m assuming that you are unhappy with this and want the 70% to be concentrated in the top 10% or 5%? But I can’t tell ….

    • The best estimates suggest that circa 1960 the top 0.01 percent of Americans paid an effective federal tax rate of more than 70 percent, twice what they pay today. They also paid inheritance taxes.

      People, including CEO’s, had a much greater level of respect for life, including the lives of the poor and elderly. Pensions were much more common. Most businessmen would have felt ashamed to make over 475 times the median wage of their workers.

      It is a sad commentary that modern conservatives consider caring about the lives of all human beings to be “mean-spirited”. I remember a time when being a conservative meant that you cared about all people, including the most vulnerable, from the beginning of life until natural death. Conservatives have lost their way.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “The best estimates suggest that circa 1960 the top 0.01 percent of Americans paid an effective federal tax rate of more than 70 percent, twice what they pay today. They also paid inheritance taxes.”

        So your 70% is the effective tax rate of the top 0.01%, not a claim that the wealthy paid 70% of the dollars collected?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Ray, I said, “I’m assuming you are just ignorant and not a mean-spirited person consumed by envy” because you left out of consideration African-Americans, women, and people not in jobs covered by minimum wage laws (e.g., farm workers). I don’t think you did that deliberately but if you did, you would indeed be mean-spirited.

        I am 99.44% sure that almost no one paid 70% of their income in federal taxes in the 50s or 60s. Though for much of that time the top bracket was 91%, there were and still are lots of ways to pay less, deductions and exclusions and hundreds of complicated rules. Rich people had tax professionals then like they do today.

        I find it hard to believe that “People, including CEO’s, had a much greater level of respect for life, including the lives of the poor and elderly.” The establishment version of history, in fact, says that there has been an expanding circle of caring, from well-to-do straight white men to women and people of color, gays, people with mental illness, poor people, etc. There is certainly a lot more in the way of government expenditure that is justified as helping the poor.

        • “Yet in the 1950s incomes in the top bracket faced a marginal tax rate of 91, that’s right, 91 percent, while taxes on corporate profits were twice as large, relative to national income, as in recent years. The best estimates suggest that circa 1960 the top 0.01 percent of Americans paid an effective federal tax rate of more than 70 percent” This quote comes from Paul Krugman who is a Nobel prize winning economist.

          We can agree that there was much that was wrong with that era. Women, racial minorities, and homosexual persons were denied their basic human dignity. What remains true is that it was of time of much greater economic equality.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            That’s from Krugman’s November 18, 2012 NYT column “The Twinkie Manifesto.” Krugman has indeed won a Nobel for his scholarly work but I find his New York Times columns–how to put this nicely?–sloppy and less than candid.

            The best estimates certainly don’t suggest that “circa 1960 the top 0.01 percent of Americans paid an effective federal tax rate of more than 70 percent.” Mickey Kaus, hardly a conservative, has a nice blog post about that particular claim. In fact, if you google that phrase, you will find a number of discussions of its veracity.


      • Ray, since you’re a Christian, please allow me to do a sidebar Bible study with you. First, Christ said this problem can’t be fixed (“The poor you will always have with you…” Mat 26:11). Jesus advocated personal and religious communal action to help the poor–not governmental action. The conservative stance is that the government can’t fix the problem, and indeed will end up making it much worse.

        When Jesus said “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” in Mat 22:21, he was talking about an enemy government–the same government that 33 years before had given “orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” Mat 2:16. It is not at all a stretch to see a link between the “murder of the innocents,” as that passage is called, and our own government’s promotion of abortion both in our country and internationally.

        So if you will say that conservatives have lost their way and are “punishing women,” I ask you if you think the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces in Africa did a particularly heroic job of promoting women’s rights and welfare.

        I write this all to you because you’re just spouting liberal-left rhetoric that has not much basis in reality, and it’s obvious that you haven’t thought much of this through.