When pre-k is too late

New York City is adding prekindergarten seats to public schools, but pre-k may come too late to change the trajectory of disadvantaged children,writes Ginia Bellafante in a New York Times blog.

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

A young, single mother “who thinks one book is enough” isn’t likely to expand her child’s vocabulary or knowledge of the world through talking, reading or exposition, writes Bellafante. “We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth,” she concludes.

The left is squeamish about telling poor people how to behave, Bellafante concedes. “No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.”

But perhaps paternalism can be sold as “compassion,” she concludes.

The Harlem Children’s Zone includes a Baby College, a parenting workshop for expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. There’s an intensive preschool program to prepare three- and four-year-olds for kindergarten. It’s not clear the “pipeline” concept is effective enough to justify the costs.

Paternalism, progressives and public policy

Paternalism is the hallmark of Progressive reform movements — including school reform — writes Mike Petrilli on Education Gadfly. “Whether it’s Temperance and Prohibition or the effort to shutter popular but ineffective public schools . . . members of an ‘enlightened elite’ believe that they must act to create and enforce rules that will be good for the huddled masses.”

Petty Little Dictator Disorder
Petty Little Dictator Disorder and paternalism
From Jay Greene’s Blog

Petrilli often favors paternalistic policies, risking what Jay Greene calls  Petty Little Dictator Disorder.

For example, he thinks the Bloomberg-Giuliani approach to crime fighting, which includes the aggressive use of stop, question and frisk, has helped make New York the safest city in America. Low-income, minority New Yorkers benefit the most, because they’re far more likely to be crime victims.

But they’re also the most likely to be stopped, questioned and frisked, paying what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls a “racist public-safety tax.” Perhaps minority communities should get to decide whether paying this tax is worth the benefit, Petrilli suggests.

Education reformers want to close underperforming schools, even if they are popular with parents.”There’s a case to be made” that people in the community should “decide whether the tradeoffs are worth it,” he writes. But “I still don’t quite buy it.”

. . . because education is not just a “private good”—all of our welfare depends on an educated populace—isn’t it appropriate for the public to demand that schools meet certain standards, especially when taxpayer dollars are involved? Isn’t leaving it to the affected “community” just a recipe for inaction and further academic decline?

So he’s a Progressive paternalist — with qualms about dismissing the “will of the people.”

Step away from the simile, responds Sara Mead.

Helping the poor — without conditions

“The vast majority of America’s charitable dollars are donated to local religious and educational institutions” or to worthy causes, writes Dana Goldstein. But the most effective way to help the poor is to give them money to do with as they see fit, she writes in The Atlantic. In other words, don’t buy a Christmas goose for the Cratchits. Give them cash. (Was Bob Cratchit a spendthrift?)

In the Third World, at least half of government aid for the poor is lost to corruption and private philanthropy is “heavily skimmed” as well.  Micro-credit efforts don’t the very poor and “many recipients default on their loans, leaving them further in debt,” Goldstein writes.

Mexico and Brazil give “conditional cash transfers” to poor families who enroll their children in school or take them to the doctor, but that’s hard to do in very poor countries where there aren’t enough schools or doctors.

(Four economists gave) poor families in rural Kenya $1,000 over the course of 10 months, and let them do whatever they wanted with the money. They hoped the recipients would spend it on nutrition, health care, and education. But, theoretically, they could use it to purchase alcohol or drugs. The families would decide on their own.

Three years later, the four economists expanded their private effort into GiveDirectly, a charity that accepts online donations from the public, as well. Ninety-two cents of every dollar donated to GiveDirectly is transferred to poor households through M-PESA, a cell phone banking service with 11,000 agents working in Kenya.

. . . GiveDirectly recipients are spending their payments mostly on food and home improvements that can vastly improve quality of life, such as installing a weatherproof tin roof. Some families have invested in profit-bearing businesses, such as chicken-rearing, agriculture, or the vending of clothes, shoes, or charcoal.

Unconditional cash transfers aren’t popular with non-governmental organization staffers, says Paul Niehaus, one of GiveDirectly’s founders.  “If this works, what are we all here for? Why do we have jobs? There’s an industry that exists that tries to make decisions for poor people and determine what’s best for them.”

The very poor in rural Kenya are poor “because they were born in Africa,” says Niehaus. Abject poverty in the U.S. is  correlated with irresponsibility, addiction and illness. Most giving assumes there are deserving poor and undeserving poor, Goldstein writes on her blog.

Deserving poor people work, even if the wages they earn are less than the costs of child or health care. They endure cumbersome bureaucratic processes to seek child support from the absent fathers of their children, even if those fathers are in jail, drug addicted, or otherwise unable to provide for their kids. They open college savings accounts, even if they need 100 percent of their monthly income just to cover the costs of housing and food. They attend classes on why it’s important to get married.

Social welfare systems favor mothers of young children. There’s little help for childless adults without disabilities. Taxpayers aren’t willing to give no-strings cash to the poor.

 . . .  most of us assume poor people need to learn how to best help themselves. The radical premise of GiveDirectly is that poor people already know, much better than their governments or a charity director, what they need.

Even poor Americans think aid should go only to those who do their best to support themselves, reports Reuters in a look at poverty in Indiana.

The KIPP model goes to college

The City University of New York’s experimental New Community College, which will have more resources, structure and paternalism, resembles the KIPP model for middle schools.

Learning from Mrs. G

As a night student at Howard University, Thomas Sowell was inspired by Marie Gladsden, his English professor, and kept in touch over the years. Years later, when he returned to Howard to teach economics for a year, he was still learning from Mrs. G.

A young African woman who’d studied under Mrs. Gadsden in Guinea failed the first two weekly econ tests. It seemed hopeless he told his mentor.

“So you think she’s going to fail the course?” Mrs. G asked.

“Well, she’s not going to learn the material. Whether I can bring myself to give her an F is something else. That’s really hitting somebody who’s down.”

“You’re thinking of passing her, even if she does not do passing work?” Mrs. G said sharply. She reminded me that I had long criticized paternalistic white teachers who passed black students who should have been failed — and she let me have it. “I’m ashamed of you, Tom. You know better!”

He met with the student  for an hour before every class. Eventually, she caught on and began doing B work.  Averaging in her early F’s, she earned a C for the course.

She was overjoyed, Mrs. Gadsden told him. “She was proud because she knew she earned every bit of it.”

Dr. Marie D. Gladsden died recently at the age of 92.


F as in fat

One third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, according to a new report titled F as in Fat 2011.  The childhood pudge percentage has nearly tripled in the past 10 years.

Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia had childhood obesity rates above 20 percent; Illinois was the only non-Southern state above 20 percent (along with the District of Columbia). In 2003, when the last NSCH was conducted, only D.C., Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia were above 20 percent.

Nationwide, the report found that less than one-third of all children ages 6-17 engaged in at least 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity on a day-to-day basis.

Very obese children should be placed with foster families till they slim down, argue Harvard researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

Bad idea, responds bioethicist Art Caplan. After all, 12 percent of U.S. kids are extremely obese.

Ludicrous,” responds Megan McArdle in The Atlantic.

. . . the foster system is already overstretched without adding obesity to catalogue of child abuse and neglect.  It’s also kind of creepy–the sort of thing that gives paternalism a very, very bad name.

Racist, adds Instapundit. African-American children are more likely to be obese.

Adults are getting fatter too.

And it’s not just Americans. As part of a British campaign against obesity, new health guidlines call for children under the age of five — including infants — to exercise daily for at least three hours.

The paternalism of rescue

If girls’ schools remain open in northwest Pakistan after Jan. 15, Taliban leaders threaten to attack schoolgirls and teachers and blow up the schools.

In response to a Crooked Timber post suggesting feminists have been reluctant to take up this cause, Keith M. Ellis comments on the inherent paternalism of Westerners trying to rescue Muslim women, which is “especially pernicious in the context where someone has been methodically and institutionally disempowered.”  Rescue “unfortunately continues the pattern of disempowerment.”

I happen to care a great deal about the oppression of women, in Afghanistan and everywhere else in the world.

. . . (But) it is not our job, as westerners — as outsiders — to specifically fight to improve the lot of Afghan women.

David Thompson notes the self-indulgence of this argument:

Well, one might argue against military intervention on an economic or tactical basis, or on grounds of pragmatism and self-interest. One might, for instance, argue that not every injustice can be engaged and it’s best to choose one’s battles. The ability to intervene is finite and conditional, and there are almost always other demands on whatever resources are available. But that isn’t the argument here.

Instead, Ellis argues the oppressed must empower themselves, while the rest of us “fight injustice” and “oppose those barriers which prevent Afghan women from empowering themselves.”  That way, “we can fight sexism in Afghanistan without placing ourselves into a paternalistic position.”

The “barriers” that prevent empowerment would be armed men willing to murder and maim unarmed girls and women.  I think by “fight” Ellis means “not fight.”

In response to Brahmin demands to continue the practice of burning the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, the British governor of Sind, Gen. Charles Napier, said:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

Horribly paternalistic. That poor widow survived unburnt — rescued and disempowered.